Tuesday, February 4, 2014

On Addiction

The shocking death of Philip Seymour Hoffman (covered on this blog yesterday) has once again brought the subject of addiction into sharp focus. Last night, Will Self gave an eloquent and personal insight into addiction and drugs, and heroin in particular, on Newsnight (a programme also worth watching for Richard Curtis’ description of the actor and his work), and what came across from his words was that the nature of addiction remains thoroughly mysterious.

At the end of last year, I wrote a rather angry piece attacking Peter Hitchens’ smug, sanctimonious and thoughtless approach to something he didn’t see as a problem so much as a crime against the self. What appals me most of all now, looking back on it, is his certainty. How can he possibly be so certain of his view of addiction, when even the most banal experience of it yields few truths and plenty of bewildering murkiness?

When I think of addiction, I first think of the extreme examples. I have never known someone who has been wrestling with an addiction to an illegal drug when I knew them. I know plenty of people who take illegal drugs. My instinctive response to a number of these individual cases is that they are playing with fire, but also that they know it. They are the lucky ones. As Self noted last night, it takes a number of decisions to get addicted to a substance.

I have known a few recovering drug addicts. The one I knew best was in fact a close family relative. After injuries in the Second World War, he was treated with an excessive amount of morphine – heroin – and became addicted. He was a private man and did not like to discuss it, but he made it clear that there was an intense agony in his recovery. This was no rehabilitation. The drug was simply and abruptly withdrawn. Given the circumstances of his exposure to the drug, he was fine once the withdrawal symptoms had passed, as he was unlikely to have any opportunity to procure anymore of the substance. Nevertheless, it was something that on some level left its scaring.

These are the extreme examples I personally know of, but they are the least of the cases of addiction of which I am aware. My family have always been heavy drinkers, my father is a heavy smoker. I know countless smokers, and have known many drinkers who can knock back a flood of the stuff in no time at all. I myself drink far too much, and my flirtations with tobacco have always led to moments of some difficulty when I decide to stop. Biochemically, I must surely be an addict. I have to think that I shouldn’t have a drink of an evening, rather than have the thought that I might like a drink occur to me on occasion. I can resist it, but there is no denying that there is a compulsion there.

The ease with which I have developed these responses means that I have no desire to toy with any further highly addictive and potentially dangerous drugs, but I like to think that it also means that I have some understanding of how easy it is to fall into such a condition. I rather hope that should Peter Hitchens’ have the clarity of mind for but a moment to see the addiction that may well be around him, he may admit that things are not as simple as his blinkered view appears to allow.

Addiction, much like that other great, human, biochemical obsession of romance, is something that we cannot escape or ignore, but also a phenomenon that we do not comprehend, despite centuries of experience, investigation and thought. Perhaps that is why there is such an extensive but utterly vague lexicon concerning it. We have competing ideas of what constitutes an “addict”, or what symptoms demonstrate that a person has a “problem” with a substance. Perhaps, like love, “you know it when you see it”, but that approach allows for numerous mistakes (in both phenomena).

We cannot sit in judgement of others on this. We must not condescend or elevate ourselves to some higher place above those who vigorously wrestle with the illness of addiction. We must educate using the rare facts that are available to us. Certain people like to think of addiction as a scourge that only afflicts the poor and the downtrodden. Even if that were the case, which it resoundingly is not, it would be no excuse for ignoring or resenting their plight. Addiction has been with us since the dawn of humankind, and it isn’t going anywhere. We are built with this vulnerability inherent within us. A crucial step must be to have the humility to acknowledge that.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman

“He was very much an actor’s actor.” Well, there’s no denying this oft-said platitude from the last few hours, but Philip Seymour Hoffman was so much more than that. Being an actor myself, my social-networking feeds are filled with my fellows, and yet the outpouring of respect and sadness at his tragic death yesterday from an apparent drug overdose has come from all sections. He had the ability to enthral all who watched him, and, if he is to be reduced in headlines and obituaries to “an actor’s actor”, than it should be noted that he is that because he excelled in the profession, and that his achievements in his craft were inspirational to others who employ it.

Meryl Streep, who acted opposite PSH in the intelligent and gripping Doubt (d. John Patrick Shanley, 2008), described him as “fearless”. Fear is the great barrier to art. It is the feeling that keeps pages blank on writers’ desks, and keeps beautiful voices silent when the music starts. When it came to his craft, it seems clear that PSH was fearless: fearless in his search for the truth of his characters, fearless in his self-exposure, and fearless in his honesty.

This unrestrained courage, though, did not manifest itself in the histrionics that many confuse with honesty. Hoffman’s voice was the whisper in the storm. There was always a sense of something incredibly torrid raging beneath the surface, and we were being shown it with the slightest mannerism, or flicker of the eyes, or tremor in the voice. This quality was gripping – mesmeric – and was apparent in everything he did, whether it was his considerable arthouse work, or his thoroughly enjoyable and effective contributions to big blockbusters. His recent appearance in the second film of The Hunger Games was a mark of this, as he quietly suggested a calculated air to his crucial character of Plutarch Heavensbee.

His was a talent of awesome rarity, honed and trained, and then focussed by himself every time he took to the stage or stood in front of the camera. Every actor knows how hard it is to deliver just one good performance. Hoffman never failed to deliver anything less. How tragic then that he died so terribly young. At the age of 46, one suspects that he may not even yet have been at the midpoint of his career. One can now only imagine what he would have gone on to do.

He leaves behind a body of work that assures him a place in the pantheon of greats, and yet the circumstances of his death – apparently an accidental overdose of heroine – seem to highlight a deep struggle within himself. He had recently relapsed into substance abuse, a condition he had apparently fought for all of his adult life, and his friends have spoken of someone who wrestled deeply with himself. His own words in a Guardian interview from 2011 now have an eerie resonance:

“It’s a real struggle to connect. When I was younger I really wanted to explore, you know, sexuality, and having to connect to people and how hard that is and how inadequate we all feel. … I think everyone struggles with self-love. I think that's pretty much the human condition, you know, waking up and trying to live your day in a way that you can go to sleep and feel OK about yourself. When I was younger I wanted to really show what it meant to have such doubt about yourself, such fear. … It's not so much self-loathing as fear. You're just scared to venture out. … I had insecurities and fears like everybody does, and I got over it. But I was interested in the parts of me that struggled with those things."

As should be clear from how he was viewed, it seems faintly extraordinary that he should have had these struggles, and yet it is painfully believable. The fearless artist was in fact consumed by fear.

There was some consternation from certain individuals about the level of prominence given to his death by the news programmes last night, perhaps bemoaning our celebrity culture. Let us be clear: though Hoffman was famous, he should not be labelled with that increasingly pejorative term of celebrity. He was much more than that. He was a beautiful artist whose work enriched the lives of many.

Yet there is one greater reason why the awful tale of his death must be told. It runs deeper than the necessary warnings about addiction. It is about insecurity. It is about the countless people who struggle with that every day. We all have insecurities, but for some the internal fight with them are much more harmful than it appears to be for others. This fact needs to be acknowledged.

The story is about those who feel alone, lacking in self-worth. What you choose to draw from it is your affair, but for me the sad story of this genuinely inspirational figure at least has the power to tell all who struggle that they are not alone. Quite the opposite, they are in very good company, and that the love and sadness displayed after this tragic loss shows that there are those who crave to help.