Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman Was Taught To Be Helpless Before Drugs

Heroin epidemic? Cunning disease? Or learned powerlessness?


Philip Seymour Hoffman
Georges Biard

The Los Angeles Times article on Philip Seymour Hoffman, titled "Philip Seymour Hoffman death: 50 heroin bags, used syringes found," describes a man who almost sounds like he was trying to die, or else who hadn't really learned in his 23 years of recovery how to manage himself. Among the revelations were these:

  • Hoffman "had about 50 bags of heroin and 20 used syringes on hand in his apartment before his death, law enforcement sources said Monday, according to several reports…A charred spoon used to heat the drug was also found, New York Daily News sources said, along with five prescription drugs for high blood pressure, ADHD and more. Buprenorphine, which helps opioid addicts stay clean, was reportedly on hand."
  • Hoffman had recently separated from the mother of his three children, costume designer Mimi O'Donnell.
  • Hoffman had gone off the wagon big time, his relapse following this course: "after slipping back into drug use, first with prescription meds and then snorting heroin…he was photographed appearing drunk on Thursday night in Atlanta, TMZ said, posting a shot of him at a bar." He was reported being seen making a large drug purchase.

And what are we to make of this?

Heroin Epidemic!

There has been an upsurge in reported heroin use in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) leading USA Today (among many media outlets) to declare that Hoffman's death "is shining a spotlight on an epidemic of opiate addiction that has soared over the past decade…The number of regular heroin users soared from 239,000 in 2010 to 335,000 in 2012, the survey found."

But that's in a nation of roughly 300 million people, meaning that there are roughly one in 1,000 Americans who use heroin regularly (that's a tenth of one percent)—which means using as frequently as once a month! (USA Today has shuffled the NSDUH definition from "current," meaning use in the past month, to "regular.") Heroin users are too few to include in a line graph of illicit drug users in NSDUH.  Of course, five million Americans are using pharmaceutical pain relievers off-label currently, or roughly two percent (20 times those using heroin).

The idea that people can even use heroin once in a month, or several times a month, or once or several times a year (often the figure cited is the more than 600,000 who used heroin at all in 2012) is stunning and incomprehensible to the American public and media. "What? Occasional use of narcotics—that's impossible—I don't care what those damned data tell us."  What this actually tells us is that Hoffman was exceptional among heroin users in the scope of his use. 

Which brings us to Chris Hayes interviewing Carl Hart on his evening MSNBC show. As smart and as savvy as Hayes is, his purpose is to alert and alarm us about the "heroin epidemic."

But Hart, experimental pharmacologist at Columbia University and author of High Price, is a bad go-to for drug scare stories.  Leading off with statistics about growing heroin use and the governor of Vermont declaring a heroin emergency, Hayes wanted to highlight this "epidemic," declaring it the result of a government crackdown on Oxycontin, forcing people to use heroin instead. But he is barking up the wrong tree with Hart. Hart is all about how we overstress the effects of drugs, rather than dealing with social problems. Concerning the chief drugs he researches, Hart says: "Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don't get addicted. And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures."

Hart is good for the bad effects of the Oxy crackdown, but he just doesn't go along with the narrative that people are going wild on heroin. He begins by observing that "75 percent of drug overdoses are actually the result of combining narcotics with other sedative drugs or alcohol," and progresses to "it's not addicts who typically overdose since they have a good tolerance for the drug." His point is that we should educate people not to use more than one substance at a time. (See my recent writing on the subject.)  But after citing social and pychological causes of drug misuse, Hart refuses to comment on Hoffman, because he doesn't like to speculate. 

For that, we need a good disease narrator.

Cunning Disease!

The prototype for the "cunning disease that captured Hoffman" story line was published in The Atlantic, "Hoffman and the Terrible Heroin Deaths in the Shadows," by Jeff Deeney.  Deeney is a recovering addict, but one who is aware of the need to provide help to street addicts through direct social and public health action, rather than thinking everything will be okay if we can just get enough addicts into 12-step meetings.

