My father and I relapsed from our chronic illnesses at almost the same moment in 1994.
With his heart disease, he failed to follow his four-step regimen of recovery (more exercise, less stress, smaller portions of red meat and no more Cuban cigars). With my addiction, I stopped working a health and wellness program that includes four steps and eight more to keep me free from alcohol and other drugs.
No doctor, family member, colleague or insurance company judged my father when he was rushed to the hospital for open-heart surgery. Nobody questioned his previous treatment, his failure to overcome his illness or his commitment to recover. “Get well” is all that everyone wished.
Everybody questioned my relapse. After three years of sobriety, I’d “fallen off the wagon,” as people who don’t understand are wont to say when addiction relapse flares. Even my father likened it to a “crash.” Everyone was hurt, scared and frustrated to the point of being downright angry. I’d walked away from my wife, my baby boys and everything in my life that mattered and had gone to a crack house in the worst part of Atlanta’s inner city. When I finally emerged, my insurance company declined to cover all of my treatment. Nobody sent me a “get well” card. Even one of my mentors, a man with decades of successful recovery, marched into detox and ordered me to get my head out of my ass. I doubt that any patient with hypertension, cancer or diabetes has ever received such a blunt directive.
Fortunately, my father and I recovered because we got another chance. We got appropriate treatment, again. Dad and I changed our lifestyles and ever since have managed our illnesses by sticking (for the most part) to our prescribed recovery programs. As a result, Bill Moyers has had 20 more years as a father, a husband and a journalist. I’ve had 20 more years as a father, a son and an advocate committed to eliminating the stigma of addiction and the shame of relapse. Along with my mother, who came close to losing a husband and a son to their chronic illnesses in the same year, we have used our story to explain addiction’s indiscriminate power and to promote the possibility of recovery from it.
The deaths of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and, seven months earlier, James Gandolfini, the star of “The Sopranos,” are a stark contrast that reminds us we have a long way to go.
Hoffman had been clean and sober for 23 years. Last year, he relapsed on opiate pain medication, the “Trojan horse” of drugs for people in recovery who don’t realize that a legitimately prescribed substance can unleash their dormant illness until they are right back where they started — or worse. Hoffman did a short treatment stint after his relapse. But he died alone in his apartment with a needle in his arm. He was 46.
In his death, the media ask and the public echoes, “How could this happen? … For the sake of his children, why couldn’t he rise above it? … He had such talent, everything going for him. Didn’t he grasp the stakes?” In disgust, some say, “What a waste.” And piling on, critics of treatment argue that Hoffman’s death is proof that “treatment doesn’t work” and that addicts cannot be saved.
This torrent of insensitive and unfair questions didn’t follow after Gandolfini died from a heart attack alone in his Italian hotel room. Reports later emerged that he had suffered from high blood pressure and high cholesterol and had struggled with his weight to the point that his friends and family did an intervention of sorts, imploring him to get help and see a doctor. Whatever counsel he got or action he took came too late. He was 51. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ordered that the state’s flags be flown at half-mast in his honor.
Gandolfini and Hoffman died because of the same problem: They did not manage to stay ahead of an illness. Chronic disease is just that — a problem that cannot be cured but can be successfully treated, as long as the patient is actively involved in the solution. Anything less and usually the odds increase that the consequences will get worse. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Hollywood superstar; the disease always wins — just as it does for a homeless has-been living at the Salvation Army.
I won’t speculate as to why Gandolfini failed to recover, though I suspect that denial, being too busy and a sense of invulnerability all played a role. But as an addict who got well, relapsed and then struggled to get back on course, I have the sense that Hoffman pursued oblivion for many of those very reasons, exacerbated by a brain flooded with a substance that produces pleasure to the detriment of anything else that matters, be it logic, responsibility or even the will to stay alive.
Plus shame. Like no other illness, addiction carries the shame of not being able to stop using or, worse, relapsing after a period of successful recovery. It smothers addicts and alcoholics in an overwhelming avalanche of failure. Some of it is self-inflicted and causes us to withdraw from the people and places that are integral to our safety net. Some of our shame is the result of recovery programs that, for better or worse, set and celebrate continuous abstinence as the only true benchmark of success. What shame is left for us to bear comes from a society that still doesn’t grasp that addiction is the illness that it really is and has little to do with the free will of choice, weak moral character, a lack of religion or a bad upbringing. Addiction is America’s No. 1 health problem, but as long as policymakers and their constituents continue to wage a “war on drugs,” addicts and alcoholics will live and die in the shadow of public intolerance and personal shame. Most will never get help. Or more help, if they relapse.
In the meantime, let’s stop the gnashing of teeth, the finger-pointing and the hand-wringing that obscure the gift that for 23 years was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s recovery, including remarkable success on the stage and big screen and as a father of three children. Perhaps his death will become a gift to others who fight to live with an illness that is cunning, baffling, powerful and patient. But can be overcome.
William C. Moyers is a vice president at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. He lives in St. Paul. This article first appeared in Creators Syndicate.