By: Vicki Hogarth
When I found out Philip Seymour Hoffman died, I was on the phone with my mom. She was telling me about a dress she bought me for my sober anniversary next week. "I saw it and thought of you and how you should have something pretty to celebrate in," she said excitedly. "I'm just so proud of you -- two years!"
It's a miracle to my mom that I'm even alive today. The idea of me having two years of straight sobriety under my belt didn't even seem like a remote possibility a few years ago when I was in and out of hospitals for everything from a withdrawal-induced seizure to an overdose.
It was hard at the time for my parents to understand what was going on, since I didn't seem like an addict to them. Even I didn't think I was a true addict, despite cracking open two cans of mixed vodka drinks in a bathroom stall before work every morning just to get my day started. I still had a Master's degree to prove I was type-A, a decent online editing job that I had yet to be fired from despite drinking vodka from Gatorade bottles at my desk, and a fairly active social life. I had bills to pay, and I paid them. And I had pain to kill to get through the monotony of a career that had turned out less artistic than I had envisioned it. I killed the disappointment with booze and prescription sedatives.
I was in the middle of thanking my mom for the dress she was mailing so it would make it on time for my second sober birthday when an article popped up in my Facebook newsfeed. "Oh Mom, Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead!" I gasped reading the headline. My Mom asked how. "An overdose, it seems," I answered and couldn't say anything more because I felt my eyes well up.
I heard my Mom take a breath on the other end. When you have experienced an overdose either as an addict or as someone who loves an addict, hearing about anyone succumbing to addiction brings back memories of the most painful kind.
"Where would I know him from?" my Mom asked and I could tell she was suddenly crying. My Mom doesn't know famous people. She wasn't crying because Philip Seymour Hoffman, the great actor, died; she was crying because another addict lost his life to the disease.
She's been to support groups with me in all kinds of neighbourhoods and even in different cities. She has met friends of mine in recovery, from former homeless people to reformed drug dealers, but she knows that the majority of addicts out there have things like modest mortgages and student loans. They're you, and they're me, except you probably wouldn't guess our backstory if you passed us on the street. We're not the reckless celebrities, tortured artists and amoral criminals most people imagine when the word "addict" gets tossed around.
"He's an Oscar winner," I said, still referring to him in the present tense. "He won for Capote, but we saw him on 60 Minutes once talking about his struggles with addiction -- how he went to rehab after university. I remember reading that he relapsed last year after something like 23 years of sobriety." I said. "That means he overdosed on a Saturday night. So did Cory Monteith in the summer, remember? And I overdosed on a Saturday night too."
"I know," my Mom said, now sobbing. "I still have flashbacks to finding you. And I feel sick when it happens. I relive the feeling that I'm losing you."
I remember feeling devastated last spring when I read that Philip Seymour Hoffman had relapsed after 23 years of sobriety. I had been so thrilled to make it to my one-year sober anniversary just a few months earlier, something I never thought I would be able to do. It made me feel sick that another addict could give into temptation after so long. I used to think about booze almost every minute of the day in the beginning of living sober, but it eventually faded --like eventually, mostly moving on from someone who broke your heart.
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It's been two years since my last drink on February 9, 2012. I remember what it felt like going down. It didn't taste good. Relapsing only makes you hate yourself more no matter how hard you try to drink your way back to the numbness you used to know. You can't have back what it was you that you used to love so much, and there's pain in that realization. Relapsing is like having pity sex with an old flame and knowing the magic that was once there is never coming back. It feels like a secret, shameful stab at trying to feel a sliver of something that's really just a memory of complete detachment.
Like Philip Seymour Hoffman, I relapsed in my bathroom that time, alone in my apartment. It was before noon. It was just beer -- which was less revolting than the first relapse where I drank mouthwash. Relapsing makes you raise the stakes because you go into it failing, knowing you're a loser.
I had started a six-pack around 8am that morning and I was down to the last one. I'd been drinking every waking hour for days, but even now I can't remember how many days went by. They all just blur into one blob of a fuzzy memory peppered with random fears about getting to the store for more booze without being too wasted to walk.
I didn't go to my bathroom to die, like so many addicts seem to do. I went to my bathroom to look in the mirror while I drank the last beer. It wasn't my last beer; it was just the last beer because it wasn't mine anymore. I wanted to look in the mirror for some sign of who I was, who I lost, who I might be because I needed to find some part of me who wasn't a raging addict. I had already called 911 and the ambulance was on its way.
I spent the night in the hospital because I knew I wasn't safe at home. Doctors put me on suicide watch. For everything the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds had made me once believe about addiction being tragically beautiful, when the sweat is pouring out of your pores from the latest comedown, when you're peeing in front of a suicide watch guard into a wheelchair with a built-in toilet, you are just a suffering addict living in a body that hates you for what you do to it.
I sweat toxins out of my pores all night while the guard continued to watch me. It was ugly, shameful and I promised myself that was the end. Rehab may not have sunk in right away the year before, but I couldn't do it anymore. And now, two years later, that day is the last day I ever drank.
Whenever I even slightly think I miss drinking, I make myself remember how awful I used feel when I woke up somewhere unfamiliar beside someone I didn't know, with a shame I couldn't even account for and a need to make the pain and disappointment stop before it ever started again. There's nothing tortured or artistic about addiction when it's real -- it's just an obsessive compulsion to feel nothing, a cycle of numb-chasing that's just a giant hamster wheel going nowhere.
Support groups keep me sober now. I need to know other people like me to normalize the disease for myself, to feel less like an alien for being wired the way I am. I need to believe I am an addict with a disease and not just a sensitive artistic type with a temperament too precious for reality.
I'd like to celebrate my two years of straight sobriety next week knowing I am in the clear forever, but Philip Seymour Hoffman's death is proof that relapses are possible at any time in recovery for anyone, especially when addiction remains something society still romanticizes instead of treating like a deadly illness.
As it stands, there are long wait lists for government rehabs for those addicts who don't have the financial freedom of celebrities and the 1 per cent to go to private treatment facilities. Even in Canada, a country that allegedly has one of the best socialized healthcare systems in the world, we have a plethora of rehabs run like money-making businesses that start at $15,000 up front -- while government-run rehabs for addicts without money generally have wait lists that are months long. We don't discriminate between the wealthy and the poor when it comes to treating diseases like cancer, though, because we believe cancer is real.
It's easy to call Philip Seymour Hoffman a tortured artist -- a picture that's been painted in recent posthumous tributes by Vogue, The New Yorker and Esquire-- and to feed the myth that addiction belongs to creative geniuses and the derelict and no one in between.
He has a great body of work -- an Oscar, even. But calling him a tortured artist also makes it sound like he was a man so purposely obsessed with his art that he willing sacrificed his well-being for it instead of what he really was: an addict who sometimes let his disease get the better of him, both the man and the artist.
Hoffman was open about his struggles with addiction and didn't paint it as torture. That's the weird part. It's like society still insists on seeing it that way. I am sure Mr. Hoffman, the addict and not the artist, would not want his own painful battle to feed the misconceptions surrounding addiction.
Mr. Hoffman, the great actor, is gone, but so is Mr. Hoffman the father of three, the beloved son, the cherished friend and the addict. He was larger than life to most people, but to those close to him, he was human -- a human with a disease.
*This article originally appeared in Vice