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Philip Seymour Hoffman and the plague of addiction

By Dr. Jeffrey Sendi, New Oakland Medical DirectorIMG_0295

The death of the fabulously talented and accomplished actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman from a heroin overdose, sent shock waves through the hoffman 1entertainment world and once again elicited a slew of ill-informed and malicious responses. The gist was that addicts are weak. The uninformed think that people can “kick the habit,” but in truth, they can’t.

Dr. Drew Pinsky, an addiction expert who hosts a nightly show on HLN, said, “To view addiction as something that’s “kicked” or is a “demon” is a crazy notion in my world. The fact is, once the switch is thrown on addiction, it’s a chronic, lifelong condition that needs to be managed every day much the way a diabetic has to take insulin every day. And if they don’t take their insulin, their blood sugars go out of control and the same is true of addiction. If they’re not practicing their treatment on a regular basis, they will use — it’s inevitable.”

At New Oakland, we are well aware that addiction is a form of mental illness, and one of our specialties is addiction counseling. Addiction changes the brain, disturbing a person’s normal hierarchy of needs and desires and substituting new priorities connected with procuring and using the drug. The result is an inability to control impulses, and that makes addiction similar to other mental illnesses.

 Chilling fact: More people will die of opiate addiction in the next 30 days than died in the 9/11 tragedy. Philip Seymour Hoffman is just the most famous.

In recent years, other great entertainers who overdosed also brought addiction onto the front page: Chris Farley (cocaine, morphine), Heath Ledger (prescription pills), Amy Winehouse (alcohol poisoning), and Anna Nicole Smith (mixture of medications). But they are just the ones who stand out, the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

It’s somewhat understandable that people who don’t have addictive brains tend to write addiction off as a weakness, but that’s just willful ignorance. Pinsky says, “People in the recovering community know that their disease is a brain disorder that’s lurking and ready to take advantage of any opportunity it has to re-emerge. It’s a motivational disturbance where the usual motivational priorities like our loved ones, our work, our very survival, start to diminish in importance relative to this one overwhelming priority, which is using. And that takes over thinking and it takes over the emotional systems.”

Key to New Oakland’s addiction expertise is the understanding that the person and the disease are separate. In Hoffman’s case, the career and the disease were separate entities. In his case, he claimed to have been sober for fully 20 years and allegedly had a “slip-up” last year. A slip is a slip. But a full-blown relapse is when people dismiss recovery and don’t participate in any more treatment. That’s when they die.

As the 9/11 tragedy analogy suggests, about 100 people in the U.S. die of drug overdoses every day. Many are like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who by all accounts was a wonderful person and a magnificent artist. Sadly, he also suffered from a chronic medical problem, no different than if he’d had a condition like cancer. In his case, it was addiction, and that shouldn’t diminish any of his admirable characteristics.