by Kristin Fontaine
I’ve been thinking about addiction as a result of all the news swirling around Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death. Many columnists, bloggers, and twitter users have condemned him for losing control. However, one of the best things I read was the suggestion that we should celebrate the extra 20 years he gave himself by being clean for as long as he was. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to look at people who pull out of addiction and get clean as more similar to cancer patients whose disease has gone into remission. We would never say some of the things that have been said about Mr Hoffman to someone whose cancer reemerged after years of being in remission.
Given the powerful nature of addiction, and how unpredictable it is from person to person, celebrating the gains rather than demonizing him for his failings seems the kinder way of looking at the situation. I have friends who lost family to addiction, lived with an addict, seen the damage left behind for children of addicts, so I am not inexperienced in the devastation addiction can leave it its wake.
Looking at the extra time gained, gives credit where credit is due to the tremendous battle some addicts face in trying to survive their addiction. Moving more firmly to a disease model of addiction (and for that matter mental health issues in general) acknowledges the effort the person made to control something that we don’t even fully understand medically yet. So the next time I am tempted to say ‘what a waste’ when I hear of someone who ‘fell off the wagon’ and died as the result of addiction, I want to refocus and treat them like anyone else who has been diagnosed with a severe, recurring illness, and take joy in the extra time that was granted by their effort to get help in the first place.
As a result of recent personal experience and of thinking and reading the many thoughtful posts that came out as a result of Mr Hoffman’s death, I came up with my own metaphor for addiction.
I had an itchy patch of skin that didn’t want to heal– in part because I kept scratching it. In the moment, it felt very good to scratch the itch, but I kept damaging myself in the process. Very short term relief set the healing back each time.
Now my rational brain recognized this and I did my best not to scratch and damage the healing skin. My rational brain can remind me to use my medication and to trim my fingernails; however, if you’ve ever had a really bad itch, you know that the moment your mind is on something else, you look down and find that you are bleeding once more. All the rational brain thinking can’t overcome the sneaky hind-brain when the rational brain is distracted, sleepy, or overwhelmed.
I don’t know if I can convey the level of compulsion in words, but the experience has given me a visceral reason to celebrate every day an addicted person stays clean rather than blame them for losing a battle that they did not get to choose in the first place.
Kristin Fontaine blogs at Ceramic Episcopalian.