Have we talked enough about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death?

Philip SHoffman


Within hours of learning of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, reportedly by heroin overdose, discussions popped up in the media about how tragic the loss of an artist so wildly talented and committed to his craft. Then, in less than a day, the discussion opened about the tragedy and consequences substance use. And yes, weeks later, here is yet another. Among the mix of excellent pieces about substance use include David Sheff’s Time.com blog post (http://ideas.time.com/2014/02/02/how-philip-seymour-hoffman-could-have-been-saved) and the surprisingly insightful Russell Brand: my life without drugs (www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/mar/09/russell-brand-life-without-drugs).

Since a family member began having substance use issues, I have been searching to comprehend this struggle — a task for an outsider that is much like the practice of yoga, as one never reaches full knowing. As a practice, therefore, I read many of the articles that popped up in the media after Hoffman’s death. I don’t usually look at the comments, but the other day I did. More than one commenter wondered why we’re still talking about it, and another said, “He’s just another loser Hollywood celebrity junkie. Who cares?”

The comment marginalizing Mr. Hoffman’s, or anyone’s life to that of a “junkie” reminded me of something Esme, a mother and contributor to our Behind The Wall project, had once offered. Esme’s oldest daughter lives with a serious mental illness that would sometimes lead to ugly displays of rage. Once, another parent learned of one such incident, and declared that neither of Esme’s two daughters would be welcomed in her home —as if the illness could catch or be transferred in some way. As if a person with a mental illness chooses to be incapable of rational thinking.

But Esme was circumspect about the way others may view her as a parent, her children and family. She says, “I understand because people who don’t deal with mental illness don’t get it. I wouldn’t expect them to. It’s hard for another parent to understand. Because of my own experiences, I am able to not judge other parents but I don’t expect the same from others because it’s human nature to be judgmental.” Esme felt hurt when her daughters were ostracized out of ignorance. But she knows that her experiences have given her a more open, empathic view.

“It’s not their life and good for them they don’t have these problems.”

Esme would rather her daughter not live with a brain disorder, but the outcome of the arduous journey parenting and advocating has made her more empathic. About those who can’t possibly understand what it means to live with mental illness, to love or care for a loved one who does, she says, “It’s not their life and good for them they don’t have these problems.” Ironically, these people who have no idea about what it is like to live with mental illness and, or substance abuse, have no idea how very fortunate they are.

For those of us who do have the tiniest inkling about the challenges of living with a serious mental illness and / or substance use, we don’t see Mr. Hoffman as a “junkie”.  We see his death as the reminder of how difficult it is, day by day, for a person who lives with substance use because we know that this is a brain disorder with a treatment protocol that boils down to arming oneself with a steely will and determination comparable to training for the Olympics, except the gold medal comes in the form of another day of life, and possibly one with moments of joy. For some, living sober requires a change in friends, geography, or lifestyle. And I’m not even getting into what it’s like for loved ones who want to help a person struggling with substance use.

That Mr. Hoffman lived for more than two decades clean and sober is a remarkable accomplishment given the access he had through his wealth and celebrity. We keep talking about Hoffman’s death because it’s a cruel reminder that the struggle with addictions is not reserved for junkie losers.

Comments are always welcome:

Razor Thin Line


Good parenting means your heart breaks in a million ways. When your son or daughter strikes out at bat, is ditched in the lunchroom, ignored by a “best friend,” or stood up by a boyfriend or girlfriend, a parent feels it. These incidents make any parent want to put their child in a bubble, surround them with goodness and light. And then your son tells you how much he hates you, your daughter ignores everything you say, and they leave you in a hundred different ways. It hurts when that child you held for hours in the night and kissed from head to tiny, little toe acts as if you don’t know them. At some point you really do need to get to know them in a whole different way.

Part of good parenting, and also dreadfully painful, is letting a child fail and learn to pick themselves back up; giving them the space to discover that one can survive after a so-called-friend declares they have moved on. Flubbing a line in a school play is not the end of the world.

While witnessing their mistakes, all we can do is provide support as they navigate through the problems and solutions. We must show that while we cannot live their life and their problems, we love them unconditionally. Yeah. No problem right?

As if that is not challenging enough for a parent, it becomes a hundred times more complicated when a child begins to use substances. Or, when one’s child suffers through a crisis related to mental illness, particularly when the crisis appears self-inflicted as in the case when a person binge drinks, or goes off medication. Here’s the rub. A person who lives with mental illness needs a reliable advocate, who usually and most effectively is a parent. But parents of those living with mental illness usually agree that their child achieved recovery only after they took control of their own life. A parent’s guidance is critical, but sadly, it is only part of the solution. There is hope for a person with mental illness, but only if they own it.

Parents with adult children diagnosed with mental illness, and this includes addictions, must walk that razor thin line of allowing some failure and not allowing their son or daughter to hit rock bottom. David Sheff, acclaimed author of Clean, and father of a son in recovery from addictions, (http://davidsheff.com/clean) advises against the mythology of the past of allowing your loved one to hit rock bottom. There’s too much danger in that, including the very real risk of death, and further, every relapse becomes more profound than the last.

So parents, we walk the line.