Philip Seymour Hoffman’s stunning death on Sunday from an apparent overdose of heroin has been a painful wake-up call not only about the power of addiction, but also the resurgence of heroin use in the last few years.
There is a complicated story here of the rise of prescription painkiller abuse, the attempts to fight that scourge with stricter regulations, and the resurgent popularity of illicit alternatives like heroin. This shift does not only apply to long-sober addicts like Hoffman, who checked himself into rehab last year after what he said were 20-plus years clean. As a DEA official tells the New York Times, “the addicts you see a lot are young suburban kids starting on prescription drugs, and they graduate to heroin.”
There are also troubling reports that a rash of deaths—including speculation about Hoffman’s—were caused by heroin cut with a terrifyingly potent synthetic opioid called fentanyl, greatly increasing the chances for accidentally overdosing. Let’s just say that heroin and pills can both ruin lives. As an addiction specialist tells the Times, “It’s not easy to get the opioid genie back into the bottle.”
But Hoffman did for a while. According to interviews, including a CBS profile from 2006, he had been sober since he was 22. As a young actor, he said, his taste for drugs was insatiable. “It was anything I could get my hands on.” And that scared him. “You get panicked,” he said, “and I got panicked for my life.”
It is a testament to Hoffman’s strength and to the terrible strength of opioid addiction that he was able to make that decision at that age and maintain it for so long, only to relapse. It is a testament to his strength that he saw what was happening last year and returned to rehab. It is a testament to these dueling powers that he is reported to have had a substantial amount of heroin in his apartment at the time of his death, as well as a prescription for buprenorphine, a drug used to treat addiction.
It is difficult to extract lessons from the lives of those we’ve lost—lessons they could not benefit from themselves. But like Ned Vizzinni, the author who recently committed suicide after giving hope and advice to so many depressed young people, Philip Seymour Hoffman still has a gift to give beyond his performances. This gift is the knowledge that young people struggling with addiction can take control of their lives if they ask for help, and they can still accomplish awesome things. And that they can never stop being vigilant.