Open letter to the Globe & Mail’s M. Wente on Phillp Seymour Hoffman’s death

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I read Margret Wente’s response to the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the Globe and Mail and needed to respond to it.

The link for the article is here, please read it.

This is my response…

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

― Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Dear Ms Wente:

Where to start… Let me get on my High Horse and take a short ride down to Umbrage-town.

Although opiates were not my drug of choice – I am and old-school alcoholic – the attitude you display in this article is one that is familiar to me. It is an attitude that I encountered in my family and social circle growing up and still encounter in my career as a Psychotherapist and Pastoral Counsellor. It is this sort of “righteous” contempt for addicts, viewing addiction as some sort of moral failing that kept me from reaching out for help for many years.

You, and many others, see addiction as avoidable, that if the addict was stronger, more moderate, less of a weakling that addiction would never happen. You are unable to generate an empathetic response to Mr. Hoffman’s death as you simply cannot believe that addiction is not simply a “bad habit.”

It is my habit to listen to podcasts while on the TTC. It is my habit to start the day with 2 cups of tea (strong) with milk and sugar. It is my habit to write in bed. I have a particular fondness (really, my dentist would say it is a bad habit) for scotch mints…

My alcoholism is not a habit.

Dr. Gabor Maté, wrote in your august publication (“Embraced by the Needle” Globe and Mail, January 2007) ‘Addictions always originate in unhappiness, even if hidden. They are emotional anesthetics; they numb pain.  The first question — always — is not “Why the addiction?” but “Why the pain?”

Why the pain? For myself, I have been able to answer that question and learn to manage that pain in my life. So, at the moment, I am sober and happy and healthy. For many years I was unable to do that. The sum of my life and family of origin had simply not equipped me to manage that pain.

As an addict, and working with addicts myself, I recognize the pain that destroyed Mr. Hoffman. I can speculate over the causes, weep over the fact and he died alone and in despair, and remember my own pain that also brought me to the same place in my life that Mr. Hoffman was when he found the vein, stopped and lived an eternity in that moment before saying “f**k it” and injected…ending his pain forever.

I have been there.

Pain exists in the brain. If your leg is crushed then you would be medicated for the pain and no one would think the less of you. No one would call you selfish or pathetic when that pain was medicated. There is no difference for the brain between physical and emotional pain. If there were, then opiates would not work for both.

The amount of privilege that you display in your article is staggering. “A pathetic junkie” is who you could have been if the lottery of your life had come out differently. You, like Mr. Hoffman, could have found yourself in your underwear surrounded by heroin and knowing that the needle was the only way to manage and eventually end your pain.

I can only imagine from your writing that it is your privilege, or perhaps you have known the pain yourself that comes from being close to an addict, that robs you of any compassion and allows you to view Mr. Hoffman as “selfish.” I suppose that persons who are depressed should just cheer up? Survivors of emotional and physical abuse and rape should just “suck it up” and move on…Yikes, that is the perfect recipe for the creation of an addict! In fact, I cannot think of an addict that I know who is not a survivor of abuse in some form or other. Dr. Maté would tell you that 100% of his female addicts from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver are victims of sexual abuse. But I suppose that if they would just stop being so selfish their addictions would end….

You state that most addicts “cure themselves.” This is simply not true. If they were able to cure themselves than they were not addicts. It can happen though but it is the miraculous exception rather than the rule. That being said, over 90% of those who became addicted to heroin while serving in Vietnam during the war “cured themselves” within 2 years of returning home. This was no exercise in restraint or of moral fortitude or that the “price” and consequences of their addiction became too high. They “cured themselves” because the intolerable pain of being caught up in the insanity of that war was removed from them on their return to safety. The removal of the pain was enough that they no longer needed to medicate it.

Stigmatizing and shaming addicts is the least effective way of treating this issue. There is a continuum that runs between abusing drugs and addiction. For those who abuse drugs rather than being addicts, a variety of methods can work: moderation management, education, consequences in their life, all can be effective. However, even the creators and most ardent supporters of Moderation Management, M.B. and L.C. Sobel, after many years of trumpeting that modality reluctantly concluded that with someone who is actually addicted, none of the above work.

Punishment and consequences will never “cure” an addict as the failure of the “War on Drugs” has shown us. And, I would point out that punishing an addict for his addiction is as effective a treatment as shooting a mentally ill person… although I suppose that following your reasoning in this area you might applaud the Toronto Police Service’s initiatives in solving mental health issues one, or several, 9mm rounds at a time…

We expect cigarette smokers to kick their disgusting, unhealthy, anti-social habit, and think less of them if they don’t. So why are we so forgiving when it comes to those who indulge the disgusting, unhealthy, and very anti-social habit of demonizing and “other-izing” those who are ill, or in pain, or simply not living with the same level of privlege as “us”?

The disease model of addiction is imperfect and worth arguing over. It does however allow us to engage with addicts without starting from a place of moral judgment. Your husband’s dismissal of Mr. Hoffman as “an asshole” may well be true. I have rarely met a person in the rooms of AA, CA, NA etc. that I couldn’t say wasn’t an “asshole” at times. As a former seminarian, I can categorically state that the same can be said for almost member of a community of faith, a clergy person, or even the most haughty prelate. What I can say is that Mr. Hoffman, you, your husband, myself, all the sketchy drunks in the world, secular and church-going people and pathetic junkies while being “assholes” are also beautiful, broken, desperate, frightened, hurt, loving, lovable, and heartbreakingly human.

That is the epitaph that I would like to see you write for Mr. Hoffman. That he is just like you, and like me – an asshole but still beloved and worthy of love. None of us get out of this alive and I weep for Mr. Hoffman as I do for all of us who live with pain…that is for all who are human.

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