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As Truman Capote, the role that won him the Academy Award.

As Truman Capote, the role that won him the Academy Award.

It’s being widely reported that Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose. He was found in a West Village apartment with the sharp still in his arm and several bags nearby.

He had 23 years sober before he relapsed on painkillers and heroin in 2012.

In "Almost Famous," as legendary 1970s music critic Lester Bangs.

In “Almost Famous,” as legendary 1970s music critic Lester Bangs.

The news literally knocked the wind out of me and I cried, the way I cried the day I heard David Foster Wallace (another person recovering from addiction) hanged himself. My first thought in both cases was selfish: Now we never get any more of their brilliant work. 

My second thought was for their partners, and for Hoffman’s kids. Hoffman had—has? had?—three kids. “Young children,” they are described in the New York Times story. Village residents who saw him around the neighborhood are describing him on Twitter as a generous dude who was kind and unpretentious when he brought his kids to the coffee shops.

As the kind, unpretentious home-health worker in "Magnolia."

As the kind, unpretentious home-health worker in “Magnolia.”

I loved him in this role in “Magnolia.” There is a video circulating on Twitter, a clip from “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” showing him being shot up with drugs and mumbling while he nods. The author of the Tweet wrote,

How art more than imitates life.

Well, sure. Those of us who used to nod out may remember how to act like that. It’s more challenging to really BE kind and unpretentious. I prefer to remember him in this role—the attentive nurse who helps Tom Cruise’s father die.

(There’s an even better scene here. The dying guy is played by Jason Robards, who was a recovering alcoholic. Robards’s character admits how shitty he feels about having cheated on his wife, and later Hoffman’s character takes pity on him in the extremity of the guy’s suffering and uses the morphine to put him out of his misery, kissing the guy’s forehead while he dies. A bunch of commenters blasted this scene by calling it for example, “white-knight pussy propaganda,” but to me it looked like two recovering drunks listening to the wreckage of the past—a practice that is sometimes criticized by those who hate 12-step-recovery as being holier-than-thou superfluous moral bullshit, but which can be very helpful for recovery if it’s done well.)


The fact is, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work made him an extraordinary artist, but with regard to this disease, he was just an ordinary person with addiction. 

The illness of addiction is the most endemic and perhaps the most invisible in our society. It is connected with so many other illnesses—HIV, heart diseases, lung diseases, liver diseases, cancers of all kinds; and also depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses—as well as car accidents, accidental shootings, murders, and other forms of death. PLEASE LISTEN: every 19 minutes an American dies of a drug overdose. Here in Pittsburgh two dozen have died in the past two weeks from a fentanyl-spiked cut of heroin. That cut is making its rounds to bordering states, and I wonder whether that’s what killed him. I’m glad fentanyl didn’t kill me

These numbers ought to be unacceptable to any sane citizen or leader—and remember, we elect the leaders.

As someone who writes and speaks about the dangers of this illness and the possibilities of recovery, news like this makes me feel at once nearly despairing and also recommitted to letting the public know that with appropriate help people with this disease can recover.

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