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How Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Death is Helping Me Understand My Own Struggles With Addiction [Along with the unlikely help

Posted Feb 04 2014 12:41am


Sorry, had to do it. But he really was amazing, right?

“Who’s Philip Seymour Hoffman?” I asked loudly, interrupting the noise of that football game yesterday that I was so interested in I spent the whole time either re-enacting Frozen using Barbies with Jelly Bean or surfing the web on my phone.

“Game maker from Hunger Games?” my husband answered. “Why?”

Oh, he’s dead .”

As I’m sure you’ve well heard by now, the 46-year-old Oscar winner and father of three died of a heroin overdose on Sunday while the rest of us were making blue and orange fruit skewers* and green and turquoise cookies in preparation for the Bruno Mars show. In reading up about his history and interviews on the subject of his decades-long struggle with substance abuse I found myself relating to him more than I rightfully should. His story has been rattling around in my brain all day today and I was quite confused as to why I have such a feeling of compassion for someone who I don’t think I can even say that I’ve seen one of his movies. He wasn’t personally meaningful to me – but his story of addiction was. And then I read this really amazing piece on drug addiction called “My Life Without Drugs” by Russell Brand in The Guardian. (I know. Yes, that Russell Brand. It’s beautifully written. I’m serious. Go read it.)

In it, Brand talks about his own sordid past with heroin and fraught present with its specter. He begins, “The last time I thought about taking heroin was yesterday.” And then he explains: “It is 10 years since I used drugs or drank alcohol and my life has improved immeasurably. I have a job, a house, a cat, good friendships and generally a bright outlook. The price of this is constant vigilance because the disease of addiction is not rational.”

Constant vigilance. I found myself nodding.

In talking about seeing old video of himself getting high, Brand says, “What is surprising is that my reaction is not one of gratitude for the positive changes I’ve experienced but envy at witnessing an earlier version of myself unencumbered by the burden of abstinence.”

It’s not the same, not at all, but it perfectly encapsulated the brief moment of heart-wrenching melancholy I felt this morning at the gym as I watched an excruciatingly thin woman hop from one elliptical to the next as she kept maxing out the time limit per machine. There was a look on her face – a mixture of determination and fear – that I recognized well. I’m not saying she has an eating disorder (that’s certainly not something I’m comfortable diagnosing) but she made me remember – deeply and painfully, albeit briefly – the time when I was an exercise addict. And, like Brand, I wasn’t scared of her. I didn’t feel sorry for her. I didn’t even want to help her. I was jealous of her: alone in the cocoon of her (perceived) addiction, so wrapped up in getting her fix that she had no space left to worry about anything else. I wanted to be her, even knowing where that path leads. I miss that comfort. The burden of abstinence, indeed.

Brand continues, “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’m not an alcoholic or drug addict but, without saying too much, both run deep and wide in my family history. And I do not want to minimize the very real devastation of substance abuse or even compare it to “softer” addictions like exercise yet what Brand described doesn’t seem the least bit odd to me, not at all. Because what I think he meant is that 10% of people have addictive personalities and I am definitely in that minority.

Philip Seymour Hoffman. Russell Brand. Charlotte Andersen. I never thought I’d put the three of us together in the Anne-of-Green-Gables dingy of kindred spirits and yet here we are holding hands and telling tales of life-altering addiction. 

Heroin. Ice cream. Toxic relationships. Alcohol. Reality TV. Buttered Pop Tarts. Exercise. Adderall. Shopping. Fill in the blank: I’m addicted to ________ . For some it’s easy to narrow down our favorite crutches, for others of us it’s easier to rule out what we’re not addicted to. Hi, my name is Charlotte and I’m an addict… to lots of things. Sure, I’m most famous (poor word choice, I should say infamous) for being an exercise addict and boy was that one fun! But that’s not the only thing I’ve been consumed by. In the past I’ve also been subsumed by relationships, my job (no matter what my profession – from waitress to system admin to teacher to writer – I’ve always been a workaholic), a certain TV show, food, the internet (yeah, I said it), candy and reading. And when I say I’m “addicted” to these things, I don’t mean in the jokey way that people talk about needing chocolate every day. No, I mean I get obsessed with these things to the point where I’ll lose hours and hours down the rabbit hole, be filled with self-recrimination and then it inevitably leads to me always being “on program” trying to fix myself. Heck, like some of you have pointed out over the years, I’m probably even addicted to being addicted because I spend so much time  worrying about how to “fix” myself .

