I have a pattern when it comes to stories about celebrities who overdose. The day the news breaks, I scan the headlines. I react with a mix of sadness and disgust—and familiarity, as I was raised by two addicts. I'm as voyeuristic as the next person when it comes to celebrities, but in cases like this, I'm not looking to dish the dirt. I'm not interested in the 'juicy' details.
The recent news of Philip Seymour Hoffman's heroin-related death was no different for me. I don't really care that Hoffman died with a syringe in his arm. My eyes scan these stories looking for the little people: the kids left behind.
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I can usually find a brief mention. In this case, a sentence or two about Hoffman's three kids with his longtime love, Mimi O'Donnell: two daughters and a son. The youngest was just 5 years old. We've read a lot about the Hoffman's movie legacy and the loss his fans are experiencing, but we'll probably never read about the real loss: What happens to Cooper, Willa and Tallulah now that they have to grow up without their dad?
And do any of us have a clue what it must be like for Mimi to mourn while also tending to three kids under the age of 12? Or what it will be like for her to explain to them that their dad died of something that ultimately was within his control? What about Heath Ledger, who left behind not just a promising acting career, but a 3-year-old when he overdosed on prescription drugs not far from the NYC apartment where Hoffman's body was found?
When I read these stories, I pray for the kids, I pray for the spouse or partner and I pray for the dead. I pray that they all find peace and forgiveness, and that the kids don’t follow in their parent’s footsteps. I pray that they find the help they need when they need it.
Because anyone who has ever lived with addiction knows that the story may start with the addict but it rarely ends with the addict. I've lived with it, and I can tell you firsthand: The emotional (and sometimes physical) effects of addiction have a ripple effect that goes far beyond the person who has the problem.
I understand this after having spent years in my own 12-step program. My family and I are all part of a special club I turn to for solace whenever I read about someone dying from this horrible disease. Because no matter how you look at it, addiction is a family disease. No one wakes up and decides to become an addict or to wreak havoc on the lives of the people they love. It just happens.
Take, for instance, the random night at dinner when my mother was too drunk to help me with my homework. Or the conversation I had with my dad when he was too high to hear what I was saying. Or my first miscarriage, when my mother told me she couldn't relate to my loss and got off the phone.
Once these memories are triggered by a celebrity overdose story, I become restless and emotional. For the next few days, I follow the story to see if anyone is writing about what the kids must be feeling. What I find instead are the typical comments that represent both sides of the addiction debate: "Addicts are selfish jerks who take their own lives" vs. "Addicts are ruled by their demons; They don’t have a choice." But I don't think the situation is that black and white.
Even when I share my thoughts with friends on Facebook, people with whom I feel I can lower my guard and talk about a subject that affects me in a deeply personal way, I hear from many people that I'm crazy, that addicts are broken and have no control over their addiction. Maybe Facebook is not the forum to share how painful it is to witness another child lose her innocence because of a selfish parent.
Yes, I think Philip Seymour Hoffman was selfish.
But I also think he was an addict and, by definition, without the ability to say "no" to the substance, regardless of the consequences. For me the two are not mutually exclusive; They are a part of one whole—a whole that comprises the addicted mind.
What makes me most angry is the relapse that follows years of sobriety. To have a parent come back from the brink, spend years sober and then relapse is tragic, because that addict had a chance to change the story. Someone has to break the cycle of addiction in a family. For Hoffman, 20+ years of sobriety was that chance. That's not to say, though, that length of sobriety is directly related to someone's chances of staying sober; The demons of addiction are always around the corner. But instead of picking up the phone to call his dealer, he could have picked up the phone to ask for help.
The only way I’ve ever witnessed addicts stay sober is by having a program—and using it. And when the demons raise their ugly heads, they pick up the "lead phone" and ask for help.
The same goes for me. I am only as clean-minded as my next meeting. My demons are different from an addict’s; My relapse is different, too. My relapse happens when I succumb to deep-rooted beliefs that my parents didn’t love me, that they picked drugs and alcohol over me. That's the most vulnerable place for me to go, because at my weakest I believed that they did leave me for drugs and alcohol. Then I start to feel unlovable and alone. That's why I pray for the children addicts leave behind: Because I know what it feels like to be abandoned and not understand why.
When I relapse, I too have to pick up the lead phone and call someone who understands. Someone who can help talk me back into my right mind. I work on remembering that my parents and the other addicts in my life did the best they could; that they came from abuse and addiction; that they didn't have Bill W. to help them when I was a child. And that they felt abandoned and alone, too. My tears aren't tears of self-pity; They bring compassion and hope.
So the next time a famous person succumbs to an addiction, I will look for the children. I don't think I could stop myself even if I wanted to. Even if no one ever reports what they are going through because we’re too interested in the gruesome circumstances of a celebrity’s death and the nostalgia of the public legacy he or she left behind.
As they say, "There but for the grace of God go I." Addiction is a family disease, and I have no idea how I escaped its grip. But I can promise you, I'm doing everything in my power to let it end with me.
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