Philips Seymour Hoffman died a week ago, and he did so like many addicts–alone on the floor in a room, surrounded by the paraphernalia necessary to his habit. In his case, it was a hypodermic syringe apparently still stuck in his arm, and several packets of too-high grade heroin. He died alone because any addict will tell you his compulsion is practiced secretly, hidden from others–particularly others who care. One does not advertise addiction. The media called his passing an overdose, which means that the amount of heroin he injected was enough to allow his breathing to slow, then stop. He suffocated. But the word ‘overdose’ is a misnomer, implying as it does that there are safe doses of heroin, and to an addict, this is a bald-faced lie. There is never enough heroin, alcohol, cocaine or meth to pacify the raging want inside, and if this need can be abated for an hour or a day, it is sure to reappear, demanding more. In fact, that’s what addiction is, the constant need for more.
I didn’t bother reading much about his death. I have worked in the past with heroin addicts and when they, go, they do so gently. No meth rage, or violent insanity brought along by too much booze. No physical harm inflicted upon others, either. Heroin addicts die quietly.
My first thought when I heard of the death was that Hoffman must have gotten a new dealer, because often, this is how it works: a new dealer comes into a neighborhood to displace an older merchant. He does so by selling a product that is purer than that available from the established source. Often, the new guy’s heroin is almost pure, or laced with other chemicals to make it more potent. Fentanyl is a common additive.
Word gets around quick that Dealer Dan has a better product than Dealer Dave. Dealer Dan’s stuff produces a deeper, longer-lasting high. Dealer Dan is a good capitalist employing a methodology no different than that of a chain store or franchise restaurant. He uses a loss-leader–better-grade heroin–designed to bring in the customers. It might even kill a user or two, guaranteeing its immediate success, because if I am an addict, I live in a magical world and I want the best; I want what killed the other guy because by God! that must have been some good shit. And it won’t kill me; I am special, I am master of my addiction.
Once the customer base is established, Dealer Dan does what Dealer Dave has been doing: he’ll start cutting his product and the quality will suffer, but by then he has established customer loyalty and has a steady clientele of daily users.
Addiction exults in its ability to mystify, and prides itself on being perhaps the only disease that tells the afflicted he or she does not have a disease. It thrives on loneliness and isolation, on the inability of the devotee to explain his state to someone who is not suffering from the same illness. This is why 12-step programs rely so heavily on meetings, on gathering group of addicts so they can share their stories and shed light on their often destructive behavior. Addiction does not like being prodded out from under its rock.
What happened to Hoffman is a shame. He was a man of vast talents with a limitless future. He had also not come to terms with the fullness of his addiction, and like all practicing addicts, he thought he might control it. I’m sure he was telling himself that soon, tomorrow or the day after, he would stop. He would seek help, go to another rehab, get clean, and change the things he needed to change in his life, which was probably everything, because addiction is an everything sort of disease. He ran out of luck, and he ran out of time, so in that sense he was no different from any other junkie nodding out on an inner city front stoop.
His death might cause a few users to re-evaluate their lives. But then again, probably not. More than likely, it’ll make them wonder where he got his fix.