While I’ve long known about my predilection to get (really really) into things, I never really had a word for it until a conversation with a good friend several years ago. “I have an addictive personality,” he said by way of explaining his past littered with substance abuse, gambling, porn, obsessive relationships and other issues. “I just trade one addiction in for another but it’s always something.” As soon as he said it I gasped, “ME TOO!” Maybe I’m just addicted to diagnosing myself with whatever anyone else has – mental health issues are way more fun with friends! Or perhaps everyone has an addictive nature and I’m just now becoming acquainted with the universality of the human condition. Or maybe, like Brand wrote, some people really are more prone to addictions and I’m one of them. Just like my amazing ability to NEVER pick the right size container for whatever food I’m putting away (seriously,  I’m missing  the piece of my brain that handles spatial issues), perhaps I was born with a propensity for, well, propensities.

According to  Wikipedia, the DSM** of the Internet,

An addictive personality disorder may be defined as a psychological setback that makes a person more susceptible to addictions. This can include anything from drug and alcohol abuse to pornography, gambling, Internet, videogames, food, exercise, work and even relationships with others. Experts describe the spectrum of behaviors designated as addictive in terms of five interrelated concepts which include: patterns, habits, compulsions, impulse control disorders, and physical addiction.

Reading the last six items on that list basically reads like the one-line version of my autobiography. And while I can safely say that I’ve never been addicted to drugs, alcohol, porn or gambling I think it’s more from the (intentional) lack of opportunity than any personal strength. (See? Being LDS, a.k.a. Mormon, has its advantages beyond white teeth and the ability to read Elizabethan English!***) I’m not at all trying to equate my struggles with heroin addiction but I do appreciate the raw insight into addictive behaviors that Brand gives. I still remember  the day I got my endoscopy/colonoscopy  as the best day of my life thanks to the awesome drugs they gave me. I’m not being hyperbolic: I’ve honestly never felt better in my entire life than I did after that shot of Demerol and Versed. For the first and only time in my life that I can remember, I felt absolutely happy. I couldn’t worry about anything no matter how hard I tried. I was just floating in a cloud of perfect well-being – which is saying a lot considering that I had a tube with a camera shoved down my throat and up my butt and they were looking for evidence of cancer. I mean, if there was ever a time in my life when worry would have been appropriate, that would have been it. (On the upside, I use that story to reassure friends who are nervous about getting one of those procedures done.)

That experience, however, combined with the aforementioned family history of substance abuse, has made me refuse all drugs when possible. It wasn’t that I don’t like them. It’s that I loved them so much it terrified me. Consequently the strongest thing I had during or after childbirth was an Ibuprofen. Just like giving up TV a few years ago, this isn’t done out of some claim to the moral high ground but rather a recognition that there are some things I just can’t do moderation in.

Continuing on in  my Wiki journey  of self discovery (that should really be the title of my next book),

“People with addictive personalities are very much sensitive to stress. They have trouble handling situations that they deem frustrating, even if the event is for a very short duration. They often lack self-esteem and will show impulsive behavior such as excessive caffeine consumption, Internet usage, eating of chocolates or other sugar-laden foods, television watching, or even running.

Extraversion, self-monitoring, and loneliness are also common characteristics found in those who suffer from addiction. Individuals who score high on self-monitoring are more prone to developing an addiction. High self-monitors are sensitive to social situations; they act how they think others expect them to act. All they want to do is fit in, hence they are very easily influenced by others. Likewise, those who have low self-esteem also seek peer-approval, therefore they participate in “attractive” activities such as smoking or drinking to try to fit in.

People suffering from APD find it difficult to manage their stress levels. In fact, lack of stress tolerance is a telltale sign of the disorder. They find it difficult to face stressful situations and fight hard to get out of such conditions. Long-term goals prove difficult to achieve because people with APD usually focus on the stress that comes with getting through the short-term goals. Such personalities will often switch to other enjoyable activities the moment that they are deprived of enjoyment in their previous addiction.

