They’ve become the scarlet letters of our generation. The words “junkie” and “addict”. Seeing track marks, fucked up teeth, ravaged faces…you see these people and you think of them as sub-human. Dim souls that can barely power the limbs of their leathered husks. You don’t want to be near them, or talk to them, let alone give them your broken dollars so they could buy another cracked vial.
On Super Bowl Sunday, one of my favorite actors was found dead in his Manhattan apartment. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose talent was undoubted and his loss was too soon. Hoffman was found with four bags of heroin next to his body. He OD’d on the stuff.
It’s a story we’ve all heard before, an explosion of life that’s happened so many times that the manner of death seems so banal. It almost feels like his overdose made the only visible aspect of importance in his death is that he’s no longer alive.
Maybe it’s because of the respect that he garnered – that many celebrities garner – we don’t want to sully his memory by focusing on the fact that he was an addict. We don’t want to imprint that curse word on his tombstone. We don’t want to acknowledge that he wasn’t strong enough to conquer something that’s so taboo as drug addiction.
Even the recreational drug users I know hold onto the idea that they can kick the habit at any time. They choose to shoot, snort, or smoke up. It’s that idea of agency that maintains their humanity, because when we lose ourselves to addiction, we lose that crucial pillar that makes us human. We lose reasonability and dictate ourselves solely by impulse.
I look at Hoffman’s performances, and I see a man who was in such deep control of himself that it’s hard to believe that he couldn’t keep himself from hurting every cell, every organ inside him to sate a desire that I could never understand. I don’t want to brand him as an addict, but in doing so, I have to come to terms what the word even means to me.
Is an addict sub-human? Someone even worth the time or the effort to redeem? Is their loss of agency equivalent to them devolving into the beasts we were born from? Are those who are mentally unable to exhibit agency, regardless of their drug habits, equally unworthy to be considered human?
Are they worth saving? Honoring in death? Are they worthy of the same footnotes in history as Hoffman, Farley, Winehouse, and Ledger?
When someone loses control over their actions, when they’re unable to differentiate between commonly held reason and blind desire, are they deserving of any sympathy and compassion?
It’s no doubt that we’ve lost a great actor, someone deserving of so many more accolades. But in lionizing his death, I can’t help but think about the marginalization of so many others.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman was an addict. A well-heeled and more personable addict than the ones we find on the street, but an addict nonetheless. When I say that, I don’t want to convey all the negativity and condescension that usually accompanies that word. The true question that remains is whether or not that condescension should even exist at all.