‘A Needle in His Left Arm’

In the seven-plus years between my separation from my first wife (Jan. 1997) and my remarriage (May 2004), I watched a lot of movies. I have always been a film buff, but during this particular period of my life, one equally-inescapable fact was that I was also lonely, deeply depressed, confused and very much in need of a major life transition.

Up until July of 1997, I had habitually addressed those exact problems – loneliness, depression and confusion – with prodigious amounts of beer, hard liquor and illicit drugs. I had abused all of these within the context of my first marriage, certainly, but being unexpectedly single again opened up the possibility of doing whatever the heck I wanted, whenever I wanted. And I did.

For six “glorious” months.

Looking back on that period, I am dumbfounded when I consider how merciful God was to answer my prayer for sobriety in July of 1997. By all rights, I should be dead by now.

The odds were clearly not in my favor. I was not attached to The Crossing (or any other church) in any meaningful sense until the summer of 2001; I had no community helping me to recover; to my self-focused way of thinking, all of the recovery meetings I did manage to attend had the “smell of death” about them; in the twisted, selfish mind of your average addict, I had a “green light” to get drunk and/or stoned every single day of my life, and yet…I didn’t.

However, I was not yet entirely ready to face the world head-on, either. In every quiet moment, my mind would invariably drift downward, a spiral that typically ended with my handing over whatever cash I had to whoever happened to be working the register at the nearest liquor store. In the early years of recovery, “losing myself” in the movies became the new drug of choice as God weaned me from the far-more-deadly variety.

When people attempt to tell addicts what they should not do, however well-intentioned, their efforts are almost entirely ineffective and often considered very annoying. It’s better, by far, to help an addict refocus his or her life on what they should do, and (most importantly) why. If you don’t effectively address the “black hole” left in an addict’s heart when sobriety sets in, you can be sure that the sobriety will be short-lived.

Like many people, I was very much dismayed early last week to read that actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had died from an overdose of heroin. One follow-up e-mail alert from CNN was mercifully brief and straightforward:

Authorities investigating the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman found more than 50 glassine-type bags containing what is believed to be heroin in his apartment, two law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation said today. Investigators also found several bottles of prescription drugs and more than 20 used syringes in a plastic cup, the sources said. The Oscar-winning actor was found dead in his Manhattan apartment Sunday with a needle in his left arm, law enforcement sources said. He was 46.

Whatever else may be true about him, Hoffman had an inarguably-impressive acting career. His considerable talent first came to my conscious attention during the post-divorce movie-feeding-frenzy mentioned earlier. In my experience, 1998 would bring the one-two punch of Hoffman in Happiness and The Big Lebowski such that I found myself wondering, “Dang…who is this guy?” The sheer level of creepiness/sympathy he brought to the character of Allen in Happiness stuck with me a long time afterward. To this day, I can still recall his “exceedingly unflattering” performance in that film, though I cannot positively recommend anyone watch this title.

As I waded through the coverage of Hoffman’s overdose on The New York Times website, I couldn’t help but notice that at the time of his death, Hoffman was arguably at the peak of his career and surrounded by many, many people who loved and cared for him. The Times made mention of his parents, three siblings, his common-law wife and their three children. One of his colleagues at The Labyrinth Theater Company, where Hoffman was a tireless contributor, was characterized as being shocked at the news: “He was our hero; he was our leader.” A Greenwich Village neighbor ruefully added – still in the present tense – “You see him with his kids in the coffee shops. He is so sweet. It’s desperately sad.”

As a Christian, I now try to live by Jesus’ exceedingly-difficult command not to judge others (Matthew 7:1-3), and as an addict myself, I am very clearly not qualified to judge Mr. Hoffman anyway…even if I wanted to. However, one truth I can absolutely affirm is that no one is an addict in isolation. While the addict must physically isolate himself to carry out the ritualistic behaviors that often mark the addiction of choice, the paradox is that an addict’s isolation ultimately wreaks havoc in the lives of those he is most intimately connected to in community. Physical isolation (accompanied by shame) is followed by emotional distance, which leads to even more need to isolate…and the vicious cycle gets its toehold on the heart.

Therapists who are unblinkingly honest will tell you that the treatment of addiction is largely a hit-or-miss affair. One treatment program that works well for Person A will often fail miserably for Person B, even though both A and B share many of the same background, education and other socio-economic indicators. While the circumstances and outcomes can vary widely, there is one common thread that unites each and every addict:

We are all unrelentingly selfish.

Though we live in a broken world that very much needs men who are willing to protect and serve, we addicts shirk our responsibility to renew God’s good creation (Genesis 9:1-3) and instead claw our way to the next fix looking for a personal release from physical and emotional tension, everyone else be damned. More than the average person, we addicts tend to think that we somehow “deserve” to feel good. We tend to respond to stress by thinking first and foremost about how we feel…and how we can feel better.

As a quick example, many parents would respond to a small child waking up from a bad dream by comforting her until she is able to fall back to sleep. The addict, on the other hand, views the same event as an “interruption” and transmits his annoyance to the child who is interfering with the “party” going on in the living room. The “How can I serve my child?” mentality quickly evaporates in the face of, “Man, I am really tweaking out right now.” Any outward, lived-out display of the love we claim to have for family and friends is lost.

While many of us get to pick the epitaph that shows up on our gravestones, we do not get to pick the epitaph that shows up in the hearts and minds of those who survive us.

I for one very much enjoyed the performances of Mr. Hoffman – Along Came Polly is my personal favorite – and feel certain that we have all been cheated out of scores of additional great performances by his descent into drugs and death. Though he doubtless left many, many good memories to his loved ones, the selfishness and self-focus that marks every addiction to drugs, alcohol, pornography or what-have-you will always come to mind whenever his name comes up in conversation. In countless memories, his well-deserved Oscar for Capote will forever live side-by-side with the syringe removed from his left arm by the New York City medical examiner.

Proverbs 25:28 (ESV)
A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.

James 1:12-15
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

Luke 4:16-21
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

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