Nonetheless, Deeney can't resist relapsing into disease theory, recovering-addict bullshit:

There is a particularly chilling aspect to Hoffman's death that only another recovering addict can feel. He had 23 years clean, and then went back out. Just two weeks ago, I celebrated ten years off my own crippling drug habit. Sometimes I feel convinced that I'll never relapse and experience that kind of pain and insanity again. Recovery programs warn that this kind of thinking can be dangerous. The addicting substance is characterized as "cunning, baffling and powerful." It sounds like a cliché until someone with more than two decades clean, with a beautiful family and a career that is the envy of the world trades it in for a glassine envelope of dope and a set of works.

In other words since Hoffman relapsed, that proves heroin—or any addicting substance or activity, including marijuana, alcohol, food, sex, video games—is "cunning, baffling and powerful." Does Deeney teach (or plan to treach) his children that drugs, alcohol, food, sex, and gaming are "cunning, baffling and powerful" since some people become addicted to each? If so, he has a good chance of creating another generation of addicts for whom he can provide services.

Hoffman Was Taught Helplessness

Hoffman is not a good symbol for the efficacy of American treatment. He was famously abstinent after having entered rehab at 22.  Then, supposedly abstinent for 23 years, he took some pain medications and went completely haywire, progressing to rampant heroin use.  According to this model, a person who is addicted to heroin who simply samples a painkiller is doomed to all-out relapse by this "cunning, baffling and powerful disease."

But what are we to make of the stunning, continuing findings over the decades that most people recover from heroin and other drug addictions? Even a well-known figure associated with AA (but one who displays intellectual integrity) like William White can declare: after analyzing 415 scientific reports of recovery, from the mid-19th century to the present, that "Recovery is not an aberration achieved by a small and morally enlightened minority of addicted people. If there is a natural developmental momentum within the course of these problems, it is toward remission and recovery."

So Hoffman is an exception, one who tells us an important story.  Let's turn to Charles Winick's 1962 classic, "Maturing Out of Narcotic Addiction," in which he found that two-thirds to three-quarters of known heroin addicts graduated off the Federal Bureau of Narcotics' rolls by their mid-thirties. Indeed, Winick surmises, we need a theory to account for the minority who fail to recover: "The difference between those who mature out of addiction and those who do not may also mirror the difference between addicts who struggle to abandon addiction and may develop some insight, and those who decide that they are 'hooked,' make no effort to abandon addiction, and give in to what they regard as inevitable."

Corralled by the disease theory in rehab in his early 20s, Philip Seymour Hoffman failed to allow himself to mature out, to develop a realistic assessment of his own strength relative to pharmaceuticals and other drugs. As a result he was left vulnerable, not to a cunning, baffling and powerful substance, or disease, but to an emptiness and learned powerlessness, or helplessness, in this area of his life, which so contrasted with his forcefulness and mastery in his acting career.

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  1. Personal re… Uh. Personal resp… Try again. Uh, personal respectability? No, that’s not it. Personal resp… Oh, fuck it.

    1. No one ever wants to admit that their loved one isn’t what they could be or we hope they are. That is really all there is to it.

      I have an older sister who is wildly self destructive with alcohol. I had a good friend in college who was a complete degenerate addict.

      I thought a lot of my friend and still love my sister. Their condition has caused me a lot of grief. But never once over all of these years did I ever think “if it wasn’t for that damn booze and drugs…”. I always thought “if it wasn’t for them being so God damned stupid and irresponsible…” I can honestly say it never occurred to me to think of either of them as victims of “drugs” or anything but their own tragic character flaws and choices.

      For the life of me I cannot understand how people can think otherwise.

      1. No one ever wants to admit that their loved one isn’t what they could be or we hope they are.

        “Admit”?! Are you kidding? All some couples ever do is shout that at each other, and proclaim it to everyone else they know.

