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The implications of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death

By Brett Steinberg
On February 24, 2014

Where were you when you heard the news about Philip Seymour Hoffman's tragic death? We've heard this heartbreaking story many times before, but it never ceases to deeply sadden and confuse us.
The New York Times reported that Hoffman died at the age of 46 alone in the bathroom of his apartment in Greenwich Village, with a syringe in his arm and an envelope containing heroin. The police later confirmed a drug overdose.
Hoffman had a history with drugs that had interwoven itself within the fabric of his illustrious 25-year career. Hoffman has been proclaimed as one of the best actors of his generation, but his renowned career was overshadowed by his struggle as an addict.
As any addict can attest, the road to recovery can be a bumpy one with unfortunate twists along the way. Although he was sober for around 23 years, through his recovery were some short-lived relapses. The New York Times reported that last year he became reliant on prescription pills, which resulted in him using heroin for a short period before checking into a rehabilitation program for 10 days. After that incident, his problem with addiction appeared to be gone for the immediate future.
In an interview with the New York Times, playwright and Hoffman's friend, David Bar Katz, said, "I saw him last week and he was clean and sober, his old self," continuing say "I really thought this chapter was over." For many recovering addicts, the idea of a man who overcame drug addiction for over two decades succumbing to addiction after all that time was startling.
New York Times reported that Hoffman's death opened up channels for communication between addicts on sites like Facebook and Twitter. Online, people shared their grief over Hoffman's passing, but also their personal adversities with staying sober. It's been reported that at many Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings recovering addicts apparently expressed a similar sentiment as well. Prominent individuals who are also recovering addicts like Aaron Sorkin (screenwriter), Seth Mnookin (journalist), and Russell Brand (actor) have come out to share their own reactions.
According to The New York Times, Mnookin responded to Hoffman's death by writing, "There's a lot we don't know about alcoholism and drug addiction... But one thing is clear: Regardless of how much time clean you have, relapsing is always as easy as moving your hand to your mouth." The fear of a relapse and the reality of lifetime addiction are daunting for people struggling with such, but Hoffman's death can act as a wake-up call for some.
In Time, Sorkin recalled a conversation between him and Hoffman in which " [Hoffman] said this: 'If one of us dies of an overdose, probably 10 people who were about to won't." He meant that our deaths would make news and maybe scare someone clean." The fact that addiction is indiscriminant regarding whom it plagues is a wakeup call to all people-addiction is as real and harsh as ever. Sorkin was trying to get the point across that addiction is not something you can control, for he stated "Phil Hoffman... did not die from an overdose of heroin - he died from heroin. We should stop implying that if he'd just taken the proper amount then everything would have been fine." Heroin and other drugs have destroyed the lives of so many promising people in the entertainment business and in other fields. It is not something that should be taken lightly or overlooked.
So now ask the question-is there something that could have been done? Is there a disgrace felt by addicts? A label we give them that turns their cry for help into an insolated and lethal dilemma? In his article in The Guardian, Russell Brand, a former drug addict, commented on the harsh nature in which society responds to addicts. Brand stated "Addiction is a mental illness around which there is a great deal of confusion, which is hugely exacerbated by the laws that criminalize drug addicts...
If drugs are illegal people who use drugs are criminals. We have set our moral compass on this erroneous premise, and we have strayed so far off course that the landscape we now inhabit provides us with no solutions and greatly increases the problem." In his article, Brand began to question whether Hoffman would have died if so many people didn't believe that suffering addicts deserved to suffer.
Brand went on to draw examples of new policies implemented in Portugal and Switzerland, which are less harsh on addicts and have had a positive affect on society. The Guardian has explained that in Portugal, there is a decriminalization of the possession and use of specific small amounts of certain drugs. This in turn leads to more addicts in recovery facilities than in prisons. Also, in Switzerland, there is a new program to give addicts heroin in specific amounts authorized by the government, in which the injections are administered in a fashion that satisfies a craving but does not induce a high for the person. The program started 14 years ago and has been credited with lowering crime and improving the health and lives of addicts on a day-today basis. The program helps to diminish large groups of drug dealers and drug using scenes in public parks, which brought down the quality of many Swiss communities.
These policies are surely controversial, but at least it opens up our minds to alternatives. These proposals at least reflect a less general outlook towards drug addicts as either clean or criminal. Times like these are important for reflection over what drives people of even the highest esteem to fall into addiction, and our role in facilitating the problem. The loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman is a tragic one, and he will be greatly missed by his family, friends and fans, but if there is any silver lining to such a bleak loss, shouldn't we look inward to find the answer?

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