Did anyone ask Philip Seymour Hoffman “Are you using again?”
Lots of people, famous and invisible, lose their battle against drug addiction every day. The famous make headlines. Last year the teen crowd lost Cory Monteith (of the popular tv show Glee) to a heroin overdose. This weekend the grownup set lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, the talented actor. By all accounts, these two wonderful men did not want to be heroin users. Each had tried rehab and spoke publicly of their battles.
Both Monteith and Hoffman were reportedly kind, popular, and talented. They were powerful white men at the top of their profession. They had people in their lives — friends and family—who cared deeply and passionately for them. Yet both men died alone of heroin overdoses. All the privilege in the world couldn’t help them stay sober and stay alive. If they can’t stay sober, how the hell is the less fortunate or average person?
When I heard the news about Hoffman’s death I immediately thought of friends and colleagues who are in various stages of drug use or recovery. There’s the once promising political operative who I had to drop from my Facebook friend list because he fills his newsfeed with crystal meth fueled crazy talk. I asked him if he needed help; he told me was happy being an active meth user.
There’s the aquaintance from long ago who copied me on a suicide email, detailing how his long use of crystal meth could no longer help cover the pain of childhood abuse. Luckily he got help that night.
There’s the friend who keeps stopping and starting alcohol use. Drinking starts, something bad happens (must be the bottom!), drinking stops. Then drinking starts again (wasn’t the bottom!).
And there are a couple of close friends who I am certain have started using meth again—Facebook is such a window to personal behavior.
I haven’t used a substance since 1993, but I don’t adhere to any recovery program or ideaology. A mix of therapy, AA meetings, behavior modifications, vanity, and the support of close friends has kept me sober. In the past, I’ve taken a “live and let live” approach to the drug and alcohol use of people around me. I’m a believer in the legalization of marijuana. I know that most people who drink alcohol don’t have an alcohol problem and that many people can use drugs without getting addicted.
But I also know that when a young adult tells me he or she is a “recreational user” of heroin, meth, or molly that it’s not going to be very long until something bad happens, then something very bad, followed by something worse. If they live long enough they’ll find themselves older, in and out of rehab, fighting the urge to use while alone in their bathroom. I’ve lost count of how many friends this has happened to. Some have died, either directly from or as a result of their abuse.
At 52, I’ve become less “live and let live” and more direct. Experience and open eyes has allowed me to predict the future. Just as I can recognize which teen idol will grow up and have male pattern baldness, I can tell who is in for a life of pain and misery. So I say things directly. I told my unfriended Facebook aquaintance I couldn’t watch his downward sprial and that he should get help. I’ve called out my struggling alcoholic friend when I know she’s had a drink. I’ve come to believe that the only way to help people who need to be sober or drug free stay that way is to ask them directly, “Are you using again?” And when they lie to you, because that’s what addicts do, say, “I know you’re lying to me. You need help.”
If you’re using and you shouldn’t be, and a friend calls you out, try to keep an open heart. If someone asks, tell. “I’m using and I need help.” This simple exchange is open to all, regardless of status. Let’s all work on leaving preaching in the past, and move forward with teaching.
“Love liberates. Love —not sentimentality, not mush—but true love gives you enough courage that you can say to somebody, ‘Don’t do that, baby.’ And the person will know you’re not preaching but teaching,” Maya Angelou.
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