The details started to leak out, as they do in this TMZ age, in the immediate hours following his death: He was found in the bathroom of his apartment, wearing just a t-shirt and shorts, with a needle still in his arm. There were dozens of bags of a specific well-known street brand of heroin, as well as various prescription pills, strewn around his home. There were theories that the heroin might have been cut with fentanyl, an extremely dangerous and potentially lethal drug combination. (Preliminary tests would then indicate that there was no fentanyl found in the heroin.) At the time of his death, his three young children were at a playground just a block and a half away. He’d separated from his long-time partner, the mother of his children, months earlier and had subsequently moved into the very apartment where he would be found dead. He reportedly appeared “drunk and disheveled” in the days leading up to his death. At a recent film festival, he told a reporter that he was a heroin addict. And, of course, people in the know had been worried.
Despite all of these bullet points, when I started learning more about the unfortunate death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, my singular focus was on the fact that he had a couple decades of sobriety under his belt when he reportedly relapsed sometime last spring.
Early in my wife’s sobriety, she kept meticulous track of her “days.” This information is so important that it becomes a vital part of one’s introduction — “hello, my name is… and I have 27 days sober/clean” — in the world of Anonymous meetings. It was important to us, too. We were sure to celebrate all of the anniversaries (it’s been three months, now a year!) as though we were marking notches on a door frame, each mark slightly more hopeful than the last.
When my wife relapsed and The Count had to start over at Day One, we had discussions about how important this day tracking thing even was. For her, I think it was initially as devastating as the relapse itself, this feeling that all of that work had been in vain or somehow now “didn’t count.” There would be the shame of telling people, particularly her friends in recovery, as her introduction (and thus, her position in the hierarchy) would now require an important revision. For me, it meant reverting back to a routine of waiting by the phone whenever she was out of my sight, refusing to sleep at night “just in case something happened,” replacing planning-for-the-future language with the recommended one-day-at-a-time rhetoric, and the return of the same soul-crushing anxiety that had just started to abate.
What we learn from the Philip Seymour Hoffmans of the world, though, is that the disease of addiction can be a persistent and calculating enemy-in-wait, no matter how many days, months, or years one has acquired. This isn’t necessarily new knowledge, of course, as it’s one of the fundamental tenets of any Twelve Step program, but it’s a point driven home when an accomplished man with a young-adult-worth of sobriety cashes it in for a needle in the arm, and then dies.
The challenge becomes learning how to live — and I mean, truly live — in addiction’s enemy-in-wait reality. We must find a way to celebrate all of the gifts and possibilities that recovery has to offer, without allowing ourselves to succumb to the arrogance of complacency when the last relapse becomes a increasingly faded memory. More than anything, we must learn to be ever-vigilant without being ever-fearful. It’s a delicate balance that I’ve not yet mastered.
But I’m working on it.