Ever since Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death, the news has been inundated with reports about heroin, about drug epidemics, images of tiny plastic baggies floating through the television screens. I have read numerous news articles and blog posts in this last week, each author voicing his or her opinions about addiction and addicts and PSH’s death. But what I have seen very little of, save for Russell Brand’s piece in The Guardian, is the opinion of those who have stood on both sides of addiction. I have lived addiction from both ends of the spectrum. I have been the addict, trapped in the hell that I myself created, and I have been the loved one, watching the addict struggle. Have you seen someone you love being carried out of their apartment wrapped in a sheet, transferred to a body bag? Have you stood there and tried to comprehend how someone you loved went from being alive and sober to dead and gone? Have you held a lighter to a spoon or a needle to your arm? I have done both.
I am an addict. I will always be one. I am sober, yes, but I will always have the “voices”, mutterings that lurk and wait somewhere in the recesses of my brain. The voices are my addiction laying in wait, and every addict and alcoholic has them. My voices vary in strength depending on my spiritual soundness (or lack thereof), and thank god that generally my voices whisper and don’t roar. But I imagine that over time Hoffman’s voices grew louder, more convincing. They became strong enough that he perhaps believed that this time would be different. I have seen it repeated again and again…sober, sound people who just cannot stay clean and eventually return to their demons. Many of them do not make it back. Over the years since I have been sober, I have seen too many people lose the battle with addiction. I cannot count how many people I know who have died. We have an epidemic on our hands.
My heart always breaks for both the families and the addicts. Families whose children, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers were torn from their arms by something stronger than love, something stronger than money, stronger than the knowledge of what that drug or drink could lead to. Young women and men who never got to experience the joy of getting married, or having a child, or accomplishing a goal, who didn’t have a chance to see their dreams realized because of drugs. Parents who never got the chance to see their children grow up…sisters missing their brothers. Children, who, for the rest of their lives will carry the ache that accompanies the loss of a parent. Having been on both sides of addiction, I find myself genuinely saddened for both the afflicted and those who are affected by their actions.
Addiction does not have a “face,” it does not have a style or specific “type” of person that it targets, although we often have preconceived notions of what addicts are, what they act like. In high school, I was a straight-A student. I graduated with a 4.6 GPA. I was involved in extracurriculars and student government. I was part of a competitive dance company. I got a 4.0 my first year at my 4-year university before I decided that “school just wasn’t for me.” I held jobs. I was never homeless. I had family that cared for me. And you know what? I started using at the age of 12. I was using the entire time that I was in school. I used because it was all that I had to “fix” me.
And so the question-why do we use? How do we go from a drinking a beer or smoking a joint to extremes like smoking crack or shooting dope? Why do we make the choice to leave our wives and husbands and children to chase an elusive high? I can only speak from my own experience, but having spoken to hundreds of other addicts, I believe that many of us are trying to fill a void. There is something missing, a hole that cannot be filled. Sometimes that hole is something we are born with, other times it is created by abuse, neglect, loss, or trauma. Regardless of how it came to be, this empty, aching pit in our souls begs to be filled, and so over and over we try, but it’s like pouring water into a leaking bucket. No matter how quickly you try to fill it with water, it will inevitably leak and you will be left empty once again, spiritually bankrupt, alone. There are not many options that we as addicts have. Either we seek treatment and get clean, or we die-alone, destroyed-just like PSH did. Sometimes death comes sooner than later, but it is a sure bet that at some point, the disease will win. Death is a guarantee.
Let’s talk death stats for a moment, shall we? According to the CDC’s report, “Drug-Induced Deaths in the US 1999-2010“, there were 40,393 deaths due to illicit drug use in 2010. The majority of these deaths were unintentional, at a staggering 74.3%. And these are just the deaths that are reported, the ones where it is definitive that someone passed from drug use. So many of our addicts are homeless, lost, with no one left in the world. When they pass, crouched on a filthy sidewalk or stooped in an alley, there is no fanfare, no media outcry for justice as there is when someone like Cory Monteith or PSH pass.
It is not just the United States where we are embroiled in a deadly battle with addiction-our entire world is floundering. Per the UNODC’s (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) “World Drug Report”, in 2010, 1 in every 100 deaths among adults was due to illicit drug use. ONE IN EVERY HUNDRED. Globally, this means that “between 99,000 and 253,000 deaths in 2010 [were] a result of illicit drug use” for those aged 15-64. The numbers are staggering. These are PREVENTABLE deaths, deaths that could have been perhaps prevented with treatment, rehab, counseling. Unfortunately, treatment is often incredibly pricey. Rehabs run the gamut but many start in the ten to twenty thousand dollar range. If you have an adolescent who is in need of treatment, expect to pay even more. Each day I hear stories about those whose children and loved ones are suffering and in desperate need of rehabilitation, but cannot afford it. There has to be an answer.
As an addict, I created a world of pain and destruction in trying to fill my void. I doled out anguish that spread its ghostly fingers and gripped anyone close to me. I isolated myself and hurt those around me. I caused fear and worry and I didn’t care…or perhaps I DID in fact care but the empathy or concern was buried beneath the rubble of my addiction and my selfishness, and how i just wanted the pain to stop. Because it never stopped. And it wasn’t a party; at least it wasn’t for me. The party had ended years before. Heroin is not a party drug…it is the kind of drug that you use so that you can sit in the dark of a tiny, cramped room, staring at the fuzzy screen of a television waiting for that sweet relief to remove you, to make the world go dark for a bit. It is the kind of drug where you find yourself praying that the dark will be all-encompassing, that it will never leave, that you will finally be taken from what you perceive to be hell…even though this hell is one you yourself created.
I am not saying that the addict cannot be blamed for their actions. Far from it. I take full responsibility for my behavior, and I will spend the rest of my life making it up to those I hurt. Plenty of people go through traumas and losses and tragedies and do not pick up a needle or a bottle. In PSH’s case, he made a conscious decision to use. He made a sober choice to pick up again. Every relapse has this in common, we somehow come to a place where we forget how bad it was, how much pain we were in, how many people we hurt. I am one of the lucky ones. I had an intervention. I went to rehab. I was given help. I have stayed clean. I somehow didn’t OD and die before I was given another chance at life. I am beyond blessed that my daughter has never seen me loaded. I do this one day at a time, and pray that I never make the choice to go back to where I was.
There has to be an answer to the addiction epidemic, a better solution than what we currently have in place, but I do not know what it is. Better drug laws? Better education? More affordable treatment options? I wish that I knew. All that I know for sure is that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, or how famous you are, or how down-trodden and poor and lonely. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how great your upbringing was. Addiction touches everyone, but it doesn’t have to win.