The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Movie fans everywhere were shocked and saddened today, when news broke that Oscar-winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman had died. That such a vibrant and talented actor should be taken from us too soon was painful enough; that he allegedly died of a drug overdose made the news even worse. The list of talented people who have succumbed to the scourge of drugs is long and depressing. It's hard not to wonder what kind of work John Belushi, Chris Farley, Whitney Houston, or Heath Ledger might have done had they not met their untimely drug-related ends. For that matter, the same could be said of Judy Garland, Cory Monteith, Amy Winehouse, Mitch Hedberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Chris Penn, Brad Renfro, and dozens of other notable artists of every stripe.

When Hoffman died, there were also a fair number of people criticizing him for his drug use. On Twitter, one insensitive person told me that he "chose drugs over his kids." Actor Jared Padalecki, of Gilmore Girls and Supernatural fame, tweeted: "Sad isn't the word I'd use to describe a 46 year old man throwing his life away to drugs. Senseless is more like it. Stupid." (He very quickly deleted that tweet after rightfully receiving a lot of flack.) For every fan mourning Hoffman's passing, it seemed there was one self-righteous person waiting to condemn him. And one thing was very clear: a lot of people don't know jack about addiction.

Let me say right off the bat that I have never used an illegal drug. I do, however, know a great deal about addiction. Back in 1993, when my goal of becoming a film critic was in its nascent stage, I got a job working in a drug and alcohol facility, where I stayed for nearly six years. Addicts who were ready to seek treatment - or compelled by the legal system to seek it - would come to our offices for evaluation and assistance in getting into whatever program would best help them, be it detox, rehab, or simple outpatient therapy. At the time, heroin was on the rise in the small city where I worked. The most seriously addicted people would walk through our doors looking like skeletons, and some of them had contracted HIV from sharing needles. We all know this kind of thing exists, but if you've never physically looked in the eyes of someone wasting away from heroin use, you have no idea how bone-chillingly horrific it really is.

The thing about being an addict is that it's all about avoiding pain. People try drugs for many reasons. Sometimes it's to experiment, other times because it makes them feel more social or self-confident. Some people are looking for a buzz, while others simply want to forget something. It's these last folks who run the greatest risk of becoming addicts. Many people fiddle with drugs for a time in their lives, usually when they're fairly young, and then quit. Those who become full-fledged addicts have a different experience. In my life, I've known hundreds of drug addicts and alcoholics. They all had one thing in common: they were running from something.

The key to understanding drug addiction is to understand shame, because shame is the gas that fuels addiction's engine. Hardcore addicts take drugs to avoid experiencing some unpleasant emotion. Maybe it's depression or anxiety from having been molested as a child. Maybe it's the sensation of guilt from having a failed marriage. It could be a million things, but whatever it is, it's painful as hell. Substance use dulls the pain, so that the undesirable emotion is pushed into the background. The problem is, once you sober up, it's still right there, so you have to ingest more of your substance of choice to make it go away again. Here's where shame comes in. Addicts feel very guilty about their use. They know, at some fundamental level, that it's hurting their loved ones. They know it's hurting themselves. Shame is one of those unpleasant emotions, though, and if your coping skill for dealing with them is to drink, snort, or inject them away, guess what you're going to do? This creates a cycle from which it can be extraordinarily difficult to escape. Life becomes all about avoiding those awful feelings that you don't know how to deal with. The shame of coping with it in a destructive way is what allows the substance abuse to perpetuate itself.

It's clear that, for Phillip Seymour Hoffman to have had such a lengthy, troublesome addiction, he surely held some kind of private pain. It's also clear that his 15-year relationship to Mimi O'Donnell and his three children were a joy in his life. Hoffman undoubtedly felt the shame of his drug use and how it affected them. He coped with the shame the way all addicts do: by doing what it took to not feel it.

It's important to remember that Hoffman had a disease. And yes, addiction is a disease. It is progressive (meaning it gets worse if left untreated), it has a series of symptoms, and, with professional help, it can be managed. Did he "choose drugs over his kids," as some have claimed? Of course not. More likely, he felt guilt and shame over not being able to give them his absolute best self. Was he stupid, or careless, or any of the other things uninformed people have accused him of being? "No" on that count, as well. Phillip Seymour Hoffman was an immensely talented man who got caught in the grip of something powerful and hard to control. He was in pain, without the coping skills to fully resolve whatever it was that allowed his addiction to continue. Just like Belushi, Farley, Houston, Ledger, or any of the other stars who died from drugs.

The irony is that Hoffman's private pain is probably one of the things that allowed him to be so riveting on screen. He understood difficult emotions in ways that many people do not. Now he's gone, and our only consolation is that he left us an extraordinary body of work. You won't find a bad Phillip Seymour Hoffman performance anywhere. While we mourn the loss of a great actor, let's also mourn the loss of a human being with a disease. Let's mourn all the individuals out there, famous or not, who are struggling with the same disease. They don't need our scorn or self-righteousness. Those things just make it worse. They need our support, our encouragement, and our help. If we're all in tune with how addiction works, we might have fewer tragic endings to promising lives.

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