For weeks after Heath Ledger's body was found in an apartment in New York City in 2008, curious folks would come into the store in SoHo where I worked and ask, “Do you know where Heath's building is?” Of course I knew where it was; everyone who worked or lived between Houston and Canal streets knew exactly where 421 Broome Street was. But I pretended I didn't know. Their intrusiveness made my stomach hurt. Whose business was it to know where Heath died – besides the people who actually knew and loved him?
When Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his Manhattan apartment this past Sunday, I felt like those nosy people. I wanted to know everything. Mostly because, like many deaths involving circumstances of which people were unaware, his death felt unreal. How could this happen? How can someone who is under such a bright spotlight do heroin? These questions are complex. People are complex. Addicts are complex people.
The immediate information surrounding Hoffman's death was both murky and sensational – he was found on the bathroom floor with a needle in his arm. There was evidence that this was not his first foray into the current relapse that had killed him. The amount of heroin found in his apartment has changed in size over the last few days – it was 50 bags. It was 70 bags. It was a five- or ten-day supply.
I don't have a TV and I disconnected myself from social networking last Sunday to avoid the Super Bowl mania, but I did catch some of the Hoffman speculation/chatter Monday night on the television at the gym. Dr. Drew was on Anderson Cooper, spinning his theories around addict behavior and the possible scenarios of Hoffman's recent heroin usage – apparently the actor entered rehab last year, relapsing after more than two decades clean and sober. Dr. Drew insinuated that maybe Hoffman wasn't sober that whole time. This made me mad.
I'm a recovering alcoholic. I can't pretend I know what it's like to deal with an addiction like heroin, because all addictions and the people who have them are different. But I do know what it's like to struggle with the idea of sobriety on a daily basis. For the past seven years and seven months, I have gone through many stages with my addiction – at some points, I've thought I was cured and hated the thought of perpetually identifying as “recovering.” Why couldn't there be an end to insobriety? I didn't drink at one point in my life, so why couldn't I just go back to being that person, the un-drunk one?]
Just when I would get bullish and big-headed about being done with being a drunk, I would be wrestled back into reality, usually by a reoccurring nightmare where I was getting wasted and no one could stop me. I have had these dreams regularly since I got sober. In waking life, I still want to get smashed. When I first quit drinking, I was often asked if I would ever go back to drinking, because how could I enjoy holidays and family celebrations and all of the other usual events where we drink to celebrate without being a normal, glass-clinking participant? My response was and is always the same: When my desire to get completely obliterated disappears, I'll have a drink.
But that's the thing: It has never disappeared. I don't know how to drink like a normal person. I've never wanted to have a glass of wine with dinner or a champagne toast at midnight. I have wanted to down six bottles of cheap wine and tear through a few six-packs of Miller High Life. I don't know the idea of “one drink.” I just know addiction and the constant, wobbling balance between invincibility and total failure.
I don't know where Hoffman was in his course of addiction and life when he died. But I do know that as much as addiction is discussed in a public way and as much as we try to remove the stigma of substance abuse, it still can feel like it has to be a secret. Heroin is especially secret.
A year and a half ago, I helped someone I loved go through a home heroin detox. I do not recommend ever doing this on your own: Untrained people should not be in charge of monitoring someone close to them while they withdraw. When you are emotionally invested in a human and they are going through indescribable pain right in front of you and you know drugs would make them feel better, it's hard to make good decisions. Enabling is a really loose term; loving can get in the way of helping someone, and that can turn into enabling.
But this person made it out alive and by all accounts is doing well, still clean. I learned a lot about heroin along the way – mostly because I didn't know anything about it to begin with. I didn't know what it looked like, where to get it, how to get it or who would even do it in the first place. It's kind of a mythical drug to me, one that has been romanticized by the music culture I grew up obsessing over. But heroin is neither mythical nor romantic, at least for me, a body that has never done it.
Heroin is like a lot of drugs in that if you don't do it or don't know someone who does it, you don't know it's there. Heroin addiction, like a lot of addiction, is secret. Addiction is like a secret club where you don't even know the other members until something bad happens to them. Sometimes it is really bad, and they die. When I was first told by someone I love that they were doing heroin, I immediately started thinking about the past. What were the signs I had missed?
Surely I would remember seeing something, anything, a clue that I had glossed over that said “This person you love with all of your heart is doing heroin.” I scanned my memory, and definitely saw some weird behavior that I had passed off as flakiness. I also recalled some ghosts – two guys who used to hang around my friend, lurking in the shadows, never fully materializing so much as to shake my hand. They were around a lot in the months before I was told about the heroin. They were part of the secret club.
Once my friend got clean, those ghosts went away. But the thing is, there are always new ghosts. I still worry that they will find new ghosts and relapse, but I have to have faith. I worry about myself falling off the wagon, too. But most of my ghosts are gone from my life, and besides, I didn't need ghosts to find alcohol. I don't know what Philip Seymour Hoffman's ghosts looked like, but I know they were there. Still, because so much of our time with the disease of addiction is spent in isolation, it can be a lonely place. Addiction is the most desolate club to belong to.
Bree Davies is a Denver-based writer whose work appears in Westword, XO Jane, Alternative Press and various other Internet wide open spaces. Be her voyeur, or better yet, let her stalk you on Twitter: @cocodavies.
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