Editor Column: Talking drug addiction | SierraSun.com

Editor Column: Talking drug addiction

Kevin MacMillan

While this may sound like a cold thing to say, death can do good things from time to time.

I, like many of my friends and millions of others, was shocked to hear the news on Super Bowl Sunday that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died.

My initial reaction was that of a stomach punch. At just 46 years old, the man was at the top of the elite modern actors list. Hoffman’s roles in movies like “Capote,” “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights,” “Punch Drunk Love” and “Almost Famous” — even as the maniacally hilarious Dusty in “Twister” — made me adore him and marvel at his silver screen skills.

PSH wasn’t chiseled from the mold of glamorous actors like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise or Leo DiCaprio. He was often an overweight man wearing a haggard beard and looking like a normal, everyday Joe. Despite that, he found great success and had that “anyone can achieve his or her dream” glow to him, and I really admired that.

As news of his death spread, so, too, did the cause, and reports of his lifeless body being found with a syringe implanted in his arm and police finding 50 or more bags of heroin in his apartment quickly became a hot topic.

Along with that came waves of speculation and judgment. Is Philip Seymour Hoffman to be remembered as a person who was powerless against the disease of addiction and a lesson on how not to live one’s life? Or as a celebrated actor and family man whose screen and Broadway talents may perhaps never be matched again?

Perhaps it’s a bit of both. It’s not really my call to decide.

But what I can take away from his death is the reminder that drug addiction and heroin use is in fact an issue in this country, and whether or not you know about it or care, it’s an issue here at home, too.

The first time I saw heroin was several years ago, at a house party in college. Kids were smoking it off pieces of tinfoil, a practice referred to as “chasing the dragon.” Over the years, both in Michigan and on Tahoe’s North Shore, without even trying, I’ve been around it and other drugs, whether at parties or in a bathroom at a club, or wherever else.

If you talk to enough people and neighbors, you will learn that heroin can be obtained fairly easily. In fact, according to an Aug. 7, 2012, story in our sister paper, the Tahoe Daily Tribune, 19 heroin overdose deaths were recorded in the previous 18 months on the California side Tahoe’s South Shore — a number that officials said was likely conservative.

From a personal standpoint, I became friends four years ago with a neighbor who turned out to be an addict. At first I thought he was just addicted to prescription pills like Xanax or Oxycontin, but I eventually learned (after he moved to the South Shore) he was into black-tar heroin, and he was shooting up to get high.

Through bits and pieces of visits and get-togethers, I saw his life fading. He had lost weight. His face was riddled with scars stemming from his addict itch. He had lost friends, and he lost respect from the few who still called him a friend. He was teetering on the edge.

The good news is that, due to multiple failures, he moved back East to be closer to family, and from what I understand, he’s clean and hopes to stay that way. But as we learned with Hoffman, who reportedly recently relapsed after several years of being sober, “hope” can be a dangerous emotion on which to cling.

So what “good” can come of this? Well, as was the case with other drug- and addiction-aided celebrity deaths like River Phoenix, Chris Farley or, more recently, Amy Winehouse, the nation and world is talking yet again about the disease and what can be done to stop its spread.

And it’s a stronger conversation than ever before. The general consensus among many is that Hoffman’s death was unexpected and perhaps more tragic than others’ due to how accomplished and adored he was.

Like cancer, we’ve all either known or have been impacted by someone who’s been addicted to alcohol or drugs. Yet, whether through TV advertisements or social acceptance of “recreational use,” we continue to see people we love die from the disease.

Of all the commentary out there on this topic, the words of reformed addict and British celebrity Russell Brand (who’s reportedly been clean for more than a decade) echo strongest with me.

In a Feb. 6 oped in The Guardian, Brand wrote of Hoffman’s death and how it shattered society harder than if someone like Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus were to die in similar fashion.

He ends his piece with these strong words: “The troubling message behind Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, which we all feel without articulating, is that it was unnecessary and we know that something could be done. We also know what that something is and yet, for some traditional, prejudicial, stupid reason we don’t do it.”

Who knows — maybe the preventable death of a beloved actor will get us to act.

— Kevin MacMillan is managing editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspapers; he may be reached for comment at kmacmillan@sierrasun.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin1MacMillan.

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