Meadville Tribune

Breaking News

Our Health

February 5, 2014

Why Philip Seymour Hoffman's death is so scary

BOSTON — I cried when I heard about Philip Seymour Hoffman. The news scared me: He got sober when he was 22 and didn't drink or use drugs for the next 23 years. During that time, he won an Academy Award, was nominated for three more, and was widely cited as the most talented actor of his generation. He also became a father to three children. Then, one day in 2012, he began popping prescription pain pills. And now he's dead.

The root causes of addiction, like those of many multifactorial diseases, are frustratingly elusive, a nebulous mixture of genetics, exposure and environment. Addiction runs in families, but plenty of addicts come from families with no history of the disease. Availability plays a role, too - but having access to crack doesn't make someone a crack addict. The science about recovery is also hazy: Alcoholics Anonymous, the most widely used form of treatment in the country, has no set structure or methodology, which makes it tough to evaluate its effectiveness. (There's also the fact that its core principle - that members never publicly acknowledge their presence in the program - makes broad longitudinal studies difficult, to say the least.) In-patient treatment centers, like the one Hoffman checked himself into last May, have been accused of obfuscating their success rates.

If anything, the science on relapses is even more slippery. (We do know that relapse rates for drug and alcohol addiction are comparable to people's inability to control other chronic illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, asthma, and hypertension.) The challenges are as basic as agreeing on a definition for long-term sobriety. In a graphic titled "Extended Abstinence is Predictive of Sustained Recovery," the National Institute of Drug Abuse says, "After 5 years - if you are sober, you will probably stay that way." I unconsciously added a "forever" to the end of that sentence - but the study that chart is based on ran for eight years, a bar Hoffman cleared easily: http://bit.ly/1iqtYoL

My first attempt at recovery came in 1991, when I was 19 years old. Almost exactly two years later, I decided to have a drink. Two years after that, I was addicted to heroin. There's a lot we don't know about alcoholism and drug addiction, but one thing is clear: Regardless of how much time clean you have, relapsing is always as easy as moving your hand to your mouth.

 In August 2011, after a dozen years in New York, I moved back to Boston, the city in which I was raised and attended college. I was 39 years old and married; my wife and I had a 1 1/2-year-old boy and another child on the way. I'd written three books, won some awards, and was about to start teaching at MIT. If I'd been asked to provide a CliffsNotes version of my life, those are the details I would have included.

Being back in Boston was a visceral reminder that there's an important part of my past that isn't on the bio page of my website: From 1995 to 1997, the last time I'd lived in the area, I'd been an IV drug addict. Living here again made me acknowledge that past every day: The drive to my son's preschool took me within blocks of the apartment that I'd lived in during those years; my route from his school to my office went past the free acupuncture clinic where I'd sought relief from withdrawal pangs. One afternoon, I looked up and realized I was in front of the emergency room I'd been taken to after overdosing on a batch of dope laced with PCP. I did a double take and looked to my wife, but, of course, that wasn't a memory we shared. We met in 2004, when I'd been sober for more than six years.

One truism of addiction science is that long-term abuse rewires your brain and changes its chemistry, which is why triggers (or "associated stimuli," in scientific parlance) are major risk factors for relapse. But these changes can be reversed over time. Walking past the apartment where my dealer used to live didn't make me want to score; it made me feel as if I was in a phantasmagoria of two crosshatched worlds - but I was the only person who could see both realities. None of my colleagues at MIT, no one in the science writing community I lean on for professional advice and support, none of the people who've worked on my books has ever seen me slip into that other world.

That was a disquieting realization. I worry about the day that I stop acknowledging both of those realities. Most adults with jobs and mortgages and spouses and kids can have a glass of wine after work. For me, a glass of wine is a gateway to my past - and that past provides a pretty robust pool of evidence that there's not much separation between my having a drink and my ending up alone in an apartment with a needle in my arm.

A lot has happened in my family over the past 2 1/2 years. Our daughter was born. We bought a house. My yearlong job morphed into something more permanent. My route to work no longer winds through the spectral landmarks of my addiction. Days can go by without my thinking about how close I came to being a statistic - but then my eye will catch on the two inch-long scars marking the veins in the crook of my elbow or I'll notice someone nodding out on the bus. Or maybe I'll talk to one of the small handful of close friends who have relapsed and are now fighting to regain a foothold in sobriety - or be reminded of a friend who relapsed and died. I was lucky the last time I ran that experiment. I don't want to do it again.

