What Philip Seymour Hoffman's Tragic Death Teaches Us About Addiction

Philip Seymour Hoffman arrives for the Los Angeles premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' in Los Angeles, California, last November. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
Philip Seymour Hoffman arrives for the Los Angeles premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' last November. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

As I think pretty much everyone must know by now, the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died Sunday, apparently of a heroin overdose. I was stunned when I found out, then deeply saddened when I read reports that he had told "60 Minutes" in 2006 that he had given up drugs and alcohol when he was 22 -- "I got panicked for my life," he told Steve Kroft. Hoffman relapsed last year.

But my sadness turned to a kind of cold fury when I saw too many comments on social media clucking disapproval for Hoffman's "selfishness" and "poor choices." (I'm not linking to them here; you can find them easily enough if you want to.) One friend on Facebook noted that another friend's thread about Hoffman was the only one he'd seen acknowledging "the tragedy of his drug addiction."

And, indeed, addiction is a disease. Dr. David Smith has treated thousands of addicts since he founded the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in 1967. He talked to me about "battling an uninformed public."

"Diabetes is a disease of the pancreas. Addiction is a disease of the brain," he said. If you don't think addiction is a disease, Smith said, "then take a laxative, sit on the toilet and try not to have a bowel movement." Yes, a simplistic analogy, he said, "but effective."

Smith told me about the "4 C's of addiction" -- craving, compulsion, loss of control and continued use in spite of bad consequences. "Craving is a signal," Smith said, then added the worst thing an addict can do when craving is to isolate. Hoffman appears to have died alone, in a Greenwich Village apartment.

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In a moving piece for The Guardian, the comedian and actor Russell Brand talked about the power of support -- or "fellowships" -- in battling his own craving for heroin. The whole piece is worth a read, but I'll excerpt here:

Without these fellowships I would take drugs. Because, even now, the condition persists. Drugs and alcohol are not my problem, reality is my problem, drugs and alcohol are my solution.

If this seems odd to you it is because you are not an alcoholic or a drug addict. You are likely one of the 90% of people who can drink and use drugs safely. I have friends who can smoke weed, swill gin, even do crack and then merrily get on with their lives. For me, this is not an option. I will relinquish all else to ride that buzz to oblivion. Even if it began as a timid glass of chardonnay on a ponce's yacht, it would end with me necking the bottle, swimming to shore and sprinting to Bethnal Green in search of a crack house. I look to drugs and booze to fill up a hole in me; unchecked, the call of the wild is too strong. I still survey streets for signs of the subterranean escapes that used to provide my sanctuary. I still eye the shuffling subclass of junkies and dealers, invisibly gliding between doorways through the gutters. I see that dereliction can survive in opulence; the abundantly wealthy with destitution in their stare.

Smith said that Hoffman's death "shatters the myth that addiction is a lower socioeconomic disease."

Learn more:

KQED's Forum discusses Battling Drug Addiction Tuesday morning, Feb. 4. Listen Live at 9am.

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Watch: Suburban Junkies, a look at young prescription drug addicts in California's Orange County who turn to heroin for a cheaper high.

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