Addictive individuals feel highly insecure when it comes to relationships. They may often find it difficult to make commitments in relationships or trust their beloved because of the difficulty they find in achieving long-term goals. They constantly seek approval of others and as a result, these misunderstandings may contribute to the destruction of relationships. People suffering from addictive personality disorder usually undergo depression and anxiety, managing their emotions by developing addiction to alcohol, other types of drugs, or other pleasurable activities.”

That’s a terribly long quote, I know. But  Inability to handle stressSelf-monitoringLow self-esteemInsecurity in relationshipsMood disordersProcrastination ? Holy crap – I’m either reading the story of my life or the plot line to the best romantic comedy ever.

Like many traits, there is a good and a bad side. Did you see  the study  that showed that most highly successful leaders – including US Presidents -  rank high on the psycopathy index? It’s true, the worst and the best among us are psycopaths, particularly when it comes to a trait called “fearless dominance.”  This curse-and-a-blessing factor works for addictive personalities too: My laser focus was one of my first qualities to attract my husband. It was also one of the first to royally tick him off. I am super dedicated. But I also tend to go overboard. (And not just exercise, I’ve had an inordinate number of addictions that have ruled my life in one way or the other.) I feel everything. But I read too much into it and I have a ridiculously hard time letting things go. I can finish a 400-page book in just a few hours (it’s true but I’m not super smart, I just took a speed reading course and anyone can learn to do it). But I will also think of nothing but that book for days.

Even though “addictive personality disorder” is categorized in the DSM-V as legit, not all experts agree on the definition. Says  this NY Times piece on ADP

“But not all addictions are equally harmful and not all behavior that could lead to addiction necessarily does. Although Dr. Hatterer is among those who argue that addictions of all kinds are similar, he finds it useful to classify the abuse of alcohol, barbiturates and narcotics as ”hard addictions” because of the quickness with which such substances affect many aspects of behavior, and adversely influence many people around the abuser. Dr. Hatterer terms compulsive behavior such as excessive smoking, gambling, running, spending or work as ”soft addictions” because the consequences are not immediately felt by the abuser.”

Perhaps this is just one facet of being a “ highly sensitive person ” (a.k.a. an “orchid child” a.k.a. a drama queen) or maybe I’m just a hypochondriac. But whatever it was, it’s felt like a relief to read about it this weekend. And I hope that understanding myself better will lead me to make more effective choices and ultimately become a better person. After all, if I know that I have this tendency toward addiction, I can take steps to prevent it from happening right? I honestly am not sure whether this whole post is a worthwhile discussion or just a strange way to make a stranger’s death about me. (I prefer to think I’m learning from others but tomato, tomatoh?) But while I’m not likely to die from my current addictions (thank heavens), they still greatly reduce my quality of life and capacity to help others. And not all addictions are so soft. Remember my friend, the one who introduced me to the concept of an addictive personality? He’s dead. Like Hoffman, he relapsed into his addictions and died as a consequence.

Constant vigilance is exhausting. The burden of abstinence is heavy. But they’re better than the alternative.

Have you ever struggled with an addiction? How do you deal with it? Would you say you’re one of the 90% or the 10%?  Anyone else have all the feelings about Hoffman’s passing?

* fruit

**Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – the book seen as the definitive guide to psychiatric illness. Which doesn’t mean it’s right all the time but it does make for an interesting snapshot of humanity.

*** Lots of people think that LDS (colloquially known as Mormons) have such shiny white Chiclet teeth because we don’t drink coffee or tea but really it’s a religious addiction to tooth whitening strips. I have no research to back this up but I swear Utah has a higher per capita use of peroxide – both of the tooth and hair variety – than the rest of the nation. (Can I still call myself Mormon if I’m a non-highlighted brunette and my teeth look like corn niblets?! Existential quandary, there.) And we use the King James Translation of the Bible complete with words like “thee” “thou” and “asswage” so when I tell my kids to “Get thee hence to thy resting places before I smother you with my mantle!” they know I’m REALLY serious. Middle names are for the uncreative.

****This post officially wins for most post scripts ever on a GFE blog!


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