 It's impossible to know what led Hoffman to start using after so many years of sobriety. After he opened a portal to that vortex of chemical relief, however, it doesn't surprise me at all that he couldn't heave himself out in time to save his life.

 

1
Text Only
Our Health
  • Don't let a desk job negatively impact your health

    If you’re female, you might want to consider a more physically active career to avoid a variety of cancers.

    July 21, 2014

  • Study focuses on cancer in those who apply pesticides

    This year marks the end of the Agricultural Health Study, a 20-year study of the effects of pesticides on farm workers and their families. Although the study focused on Iowa and North Carolina, there are still some elements that are important for Pennsylvania farmers as well as anyone who handles chemical compounds.

    June 30, 2014

  • Learn to swim and keep drowning at bay

    When you and your family hit the pool or the beach this summer, you need to be aware of a phenomenon known as secondary drowning, or dry drowning.

    June 16, 2014

  • ‘Planting’ the seeds of a better diet this summer

    Summertime is a great time to make improvements to your diet and lifestyle. Despite the conflicting “advice” you may get about diet when reading the popular press (not to mention all of the “food rules”), adding more plants to your diet is always a good idea.

    June 9, 2014

  • Is the idea of drinkable sunscreen worth swallowing?

    Tired of greasy, sticky hands after applying sunscreen? Even the spray-on sunscreens leave you inhaling fumes that you shouldn’t breathe. Well, enter a new era of skincare products: drinkable sunscreen.

    June 3, 2014

  • Survivor stories: Beating cancer with faith and family love

    I recently talked with Rebecca Arbuckle of Meadville to discuss her journey with breast cancer and how she was able to beat it with faith, strength and the love of her family. Although our conversation was upbeat and filled with confidence, there were times that emotion broke through, as it should, for having faced such a battle and won. I am in awe of the people I have had the chance to interview and am honored to share their stories.

    May 27, 2014

  • Uncovering the simple fix to the 'super bug'

    The World Health Organization has identified a serious threat to human health around the globe. Known as a “superbug,” this antimicrobial resistant bacterial infection has been coined “AMR” (Antimicrobial Resistance).

    May 19, 2014

  • Get educated about high blood pressure and eating better

    May is High Blood Pressure Education Month, and one in three Americans have it. High blood pressure (hypertension) is a leading risk factor for stroke. Hypertension is often referred to as the “silent killer” since you may feel no apparent symptoms. Yet, high blood pressure will cause damage to the blood vessels, brain and heart over time.

    May 13, 2014

  • Researchers: colon cleansing health benefits a myth

    Researchers have found that while colon cleansing has been around since ancient times, the health benefits are basically a myth.

    May 5, 2014

  • Prescription for Medical Nutrition Therapy

    Nutrition is a vital part of being well, and an even more important part to getting well (or healing). It’s a critical part of prevention, yet if I surveyed physicians or lay people, and asked them “Does diet therapy work?” chances are at least 70 percent of them would say “No.”

    April 21, 2014

Business Marquee
AP Video
Couple Channel Grief Into Soldiers' Retreat WWI Aviation Still Alive at Aerodrome in NY Raw: Rescuers at Taiwan Explosion Scene Raw: Woman Who Faced Death Over Faith in N.H. Clinton Before 9-11: Could Have Killed Bin Laden Netanyahu Vows to Destroy Hamas Tunnels Obama Slams Republicans Over Lawsuit House Leaders Trade Blame for Inaction Malaysian PM: Stop Fighting in Ukraine Cantor Warns of Instability, Terror in Farewell Ravens' Ray Rice: 'I Made a Huge Mistake' Florida Panther Rebound Upsets Ranchers Small Plane Crash in San Diego Parking Lot Busy Franco's Not Afraid of Overexposure Fighting Blocks Access to Ukraine Crash Site Dangerous Bacteria Kills One in Florida Workers Dig for Survivors After India Landslide Texas Scientists Study Ebola Virus Smartphone Powered Paper Plane Debuts at Airshow Southern Accent Reduction Class Cancelled in TN
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Stocks