When I saw the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman lost his long-time struggle with addiction to a heroin overdose, I audibly gasped “Oh, no!” at my Twitter feed. Lost in the unanswerable why, things were a blur for a few minutes after that.
I posted on my personal Facebook feed about how sorry I was that addiction had claimed another victim. One of my alleged “friends” made this asinine comment:
Guy had a net worth of 35 million. Had access to the best facilities in the world. Feel bad for his children but at some point in his life he made a conscience decision to stick a needle in his arm. No one chooses to get cancer. It just happens but you can choose not jabbing a heroin filled needle into your vein.
My blood started to boil. Like millions of others and some of the media, my “friend” just didn’t get the disease of addiction.
Let me set the record straight. Addiction is not a choice. It has nothing to do with fault or blame.
I know this from personal experience, and from hearing the stories and watching the successful (and unsuccessful) recovery of hundreds of alcoholics and drug addicts in various recovery programs of which I’ve participated.
The addict or alcoholic does not choose to be afflicted with the disease of addiction. When the addict is a child, he doesn’t daydream and say to himself, “When I grow up, I want to be a heroin addict and stick a needle in my arm everyday…” No one in their right mind would choose to become a drug addict or alcoholic.
And there’s the rub. No one in their right mind…
Addicts and alcoholics suffer from a mental disease of the brain — as accepted by the American Medical Association, National Institute of Health and American Psychological Association. Our brains are not “right” or “normal” when afflicted with this disease. Although there is a scientific debate on this issue, I believe that the vast majority of people who suffered from addiction were born or predisposed to the disease. Some alcoholics knew they were alcoholics from the very first drink. Sometimes the disease is triggered by trauma. Sometimes it’s just a long progressive process. But for some reason, people like Philip Seymour Hoffman are more susceptible to the effects of the addictive qualities of alcohol and drugs and will continue to use despite the negative consequences including the specter of death.
That said, the question of choice does enter into the equation. I believe that anyone suffering from addiction can choose to get clean and sober. There is an element of personal responsibility which comes into play when one makes the decision to get sober. But when the addict is in the throws of addiction, dope sick and cannot think straight or rationally, he doesn’t necessarily have a choice of whether to use. He uses to stay alive and to become “normal” again, or so he thinks. And that’s the insanity of the disease and how it makes talented, educated people like PSH do insane things.
But getting clean and sober is a scary prospect for most addicts. It’s a beast. For me, getting sober has been the single most difficult thing I have ever had to do in my life. I would rather study and take the bar exam every week. I would rather go to the dentist every day. Well, maybe not. I hate the dentist.
Some people recover. Some people like Mr. Hoffman do not, and they die. Addiction does not discriminate based on wealth or celebrity status. For every Philip Seymour Hoffman, there are a thousand nameless soldiers of recovery, trudging along every day, going to meetings, reading from their Hazelden 24 Hour Book, and not drinking or using one day at a time. We don’t talk about those folks. Instead, we lament and blame Mr. Hoffman for “choosing” to stick a heroin filled needle in his arm.
Trust me, he didn’t choose that for his life. Would anyone?
To perpetuate the myth that addiction is somehow a choice is irresponsible.