Hard to believe it's been a year since Phillip Seymour Hoffman died.
I certainly can’t say that I knew him well but I knew him well enough to call him Phil. I knew him in his salad days as an actor in New York and have always felt connected to him since because we shared the same therapist. In fact I saw him regularly on Thursday mornings for years. He’d be coming out, I’d be waiting to go in. Some days there would be a pained look in his eyes as he emerged; other times a wry ironic kind of smile on his face. I would later recognize many of these expressions in so many of his unforgettable portrayals on stage and screen as his brilliant career evolved.
We knew each other from the same circles of recovery on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was a particularly difficult period of my life that it seemed I would never emerge from, and no matter his mood or expression there was always a friendly nod of encouragement—a recognition that somehow we were there to face the very personal demons that drove the engines of our alcoholism and addictions—and underneath that was an acknowledgement of how very difficult this work was, and that we were kindred souls on the same path. We rarely spoke except to say hello but when we did we always looked into each other’s eyes and made contact. That's the kind of guy he was...
One day at a meeting I was sitting next to him and for some reason I turned to him and said, “You’re only as sick as your secrets, right?” Of course it’s a well-traveled axiom of recovery--some would call it a cliche--but there's a profound truth contained therein and it seemed perfectly apropos to our peculiar connection. “So I’m told,” he said with a rueful laugh.
I’ve thought of that exchange many times since his death. I always felt that whatever those secrets might have been, Phil was able to use them masterfully as the palette of his art—that is, until he no longer could.
After he died it was particularly painful to see the media turn him into the poster boy of the New Heroin Epidemic. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a new one every decade, with the same numbing misconceptions and prognostications about heroin addiction and a new "plague." After his death addiction "specialists" conjectured about how a new generation of anti-opiate meds might have saved his life. True enough, which made his death by overdose even more tragic Many others have wondered what on earth he was doing with so much dope, saying that it surely confirms some kind of death wish. Of course, any addict who ever fantasized about the reassurance of a large supply finds this easiest of all to understand, and he was not helped on that final run by ready access to a nearby cash machine with such a nice balance.
For my part, I’ve tried to understand why Phil’s death has hit me so much harder than the deaths of so many of those doomed and beautiful icons of my generation, with the possible exception of John Lennon. Perhaps it’s because somewhere inside of myself I’ve always retained the illusion that if only I was rich or successful or accomplished enough I wouldn’t have the problems that I do, and that I’d be safe from the danger of relapse. Somehow Phil’s death has blown that fantasy away forever.
Of course, my heart broke for his friends and family—especially for the children who will grow up without him—and for the loss of his immense talent. But mostly I was rendered breathless by an awareness of the sheer amount of pain he must have been in—it’s shattering, unfathomable, yet terrifyingly mundane in the lives of addicts—and by a visceral feeling that whatever it was that he was talking about in that room on those Thursday mornings so long ago had somehow overcome him and knocked him off that path we were on.
Or very likely not talking about, for the maxim always seems to ring true: we are, alas, only as sick as our secrets.