    2. “The difference between those who mature out of addiction and those who do not may also mirror the difference between addicts who struggle to abandon addiction and may develop some insight, and those who decide that they are ‘hooked,’ make no effort to abandon addiction, and give in to what they regard as inevitable.”

      It almost seems that some other words could be substituted for “addiction” and “addict” in this.

    3. Perspiration?

      1. masturbation?

  2. If Rehab can’t cure athletes and celebrities who have virtually unlimited time and resources, who can it cure?

    The British doctor who writes under the pseudonym Theodore Dahlrymple has it dead on. There is no such thing as “addiction”. There are only irresponsible and self destructive people whose self destructiveness manifests itself in drug use. “Addiction” and “disease” makes it sound like anyone can get it. Lack of moral fiber and self control is not a condition that is contagious like the common cold.

    1. It is possible people have a genetic predisposition to addiction. I just got back my 23andMe results and a trait they test for is heroin addiction. It doesn’t have a real high confidence level but there could be something to that. Addiction could be an evolutionary by product. Basically an extreme example of reward seeking. A slight genetic difference may be the reason some people successfully go through rehab and others don’t.

      1. You should cut open a sheep and see what its entrails say is your propensity for heroin addiction.

        1. I see you have a propensity for cutting open sheep.

          Moreover, no one can deny the possibility that you have a propensity for doing something else to them.

            1. It’s his jeans — too tight.

          1. The concept of a “genetic predisposition for heroin addiction” is not supported by science. This is Par Robertson “hurricanes as God’s wrath” level of superstition.

      2. Some people have addictive personalities. I have a nephew like that. But having such a personality doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility of being aware of that and controlling and channeling your addictive instincts towards something positive. My nephew is a complete nut about eating and working out. He will drive you nuts to be around with his various dietary restrictions and workout routines. But, if he didn’t do that, he might be drinking or gambling or snorting coke. So you have to respect him for his self awareness and decision to channel his urges somewhere.

        1. Some people have addictive personalities. I have a nephew like that. But having such a personality doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility of being aware of that and controlling and channeling your addictive instincts towards something positive.

          I think if know you have an addictive trait that should make you more responsible for your choices. Like a diabetic has to be more conscious about his diet an addict needs to be more careful about their lifestyle choices. I’m just stating a hypothesis why it seems some people can just walk away from drugs and others have a much harder time, other than a moral failing.

          1. Some people can’t. We are all like that to varying degrees. I can’t keep M&Ms; around. If they are around I will eat entire bags of them. I just can’t help myself. They are the perfect balance of tasting good but being just ghetto enough chocolate not to be too rich.

            Lots of people get addicted to drugs and alcohol when they are young and too stupid too realize their addictive personality. Many of them come to the realization that for them drugs and alcohol are like M&Ms; are for me and walk away from it. The ones who don’t are making a choice to do that. It is not the drugs causing that. It is them making a choice.

            1. “just ghetto enough chocolate”?

              1. What is non-ghetto chocolate? White chocolate?

              2. They are made from kind of cheap chocolate. That is what makes them so addictive. Really high end chocolate like Lindt or Godiva or the even better stuff is so rich you can’t physically eat a lot of it. A small piece is fabulous but if you have more than that you stomach quickly gets upset. But M&Ms; are cheaper and don’t upset your stomach. So you can eat them by the pound or at least I can.

                1. It’s gotta be the peanut butter or almond M&Ms; for me. The plain ones just don’t do it. I don’t want to relapse, I don’t, okay, I do. I may sneak off to Target and get one of those 16 oz bags.

                  1. I try and stay off the hard stuff and stick to the plain ones. They are kind of a methadone program for addicts.

                2. so that was you waddling down the street?

            2. Everybody has their kryptonite, whether it’s chocolate, women, bacon, whatever. The solution is simple: don’t keep it around and don’t expose yourself to it. That’s how most people deal with this stuff.

              It’s not like evil gnomes smuggle M&M’s into your house at night for you to snack on.

