Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Addiction, Mental Health and a Society That Fails to Understand Either

Philip Seymour Hoffman died yesterday. He was found with a needle still wedged into his arm, heroin believed to be the culprit.

When I heard of his passing yesterday, it hit me in the gut a little bit. Not because I know him, not because I know his family members or friends. Not, much to the dismay of what some may believe, because he was an award winning actor.

It hit me because he isn't the only face of addiction, he is just the most recent one. He's just the face that most people recognize, the one that we were familiar with, the one that we came to love through his work on the screen.

Whenever someone famous dies, there seems to be this immediate attempt by far too many people to make their life and death insignificant, as though the death of a celebrity somehow negates the death of all the other people who died on that given day. People attempt to place more value on the lives of some people, less on others, claiming that the celebration of the death of a celebrity is a misplaced outlaying of our efforts. I argue the opposite, obviously, particularly in situations like this one where there is so much opportunity for us to learn about addiction, about mental illness, about why lives end this tragic way.

The opportunity is there, without question. The issue is whether we, as a society choose to seize it, or whether we chalk this loss up to drug use and wave it off indifferently as another selfish life wasted.

It seems we do the latter.

Plenty of opportunities have been presented to us in the past, of lives abruptly ended this way. Of people who happen to be famous, but also struggle with the same demons that many of us ordinary folks do, meeting sudden death in this way.

Philip became addicted to heroin after struggling with abusing prescription pain medications, an all too familiar and increasingly common path to this addiction. This is not the addiction we want to think it is, the sordid one that happens in alleys, nor is it one reserved only for those in positions of privilege. Heroin doesn't discriminate. Its use is up 75% in the past few years, and the demographics of the users have shifted. 

It's easier to think that drug addiction happens to other people, to them, over there. Reality tells us that it happens far more often than we want to believe. It's a false sense of security.

Chances are that someone you know is addicted to drugs right now, you just may not realize it.

Or you do know, but you hide their addiction because of the social stigma. 

Or you don't hide it, but you shame them instead. 

Or you don't shame them, but you slowly phase them out of your life because you don't want to be around them anymore or because you just can't do it anymore. 

Or you keep them around, but talk about them behind their backs, discuss how sad it is that they refuse to get help, vow to be better than they are.

Or they do try to get help and sometimes they get better for a while. 

Or they relapse and die just like he did yesterday.

The trouble with drug addiction is that it really isn't about the drugs, no matter how much most people seem to believe that. Drug addiction is a means to an end. It begins usually as a way to try something new, to try and get high, to try and transport yourself somewhere else, to try and just feel better for a minute.

Most drug use is self medication for the things that people either can't or won't cope with in real life. The root of most of all that? Mental health conditions, the huge piece of this issue that we find ourselves ignoring all too often every time drugs are involved.

Nancy Reagan taught us all that drugs are bad. D.A.R.E. programs taught us that users are criminals, they are bad people. No one ever bothered to tell us that the vast majority of them were in need of help from a mental health system that largely doesn't exist.

And you know what happened?

People believed them. I can't even begin to tell you all the things I saw flying through my newsfeed yesterday in the wake of his death. Proclamations that he was selfish, that he was a waste, that he should have been happy because he was rich and famous. People who decreed from the mountaintops that if he would have just tried harder, he would have been better. That it's his fault that he died.

In reality, he struggled with depression most of his life. He got clean. He was recently in rehab.

Addicts don't want to be addicts.

Addicts don't want to die.

Addicts don't want to throw their lives away.

Addicts don't want their children to grow up without parents.

They just want to feel better. They just want to feel normal. They just want to stop feeling everything else for a little while.

Addicts are people, just like you and me.

Addicts come in all forms, dependent on many different things, drugs just being one version of dependence.

The problem is that our system is limited, laboring under the illusion that drug addiction is a criminal issue, a medical issue on the fringes that can be fixed with proper rehab. That all ignores the fact that drugs aren't the problem...what led that person to drugs in the first place is the problem. The drugs are just a means to an end.

Rehab doesn't fix addicts. It primarily treats the physical symptoms of withdrawal.

Prison doesn't fix addicts. It just puts them in a cage for a while.

Even death doesn't fix addicts. It just leaves the people who love them here, forever wondering how different things might have been.

The only way to really deal with addiction is one that is multi-faceted, one that makes us uncomfortable. It is messy and complicated and takes a lifetime of effort. It sometimes involves relapses and second chances and third chances. It involves support, sometimes sponsors. It involves therapy and counseling until whatever the root cause is has been revealed and addressed. It involves consideration of not just the physical withdrawal, but the emotional withdrawal, the social withdrawal, the psychological withdrawal. It requires a mental health system with adequate resources, which clearly doesn't exist. It requires us to do better. It requires support instead of judgement.

And sometimes, even when all those things exist, it fails. It fails because addiction can take people and swallow them whole. It can rob them of everything they value, everyone they love. It can strip them of everything they care about, rob them of reason and logic. It can convince them that they aren't worthy, that they have failed not just themselves, but everyone else. It tells them that they are broken and irreparable. Then it shoves them back down and does it again.

Our society says it failed because they didn't try hard enough, because they were selfish, because they were stupid.

How exactly is saying things like this going to help anyone?

The short answer - it isn't. It just allows us to believe that if we try hard enough, if we care about other people enough, if we are smart enough, we can avoid addiction. Our false sense of security hurts those who need help the most.

Never mind the damage done to the people they leave behind.

To those who claim Philip's death isn't tragic, I ask you to think about his children. I'm sure they would disagree with you.

Until you've been there, you can't know what it is like.

Until you've watched someone you love try and claw their way out only to be dragged back in again, you can't know what it is like.

Until you've seen someone throw everything away just to feel better for a moment, you can't know what it is like.

Until you've dealt with someone desperately in need of help who turned to self medicating instead, you can't know what it is like.

Until you've had to tease out where the line between believing in someone and enabling them is, you can't know what it is like.

Until you've had to make choices no one should ever have to make, you can't know what it is like.

Until you've done all you can to help someone who doesn't want it, you can't know what it is like.

We all have our demons. We all have our issues.

Many of us are closer to being addicts than we would ever admit out loud.

Some of us know how easy it would be to turn.

Some of us are addicts already.

Some of us already walk the line.Rest in peace, Philip. I hope you've found some now. My love to all those who loved you.