Hoffman, Heroin, and Me

I never knew Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But I know heroin. It’s killed me three times. I also know heroin addicts. I used to be one.

Upon awakening from each of my three flatline overdoses, my first thought was: “Where are the drugs?” And each time my immediate, next actions involved getting and doing more. I’ve never been scared of heroin, only by its absence. Though once it’s absent for a long period of time, there is reluctance, rather than fear, in most addicts to return to it. 

I’ve also never met a heroin addict who was scared straight by another’s death or even, in my case, for example, one’s own. The usual response of addicts, at least of the many with whom I’ve run—in New York’s Alphabet City, San Francisco’s Mission District, and “The Dirty South” end of Austin, Texas—is this: “Where’d they get it?” If it killed someone, it must be strong. So: “Let’s go there.” Dealers know this and therefore include the occasional “hot bag” in the batches they doctor and sell. These hot bags contain either pure heroin or pure poison. They are designed to kill in order to increase revenue. And it works. 

Many addicts know this and continue getting loaded in spite of the potentially fatal consequences. Once reduced to ruin, to a person with no other dominant identity (whether real or conceived), the common addict will even play this style of Russian Roulette with pride, often because of the potentially fatal consequences. It’s a very seductive identity, one that pulls addicts from the specious safety of families, twelve-step organizations, and the addict’s Self with great force.

But addicts are also reduced in varying measures by their families, the unqualified authority of twelve-step hierarchies and their unqualified potentates, and the addict’s own deconstructive reasoning. 

As an individual within a family, one often loses the power of one’s voice, even its very sound. Have we all not, at one point or other, fallen silent at the dinner table for the sake of our place within the sibling order, held our tongues at gatherings in consideration of a parent’s overriding sensibilities, or sacrificed our truest thoughts out of fear that their speaking would cause those we love to think that we believe ourselves to be unique, higher in some way? Surely, most have. And surely, we all are—Unique.

Within the judge-not-but-we-judge-the-hell-out-of-you-anyway twelve-step milieu, one is ranked or set into its insular caste by time: “How long you comin’ around?” “How long you got?” Its members consistently affirm that it’s one day at a time, but throw cake parties for the Program’s exalted Billy B’s and Susie Q’s, who are celebrating, say, ten years clean and sober. They proclaim that the newcomer is the most important person at every meeting, but then set those with superior experience, strength, and hope—those with more time—in the front of the room so that everyone, including and especially the newcomer, is set back and apart from “the group.” It’s one of many duplicities that many of the Program’s members simultaneously engender and repudiate and one, if I were to guess, that troubled Mr. Hoffman.

Moreover, once inside the Program’s limits, the “accepted” twelve-stepper is frequently warned that he or she “Might not make it back”—that is, will probably die, and likely immediately—if he or she leaves the Program. To be fair, some do; others do not. But the more one is told that he or she will die, the more one believes it, and the more likely it will become manifest. So debate is currently escalating among addiction specialists, health organizations, as well as those within and without the Program that these admonitions are becoming increasingly harmful, even fatal, as twelve-step programs around the world continue growing their legions while contemporaneously falling under greater scrutiny.

Not everyone engages in the cognitive self-deconstruction I mention above, but many addicts do. When friends and family members ask “Are you clean?” “Are you really clean?” some addicts are inclined to view themselves in black-or-white terms: “Am I sober?” “Am I not sober?” “If I am neither, am I no one?” When entrenched twelve-steppers pose such questions as “Have you fully surrendered?” “Have you turned your will over?” and “Are you ready?” many addicts grapple with this similar series of yes-or-no demands and ultimately regard themselves eternal misfits, suited for nothing, and alone with their truest answer: “I don’t know.”

It’s okay to not know, but such equitable reflection is rarely accepted by those who want the addict, or the drunk, to get or remain sober. The family desires peace of mind, second only to its desire for the health and safekeeping of its addicted loved one(s). This is wholly understandable. In the Program, however, these questions often derive from individual needs for authority or companionship (sobriety loves company), which, as I’ve alluded to, can be deadly. This same, reductive logic is what gets addicts into trouble in the first place. And in the case of the struggling or “relapsing” addict, it often nourishes more complex destructive thinking and informs his or her immediate, next actions.

What remain, then, regarding Mr. Hoffman’s unfortunate death, so alike the deaths of similar millions, are the questions: “Why?” “Why, with all he had?” and “Who’s to blame?”

First: I believe he died the way most do—as the result of a confluence of forces that worked against him in his given, last moments. It wasn’t a granule here or there. It wasn’t solely heroin or just drugs. It wasn’t because he wasn’t loved, or loved enough. And it wasn’t because he was Phillip Seymour Hoffman—“Phil” to his people—unique in so many ways. He just died. People do it all the time. Death’s an indiscriminate bitch.

Second: There are multitudes of talented, wealthy individuals who do not die drug-related deaths. There are likewise those who start with nothing and proceed to either gain much—a few native-Dominican baseball players come to mind—or stay impecuniously pat—my happy, tap-water-drinking grandmother, Mare, in her lifetime, comes to mind—without ever touching heroin. So the notions of fame, resource, ability, and socio-economic status remain null, as they have and will. 

Third and finally: No one is to blame. The dealers do their jobs within the fair market permitted by law; the law permits it because the law fails. The Program does its best and saves lives (It’s saved mine, and I am eternally grateful to it despite my issues with some of its platitudes, protocols, and people.). The Program is also, therefore, inculpable. Family and friends, like the Program, the law, and Mr. Hoffman himself, did all they could. 

Everyone does the best they can with what they have. At least that’s what an addiction specialist once said to me. I’m not sure how inviolable a concept that is in the end, but it does its best here without replacing the truth, which is that nothing remains but a world stiffed of one Phillip Seymour Hoffman. And we—those with more time—are left to ponder the everlasting Q&A conundrum: I Don’t Know

But we are also left with each other, for as long as that capricious harridan allows. So, you know. Hug your people, people.


Jamie Alliotts is a writer. His play, A Waltz Between, won the 2005 Tennessee Williams | New Orleans Literary Festival annual playwriting award. His dramatic works have been produced at the Brooklyn Lyceum, the Southern Repertory Theater, and the University of New Orleans. He has written two screenplays and continues to write in multiple genres, including literary journalism and memoir. Alliotts earned his BA magna cum laude at Columbia University, where he majored in world literature and creative writing. He is a graduate student at Dartmouth College and was recently selected to attend Oxford University’s 2014 creative writing summer program.