Philip Seymour Hoffman and how we talk about drug abuse

It has been a tragic start to the week. On Sunday actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his apartment in New York.  Seymour Hoffman was absolutely one of my favourite actors – a sentiment I believe was probably felt around the world. He was widely considered one of the greatest of his generation. His death is a tragic end to a career that could have lasted for decades more.

Seymour Hoffman’s death once again opens up an uncomfortable conversation, but one we must continue to have – that of drug abuse. It seems almost certain that Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose. He was found dead alone in his bathroom, a syringe still sticking out of his arm. Two plastic bags were found near him containing what is believed to be heroin.

Seymour Hoffman has often been open about his drug addiction. In an interview he stated that he was heavily addicted to drugs in his early twenties, but got clean after the age of 22. Last year he checked himself into a rehabilitation centre after a reliance on prescription pills resulted in him turning once again to heroin. It is almost certain now that he succumbed to that addiction.

His story is one of perseverance, a man who was able to overcome his addiction and pursue what was an extremely successful career. It is also however the story of a shocking relapse – something that is often found in heroin users – highlighting the reality that for many drug addiction rarely goes away forever, and that it can come, often with shocking consequences.

This is the sort of story we often hear when we connect drug addiction to those we love – the celebrities, artists, musicians and performers we revere in our society. We tell the story of the artist who almost hit rock bottom in their quest for more drugs – the story of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Yoko Ono, Elton John, Neil Young or so many others who almost succumbed to drugs, but managed to get themselves out. We celebrate the lives of those we lost too soon – Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse and now Philip Seymour Hoffman. We sometimes even celebrate and laugh the drug use of the artists we love – just think about how many times the story of what the song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ means, a story told with a laugh and a smile on one’s face. We cherish the idea of ‘drugs, sex and rock n’ roll’ as if it is almost a lifestyle we should all live up to.

These are the stories of the celebrities and their drug addictions. The stories told in books, newspapers and folklore of those who have struggled and have survived, and those who struggled and that we unfortunately lost too soon. The stories of those who didn’t struggle, but instead made great art – the story of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.

I cannot help but notice that it is a story that only a few are privy too.

Daily TeleIn the midst of the sadness and outpouring of grief over Seymour Hoffman’s death, one noted newspaper went another direction. In a story about his death Australia’s Daily Telegraph decided to go with the headline ‘Kids grieve for junkie actor dad’. The headline, of course, has been met with a decent amount of outrage, not just in Australia, but around the world. It is a truly insensitive way to treat his death, an insensitive way to treat his children, and a ridiculous framing of the issue of drug addiction. The headline screams person who couldn’t control himself, a person who was reckless, a person who was the scum of the Earth – simply because of his addiction. It is what we read when we see the word ‘junkie’, and it is certainly what we mean when we say it.

It is for that reason that the Daily Telegraph deserved to be slammed for their headline. From all accounts Seymour Hoffman was not like this – he was a man struggling through an addiction, a struggle he unfortunately lost. As I read the outrage though I could not help but think that it amounted to quite a bit of hypocrisy. It’s not as if the Daily Telegraph is the first paper, or the first person, to use the word ‘junkie’. It is a pretty common term, and one that rarely gets condemned in the way it has this week. It is a term I hear within friendship groups, it is a term I see regularly on the Internet, it is a term that is rarely challenged, nor questioned.

I cannot help but think what the reaction would have been to the Daily Telegraph’s headline if it was just about a ‘regular guy’ – a man on the street who had lost his life and left his kids behind. I suspect, unfortunately, that such a headline would have been met with a collective ‘meh’. Even worse, it probably would have been, by many at least, shared and retold as a true story of the scourge of junkies in our society. The mistake the Daily Telegraph made was not in using the word ‘junkie’ but in simply applying it to the wrong person. They told the wrong story at the wrong time.

I cannot tell you how we should talk about drug abuse and drug addiction. As someone who has never gone through it myself I cannot develop that story. In fact, even just through reading about it I am certain that the story is different for so many different people, so much so that we cannot develop one narrative to suit everyone.

One thing I am sure of is that we tell different stories about drug abuse depending on one’s position in society. If you are rich, famous, or revered for what you do, the story of drug addiction is one of a struggle – a disease you have either overcome or unfortunately succumbed too. If you are anyone else, the story is quite different – it is one of you being a junkie, a lowlife, someone who can’t control themselves and is the scum of the Earth.

Seymour Hoffman’s death is tragic, and it should be treated as such. He was a talent lost too soon, a man whose career was cut off when there was so much potential left. A man who was lost to the scourge of drug addiction. In his death though we can see a contradiction. This story, that of struggle and pain, is generally only one provided to men of Hoffman’s stature. It is the story that fits so many, but the story we are most willing to ignore. The story we must be willing to tell much more.

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