There’s something about the passing of a master in a field you’ve been trained in that pierces the heart – not in the same way as family or friends of course – but out of a bit of knowledge about the journey, the work, the struggles, the process, the lifestyle. There are so many writers and actors who struggle with mental health, with addiction, with depression, statistically more than the general population. I saw it at grad school when Marcos Villatoro lectured on mental illness and creativity – the room was overflowing and nearly everyone either had bipolar or loved one with it or a related disorder. God knows, I’ve known a lot of addicts, some in my family. I am sad at the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. And terribly disheartened by the comments I’ve seen blaming him. All bets are off when opiates are in the picture. Rehab is no cure, not for alcohol, sure as hell not for heroin. To say PSH was a talented actor is an understatement. Not everyone beats addiction. Not by a long shot. It’s not about willpower. Not solely. Do you think he wanted to leave his children? Doubt it. I’m sure he was looking forward to the next thing with them, the next event with his loved ones, friends, the next role…
There is so much about addiction we do not know. We do know people sometimes turn to drugs not just for kicks, but to cope with undiagnosed mental illness, biochemical imbalances, mysteries. Rehab does not always work. Not every junkie or drunk is a selfish bastard. Most are deeply wounded souls looking for balm, for relief. They may well behave like selfish bastards while under the influence. Oh yes. Still, they deserve our compassion and our help. Yes, they have to walk that road alone and every day is a choice. Just remember before you pick up that rock of condemnation, sometimes the monster… the disease… the addiction… wins. And the rest of us lose someone loved, someone talented, someone who probably would have stuck around if they could have found a way.
Recently, I’ve been in rooms with various artists who are unfamiliar with the dynamics of addiction even though many creative people struggle with addictions of one form or another. With (for example) 54% of playwrights as alcoholics, it’s no surprise that a large percentage of books, plays and screenplays include the subject in large or small part. Consider Hunter S. Thompson, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Faulkner, Bukowski… you get the point.
How do I know about it? My mother was a Valium addict and I went through rehab with her then Al-Anon after. I have a number of friends and family with various addictions. I’ve read the literature and lived the problems and been to the funerals.
If you are a writer or actor and you are not an addict and/or did not grow up around it, consider attending AA and Al-Anon meetings and reading the literature, such as the Big Book of AA. Find open meetings, call ahead and let whoever runs the meeting know ahead of time what you are doing. Do not go under false pretenses. Learn and observe the rules. Not every meeting will accept you. It is not tourism. Do NOT write about people in the meetings – respect their anonymity. The only purpose is to learn the dynamics and struggles, to learn what real addiction and recovery look like, not to acquire fodder for your work.
This seems like it would be very familiar ground for anyone, but there are subtleties that you as an artist need to be aware of. Get the details right. Do you know what a dry drunk is? Do you know the difference between not being sober and using? Do you fully understand what true sobriety is? (Hint: it’s a controversial subject with a fair amount of disagreement on the definition) Can a person be sober and continue to lie? Learn the warning signs of alcoholism, the symptoms of drug addiction and signs of relapse.
If you are performing or writing the role of an addict or in relationship to one, you need to understand the dynamics of that relationship and not filtered via TV, books or movies. Talk to real addicts and real families impacted. Find out what happens. Learn the difference between an alcoholic, a Valium addict and a heroin junkie. I had a friend once with experience in all those relationships who declared she’d take anyone over a Valium addict any day of the week. Go discover why. Interview the doctors and therapists who work with them. You owe it to yourself and your audience or readers to get it right, to stop playing or writing stereotypes, to go deeper.