Philip Seymour Hoffman, heroin, and the death of my American Dream


It’s no secret that I used to be a drug addict. I’ve used it as a punchline on this blog a few times already. But there’s something that makes me feel a little uneasy about that. Like I’m trying to say it’s all in the past. Like all that madness happened to someone else, someone not me. Like somewhere there is a calendar with a big red X on it, marking the date, denoting the before and after.

The simple fact is once an addict, always an addict. I will be an addict for the rest of my life. My dragon may not be breathing fire right now, but he is curled up in my belly, sleeping. Waiting. Waiting for me to fuck up. I have been wanting to address this, to write about it honestly, but I didn’t know how. I have a problem with gravity, in case you haven’t noticed. But then last Sunday, Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead with a needle in his arm.

Thanks, Phil, for the segue.

Hoffman was one of my favorite actors. He had the ability to reach through the screen and touch me with his humanity. He was gifted with presence, with nuance. His Scotty in “Boogie Nights” was the sad-sack lovelorn fool that I think we all are on the inside somewhere. His Capote took my breath away. How fitting, in retrospect, that his most lauded role was the one where he played a man whose genius was eclipsed only by his raging addiction.

I admired Hoffman, but I knew little about his personal life. I’ve been reading more about him in the last few days. I learned that he was a party boy in his early 20’s, and then was sober for over twenty years before relapsing last year. And what a relapse! From pills to snorting heroin to injecting heroin to dead in a year. Stuff like this scares the living shit out of me. But I need a reminder sometimes, of what’s waiting for me out there.

In AA they call a relapse “going back out”. I’ve always thought that was an apt description. Like you’ve been inside, safe and warm, and now you’re venturing out into the blackness. The last time I went back out, it almost killed me.

Opiates are the worst. Opiates are what finally brought me to my knees. There is something about being physically addicted to a drug that is just soul-crushing. Waking up in a cold sweat and knowing that you have to find something to put in your body to make you feel okay, is awful. Finding those drugs and feeling that warmth, the heaviness in your limbs, the utter lack of care, is something like heaven. Not finding those drugs and going into withdrawal is the worst kind of hell. Remember that scene in “Trainspotting” where Ewan McGregor is lying in bed, clutching the sheets, and the dead baby crawls across the ceiling? That’s exactly what it’s like.

I’ve heard it compared to a bad flu. That’s only halfway true. It’s the worst flu of your life, coupled with crippling depression. All your organs are on blast. Your nose is running like a faucet. Your heart beats so fast you think you will literally die. You sweat buckets of cold, oily sweat. Your ass is exploding diarrhea. Your skin is crawling. Your whole body is contracting, like you are inside some awful uterus getting ready to be born into some new reality. But the brain…

The brain is the fucking worst. Your brain vomits, in a technicolor spew, every horrible thing you ever did and every doubt you ever had. Every terrible possibility for your future is now a certainty. You are a waste of humanity and nothing good will ever happen to you again. It’s  like a horrible version of that old TV show “This Is Your Life”.

My last withdrawal, I actually made my husband take me to the emergency room, because I thought I was having a heart attack. They slapped a Clonodine patch on me to slow my racing heart, and urged me to go to detox. When we got home, my husband helped me pack a bag. Somehow, I was able to convince him that I could do this on my own. After he went to sleep, I biked to the store for a fifth of whiskey. I hadn’t had pills for days, I didn’t know where to score heroin, all I had was my whiskey and a bottle of Ativan.

When my husband woke up the whiskey and Ativan were almost gone. I was completely out of my head. He called the family over for an impromptu intervention. My mom says when she got there I looked like the girl from “The Exorcist”. I was throwing things and yelling. My mother in law held my face in her hands and told me I needed help. I called her the worst thing you can call a woman. I was threatening violence. The police were called. I went to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200 or Nicki will use it to buy drugs. I made it to detox all right, but not until I spent a long 38 hours detoxing in the drunk tank first.

Please God, let that be the last time.

I’m smart. Street smart and book smart. But am I smart enough to outsmart my sleeping dragon? When a celebrity dies of a drug overdose, it shakes me up. These are people who supposedly have it all. And they’re just as miserable as everyone else. So for me, it’s been about managing my expectations. Somehow, I’ve figured out a way of life that works for me.

Addiction runs in my family. I’ve never understood why people say that. “Run” implies fluidity, something in motion. Addiction stagnates in my family. Addiction waits in my family. Two uncles, dead before their time. One with a needle, another with the bottle. The biological father I will never know, except for occasional checks on his arrest records. Even my husband has had his issues with excess. And then there’s me, hot mess extraordinaire.

It makes me scared for my daughter. I don’t want any of this for her. And so it’s up to me to teach her about life. Real life.

So first I’ll tell her, fuck the American Dream. I want her to have dreams, I just don’t want them sold to her, pre-packaged. We’re promised the “pursuit” of happiness, and that’s exactly what they want. They want us chasing, endlessly running after this half-remembered dream of something that never existed to begin with. Usually it starts with money, and power, and some nebulous idea of “having it all”.

Having it all means being happy with what you have. It means being content with not being extraordinary. I’m living proof of that. After everything I’ve been through, my happy little life is nothing short of a miracle. I enjoy my days. I have fun.  I can take pleasure in the smallest things. I breathe, I laugh, I work.  I write and eat and sleep. I am happy. I have lofty goals. But they do not define my happiness. My happiness is inside me, holding my dragon in a golden net.

I live in a community where heroin is epidemic. I see teenagers nodding out at stoplights and pinned pupils on the grocery store cashier. It’s easy to think it’s just here. But it’s everywhere. Everyone is looking for their American Dream. And not finding it, they are in despair.

Even Philip Seymour Hoffman. Maybe he didn’t like fame. Maybe he thought it wasn’t enough. Either way, he left a legacy. He impacted the world. His films will live on. He will be remembered. He was a gifted, important man. He lived an extraordinary life.

But I woke up today, and he didn’t.