I think I was in ninth grade when I first experienced the aftermath of a death of a classmate. She wasn’t anybody that I was particularly close to; in fact I don’t think she could even be called a passing acquaintance. But I remember the makeshift “counseling center” that was assembled in the school’s library, which was then closed off in terms of browsing, studying, or anything else not directly involved with grief. And I remember some of my classmates becoming absolutely hysterical, and other classmates’ whispered opinions over whether or not someone was in the library crying “for attention,” as opposed to genuine horror over the idea that death can sweep in and grab a 14-year-old who just yesterday asked you for a piece of gum.
That was my first exposure to this idea that there was a hierarchical “right” to mourn someone’s death, based on any number of factors, not the least of which was how well you knew the person that died. If you didn’t know the person in some substantive way, any display of grief or bewilderment simply meant you were doing it for show. That you were making it about you. That you were doing it “for attention.”
Fast-forward 29 years. Now we have the internet, for better or for worse. We question the appropriateness of mourning in such an “impersonal” way. And the death of a celebrity becomes the subject of countless blogs, status updates, and poems of questionable taste. These are invariably met with scorn. You don’t know that celebrity. Why grieve publicly about that celebrity’s death? And lord help you if that celebrity dies from a drug overdose, because then you’re paying more attention to some selfish, dirty junkie than to REAL problems and people who die much more noble deaths. I’ve written about this before.
I don’t doubt that there are people in this world who unreservedly have to “make everything about them,” who post things precisely because they know they’ll get a virtual shitstorm of attention. I’ve given major side-eye to these kinds of antics, but in the end, I’d argue that anyone with a blog has decided to draw attention to themselves somehow, myself included. Here it is, less than 24 hours after Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his apartment, and I’m writing about what that MEANS to me, someone who didn’t know him, who passed him on the street once, who works almost daily with someone who did know him. These are the things I weigh as I write, and they’re all found wanting. I am telling on myself here: I am doing the thing I despise by staking my claim to someone else’s tragedy. I am a tragedy vulture. Pass the carrion.
When it comes down to it, I have no right to sit here and write about the fact that I burst into tears when I found out.
But I am going to write about it anyway: I burst into tears of pure terror.
Philip Seymour Hoffman had 23 years of sobriety. 23 years of continuous, daily reprieve from the compulsion to completely destroy himself. That compulsion is something I identify with. It is the most horrifying thing in the world to live with, when it’s actively raging in your brain to the point where the need is primal, cellular: every cell in your body screams for it. And it has fuck-all to do with pleasure. You know in your very soul that the “relief” you’re getting is artificial, and temporary. But it is your only option. You simply cannot see any other way out.
Except some of us do find a way out. And we can go for a long time without whatever it was that we needed so desperately. Philip Seymour Hoffman went 23 years. And then he started abusing prescription pills. I need to stress that: heroin is likely what killed him, but pills are what took him out. Pills. We all hiss in an almost superstitious way when we hear “heroin.” Heroin is for people on the very bottom rungs. Heroin doesn’t happen to people who have it all. We shake our fists and bewail heroin as the killer, nobody wanting to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that very often, there are “normal,” “acceptable” substances that pave the way to chasing the dragon. That alcohol kills more people than heroin.
There’s an artist I occasionally follow on Twitter. The day before Philip Seymour Hoffman died, she was tweeting about how having a drink ended her writer’s block. And several of her fans chimed in along the lines of: “Yes! Write drunk! Have a shot before embarking on anything creative! Yay!” And I thought, “This is the mindset that kept me so unwell for so many years.” This is just one of the things that could conceivably end my 11+ years of sobriety, if I don’t remain vigilant. I don’t know if people understand how very fragile sobriety is. I certainly didn’t give it as much thought I should have, until yesterday, hearing that someone with 23 years caved, gave in, and got himself killed.
That is terrifying. So terrifying that I sat on my couch and sobbed.
And so this is me making this about myself. I am frightened. I am angry. I want people to stop being so goddamned cavalier and irresponsible when it comes to addiction, to alcohol, to passing judgment. Myself included.