              1. kryptonite is my kryptonite…CK

        2. But having such a personality doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility of being aware of that and controlling and channeling your addictive instincts towards something positive.

          This. But I know many people who believe people with “such a personality” are mentally ill and can not do otherwise. My response is generally along the lines of: Then how can they get it together to do other things that life requires?

      3. Gringoes can’t handle tobacco and injuns can’t handle the booze. Both examples recently introduced into those populations.

        Oh yeah…Andian injuns have no problems with coke, but then they have been chewing the leaves for 10000 years.

        1. Oh yeah…Andian injuns have no problems with coke, but then they have been chewing the leaves for 10000 years.

          That would make sense. Kind of like how it is rare for Europeans to have the alcohol flush reaction. They have been drinking to survive for a long time.

    2. that addiction is the result of immorality or the lack of willpower is a time honored tradition, steeped in ignorance, and has taken plenty of people into their graves prematurely by nurturing the notion that by repairing these deficiencies they can recover.
      the theory of an allergy was popularized by a depression-era director of ward treating alcoholics and drug addicts at Townes hospital in NYC. After treating hundreds of patients who, by all accounts were pillars of their community and able to move mountains by their will, in regards to alcohol they were unable to muster those abilities.
      I could go on ad infinitum with examples, and continue to build my case as to why the allergic concept is still the most relevant… but I’ll suffice with this: the aggregate of recoveries of patients classified as chronic resulting from psychological and psychiatric treatments is abysmal… in the area of 3-4%. Even today with its watered down message, people who go through the 12 step process as outlined in AAs literature are recovering at 10x that rate.

      1. “that addiction is the result of immorality or the lack of willpower is a time honored tradition, steeped in ignorance”

        True; instead, it’s a result of poor choices.

        But whatever you call it, it’s still your personal responsibility. Nobody makes you an addict but yourself.

        1. I agree, though I believe there are biological factors that greatly determine whether or not those choices will lead to addiction (and why most who try addictive drugs don’t become hooked.)
          Because the primary factor, choice, is the only one an individual can (at least to an extent) control, the individual is absolutely responsible for becoming an addict and for overcoming it.
          I say this with 20 years of personal experience between addiction and recovery and 15 years of avocational work with others in active addiction.

  3. “There is a particularly chilling aspect to Hoffman’s death that only another recovering addict can feel.”

    Goddammit Stanton, you have the nerve to speak about this when he clearly explained to you that only he knows what he is talking about?

    Also, addiction and disease means it just isn’t your fault. You are a victim. That is the same rhetoric used in selling magical weight loss options, and for the same reason.

    1. Options?

      Fuck spell check. That is supposed to be potions.

      1. I just though there was a new commodities market.

        1. There’s no future in magical weight loss options.

          1. It requires magical thinking to keep buying the sawdust and laxative pills that get shilled on TV, and judging by the amount of advertising the market is doing just fine.

    2. Well its interesting. See, getting fat (or continuing to use) means you have no power, but do this magic thing (take a diet pill, go to rehab) and you’ll suddenly have power.

    3. nah, disease means that you need some serious fucking internal change to overcome it. having mentored dozens on men in this arena, I can assure you that innocence is virtually never a topic of conversation… but owning your shit and making the choices required to get well are!
      i can totally see how you’d come to that conclusion though

  4. Don’t blame heroine, blame those shitty book/movies Hunger Games.

    Stanley Tucci is next, he’s doing a snow drift of blow as we speak.

    1. so fucking what?

  5. As libertarians I would think you would be thrilled with the AA/NA model- here is an organization that runs completely self sufficiently without any govt help at all and helps hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people stay clean.

    As for personal responsibility, NA teaches that “you are not responsible for your disease but you are responsible for your recovery.” Maybe you don’t agree with the characterization of addiction being a disease, but these programs don’t yeah helplessness, they teach responsibility for your past actions and present circumstances.

