For the Rest of Us
It's always a shock when a celebrated entertainer dies, but one death is no more tragic than any other overdose.
Philip Seymour Hoffman. Cory Monteith. Heath Ledger. Insert-celebrity-name-here dies unnecessarily from drugs or alcohol or the stupid things we do on our way to or from them and our online water coolers—Facebook and Twitter—explode with sentiments that sound more or less like: “He was so talented, it's such a shame. So sad. What a waste." Look over the comments on any one of Google’s 327,000,000 entries for “Philip Seymour Hoffman overdose.” Count the many versions of 'he was so talented.' You can’t, because it’s four times more than infinity.
It is indeed sad that Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead. And he was indeed talented. But, a celebrity death due to drug abuse should not be any sadder than that of an unknown, un-celebrated drunk or junkie. Artistic talent, creative spark, or any kind of genius does not make a life any more valuable, but that’s what’s implied when you preface “It’s so sad” with “He was so talented.”
Why should death by overdose following twenty years clean be any sadder than the street junkie who never managed any sober time?
Life is valuable. All life. The genius and the idiot. The talent and the dullard. It is fragile, and health and happiness are not guaranteed to anyone. Why can’t we leave out "he was so talented" and just stick with "it's a shame, it's sad, it's a waste," and extend the compassion to every one and any one who suffers or dies at the hands of their own addictions?
Elliott was a car salesman who died on Christmas 2013. He was found dead from a heroin overdose in the bathroom of the sober living facility where he’d been staying after losing his job, his father, his home, and following an extended stay in yet another detox. We’d worked together over thirty years ago, and back in those days we used his father’s money to score heroin. The baby of the family, Elliott was well loved, charming, funny, and popular. With some help, I was able to put down the drugs over twenty years ago. Elliott tried. But he’d picked up and cleaned up and picked up again so many times over the last thirty years we’d both lost count.
When Elliott’s sister called and said, “I have bad news,” I knew immediately that he was dead. It’s not a surprise when we use no matter how long it’s been since the last time. It’s a surprise when we don’t. Using is our default setting.
I didn’t know Millie, she was a friend of a friend. She was also a mother of four, with thirteen siblings and two mothers—one biological, another who raised her. She worked the streets of Hunts Point in the Bronx as a prostitute, getting in cars with strangers. She’d been trying to get clean. She wanted to visit her mother in the nursing home, and she wanted to show up clean. She died from complications of her drug use and was buried in the mass unmarked graves on Hart Island.
Recovery in celebrity is a double-edge sword. A celebrity addict doesn’t have the privilege of suffering anonymously, of going through what they need to go through without public scrutiny and judgment. It’s not supposed to happen, but celebrity status in recovery seems to be inevitable and it’s not helpful. A lot of recovery programs are built on humility and it’s hard to learn to be right-sized and a worker among workers when people separate you out by talent and celebrity. What talent and success offer the addict are access and choice—to different kinds of help and healthcare, the privilege of insulating yourself from the streets, of having things delivered, having team work to get things white-washed, and a public forum in which to be forgiven.
Collectively, we’re especially shocked at the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman—he didn’t look like an addict, he wasn’t flaunting his drug use like Sid Vicious or Amy Winehouse. Or Lindsay Lohan. He was a responsible member of society—a successful white man, a parent to three small children, and an addict, albeit one who had been clean for over twenty years, until he wasn’t. He wasn’t movie-star gorgeous, he was Everyman—he looked like your next door neighbor, or some guy you’d gone to school with. He was a good guy. And when he relapsed in 2012 no one took away his right to see or care for his children. The state has all four of Millie’s children.
Addiction is defined as the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences. Like endocarditis, pancreatitis, losing your children to the system, overdosing, arrests, divorce, loss of anything or everything. Addiction doesn’t care if you’re talented, whether you have children or parents who depend on you, whether you’re Ivy League, self-educated, or completely illiterate. Addiction does not discriminate. People, however, do.
I posted some of these thoughts on Facebook, and I got a lot of reactions. A friend pointed out that it was because of Hoffman’s talent that he was even aware of his death, that people have a level of familiarity with a well-known actor. How could one be aware of every man or woman’s death, every nameless, faceless addict? And there’s the problem. Nameless. Faceless.
It's incumbent on us as human beings to be aware of what goes on around us. It’s easy for us to feel like good people when we dredge up sympathy for a celebrity drug death, but it feeds the ability to continue to ignore, pity, and look down on those we’ve never heard of. "See,” we tell ourselves, “I’m not heartless and self-centered. I was all broken up over insert-celebrity-name-here. But those other people? Those nameless, faceless junkies on the street? That’s completely different."
But it's not. It's not at all. Human life is human life and one is not worth more than another. Why should death by overdose following twenty years clean be any sadder than the street junkie who never managed any sober time, never finds anything that looks like success, just scrapes the bottom for twenty plus years day in and day out? Is it more heartbreaking to never know the light and ease of being free of addiction, or to revel in everything that goes along with sobriety—the good and the difficult—and then throw it all away?
Separating out the talented from the nameless and faceless relieves us of the obligation to care about the latter. Every addict is someone’s child. Many are someone’s father. Or mother. All are someone’s family.
Jodi Sh. Doff has written for Bust, Cosmopolitan, xoJane and Penthouse among many other publications.