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Phillip Seymour Hoffman And The Stigma Of Addiction

When the news broke about the death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the collective reaction was one of sadness and shock. The versatile actor with a beautiful family, amazing talent, brilliant energy, and so much more to share was gone at 46. Soon after the story hit, an inevitable question spread like wildfire in comment threads across the Internet: “Why would someone with so much throw it all away?”

While we may never know the real reason for Hoffman’s spiral into addiction, we can look at why many individuals become addicted. It’s possible that they arrive at a point where a mountain of emotional density has accumulated and the agony they’re facing becomes more prominent than their common sense. Hoffman wasn’t stupid. He was a very intelligent man. But if there’s one thing that can make an intelligent person lose their good judgment, it’s pain. The pain and the energy of sorrow become so unmanageable they can’t be contained, and any capacity for reason and rational thought goes out the window. And if you’re a high profile celebrity, your pain is only exacerbated by the absolute loneliness of success.

Everyone has his or her fair share of theories about what drives a celebrity to the brink, but the truth is, we don’t know. We don’t know the people we’re gossiping about nor are we privy to their private struggles. We see them in print and on movie screens, but we have no idea what’s actually going on in their real lives. We view the rich and famous from the outside and put them on pedestals, but they often don’t see themselves that way. Be it a traffic cop, schoolteacher or television star, no one is immune to anguish and loneliness. Their flowing energy has hit a standstill, and the void of isolation gets so unbearable they can no longer sustain who they are. A certain threshold of pain is reached, and they feel they can’t go on.

In our modern society, the stigma of addiction is certainly a factor that keeps people living in shame and stops them from getting the help they need. If there were no judgment around addiction and individuals weren’t blacklisted and pigeonholed but embraced and offered an opportunity to transcend it, then drug dependence and overdoses would not be so prevalent. We as a culture need look at how we handle drug addicts – even the famous ones – so they don’t end up a hollow shell of a person or a ridiculed punch line on every late night talk show. True, they may have chosen to do drugs, but they did not choose to become addicts.

We don’t always know why someone succumbs to addiction or how one of the most well respected, Oscar winning actors of our generation dies on the floor, alone, with a needle in his arm. We don’t know why the people we perceive to “have it all” grapple with crippling feelings of unworthiness and self-doubt. All we know is there is sadness, not just for Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but also for those who battle addiction, who need help, and who die alone no matter who they are.