    1. That’s the problem right there. The recovery is something you DO, the disease was just something that HAPPENED TO you.

      If you’re not responsible for “the disease” then you were helpless when it happened to you.

      1. That’s sort of semantics. Physical addiction is a very real thing. Certain substances’ (alcohol and barbiturates) withdrawal can result in death. Chemical addiction in the brain is complicated, and while it is your own fault for recklessly taking addictive substances, you don’t totally control how the brain works. I get that people here want to push the notion of personal responsibility and that one has power over one’s own life, but I don’t get the bashing of recovery programs. You don’t have to agree with the framing, (I don’t) but acknowledging you can’t control the past, or might have a disposition for addiction, that can empower you to make good decisions for yourself.

        1. Yes, and those are pretty much the only substances for which withdrawal is actually dangerous. For the rest, it is merely unpleasant. There are lots of unpleasant things we have to endure in life as part of survival.

    2. We’re happy that we aren’t forced to pay for their b.s. That doesn’t mean we can’t call it b.s.

  6. *dont teach helplessness

    1. What an incredible waste of time and space, some douche who’ll be forgotten in about 20 minutes dies with a needle in his arm…who gives a fuck?

  7. If it wasn’t labeled a disease then courts couldn’t feed the crony capitalist rehab industry, and insurance wouldn’t touch it.

    “Victims” breed handouts, personal responsibility undercuts the market.

  8. Second PSH story today. Going back to comments under the previous story under which I make the point that libertarians need to make a clear statement about the immorality of the drug culture even as they advocate complete liberalization of drug laws (which any rational person supports).

    I site this article. Its purpose is to diminish the impact of drug use. This may be a legitimate issue, but is immaterial to PSH’s friend’s, loved ones, and those who admired his talents. It is such a goddamned waste! The hedonistic life style he pursued destroyed him and kept us from enjoying his talent for many more years. Why not state this and state the immorality of many recreational drugs that can destroy you? Yes, choosing what you put in your body is your choice and no one else’s, but morality is about making the right choices. Why not state the obvious, deal with it rather than diminish the issue as the article seems to do?

  9. “Corralled by the disease theory in rehab in his early 20s, Philip Seymour Hoffman failed to allow himself to mature out…”

    The “maturing out” will either happen, or an addict will remain one. Carl Jung understood this back in the 20s.

    From a very personal perspective, I spent years of my life in and out of impatient rehabs. I fervently attempted any and every idea I could conceive or find: treatment centers, therapy sessions, behavioral modification programs, support meetings, diet and exercise, structured support from friends and family- to name some.
    After repeatedly failing I finally developed a realistic assessment of my own strength relative to substances… that I had virtually none! With this realization, I became teachable. I underwent the 12 step process. At some point the driving forces which underlay my decision making process changed. The way that I reacted to life situations changed… seemingly overnight. I became interested in contributing to the needs of other people. As almost a side effect, my impossibly powerful need to chemically alter myself disappeared, and I’ve lived without even a whisper of struggle in regards to addiction since… almost ten years have passed. Any who knew me before and after would say that I “matured out,” and the catalyst was the realization that I WAS, indeed hopeless.

    1. how about having the shit beat out of you 10 times a day? you must be a real dick at parties

      1. THAT would be a victim (assuming its a kid, at least.) My addiction was the result of my own shitty choices- i was not a victim, but a creator of them (people i harmed along the way.)

        I’m all for people partying, and stay off my recovery soapbox unless someone asks me about it, or if a someone publicly spouts shit that can block addicts from the most trodden and successful path to recovery

  10. “Buprenorphine, which helps opioid addicts stay clean,…”


    Buprenorphine is a synthetic opiate. It helps addicts stay addicts. Being a mixed agonist-antagonist it theoretically limits abusive dosing of itself or other opiates.

    Anyone taking opiates can hardly be called clean.

  11. I heard that the ones who have been the most successful at staying clean were the ones who skipped the formal “treatment” and simply quit.

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