Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death this week (2nd February) has elicited two types of responses from my Facebook timeline. The one, that Hoffman’s death is a tragedy, an all too brutal and glaring reminder of the power of addiction (he was sober for over 20 years and relapsed only last year). The other response: that the media attention given to Hoffman’s death is outrageous and inappropriate given that he was a privileged junkie who died from a self-inflicted indulgence. The last is a response that is pervasive in society at large and is based on a stigmatisation of addiction and addicts that is frightening. But what is more frightening is the message about vulnerability that underlies this stigma.
In my response I will not be tackling Hoffman’s life, addiction or death. Firstly, I am not a fan of the cult of celebrity because however long we’ve spent with Mr Hoffman in the form of his characters, we have not spent time with him and do not know him. At all. Secondly, I am not a film critic so I will leave the topic of Hoffman’s career and loss to the industry and the viewing public to experts* in that field.
The issue I, as a recovering addict, will, and have to, weigh in on is the underlying issue at the heart of the second Facebook response: That addiction is an indulgence and that his death was self-inflicted and should thus not be mourned, that society romanticises the artist and the addict (the Amy Winehouse Syndrome). I have to answer this reaction. Not to do so would be to laugh at the bigoted joke, to stand by while prejudice is being perpetrated. And, more importantly, not to voice my opinion would be to undermine my experience of addiction, self-destruction and my journey from the brink of death to a place where I have clawed a self and a life back for myself.
The underlying assumption on the part of the second Facebook response is that addiction, as ‘self-inflicted,’ as an ‘indulgence,’ is something that only weak people go through. (Of course this response also implies that addiction is not a disease and that addicts should just ‘get a grip,’ ‘pull themselves towards themselves,’ but I will not address that as there is more than enough scientific evidence of the disease of addiction on my side to even deign to respond to that particular Quixotean stab at that particular windmill).
What angers me is how this response relies on so much of the stigma around addiction, how the ‘weakness’ of showing a chink in your human armour is stigmatised and pathologised, reducing anyone who dares to show a sign of vulnerability to a caricature of a self-indulgent, self-pitying, navel-gazing addict. And while that angers me, what infuriates me is that this stigmatisation of the addict is based on the insidious belief in our society that vulnerability in a human being is a weakness and an addiction in itself.
This insidious belief pervades society and says, “My life is perfect, my family is perfect, I am perfect. I do not struggle, and if I do, I keep it to myself or sweep it under the rug.” I think all of us born before 2000 and the confessional Oprah culture come from families where this is the dominant ideology. We do NOT tell people that our dad ‘drinks too much.’ The fact that he is an alcoholic doesn’t even get raised, much less acknowledged. And if we do acknowledge it, it is only in the therapist’s office, where we spend more time dealing with our guilt over questioning daddy than daddy’s shortcomings.
And in these families the person with the mental illness or addiction becomes the black sheep, because, of course, everyone else in the family is perfect and played absolutely no role in their condition. Because mad people and addicts live in vacuums, don’t come from contexts and daddy’s five-beers-a-night and mommy’s undiagnosed bipolar disorder have not affected the black sheep whatsoever. So the black sheep becomes the scapegoat and is made to feel that they are drowning in a sea of everyone else’s perfection and their own ineptitude as a human being, floundering without the how-to-be-human manual that everyone else seems to have. The stoic pretence that all is ok is a crippling context for most people who have to face their humanness in ways that threaten their lives. The depression and/or addiction leaves them flailing on the ground; the stiff upper lip kicks them while they’re down.
So let me say this, for once and for all: There is nothing wrong with the ‘weakness’ of vulnerability. Vulnerability is true, it’s authentic and it’s human. Sharing one’s vulnerability is sharing one’s humanness. It is, in fact, the strongest and most brave thing one can do. And maybe if society accepted that, people wouldn’t succumb to addiction and death in an effort to hide their humanness from the world.
Having grown up around addicts and having spent my formative social years in and out of government psych hospitals, struggling with chronic depression, the addictions of self-mutilation, bulimia, overeating and co-dependent relationships, I can attest to the fact that vulnerability saves lives. Pretending that everything is ok in the midst of the shit-storm is what leads to suicide, whether by razor blade, heroin overdose or 45 years of alcohol overdose.
Because when vulnerability is hidden behind that stiff upper lip it breeds the idea that pain and loneliness is something that only you suffer from; something that will never, EVER get better. And that delusion is lethal. Literally. When you become your own worst enemy and the person who threatens to end your own life when you least expect it is you – that is no joke. Fighting the most basic animal instinct to survive is no ‘indulgence.’ That is no cry-for-help weakness. That is one of the most frightening realities a human being can ever face.
For 15 years I believed I was alone and I hid my vulnerability. And because of that for 15 years I waited for someone to save me, becoming more and more powerless over my depression and addiction, to the point where I almost lost my life. It was only when I spoke my truth and in response had people speak their truth that I realised that I wasn’t alone. But, more importantly, it was having other people be vulnerable in reciprocity to my vulnerability that finally opened my eyes to the horrifying and yet empowering truth that everyone struggles and no one but myself could save me.
And this is the point of sharing vulnerability: the realisation that everyone is an addict of some thing, everyone struggles, and that no one is alone in that hell. When people can speak their truth and finally face up to the fact that everyone struggles, they face the truth that they have to take responsibility for their own lives, because no one out there is ‘healthier’ than they are and able to ‘save them.’**
My ‘weakness’ was almost the death of me. And my vulnerability saved my life. And I will continue to be vulnerable, real and authentic, because if I turn my back on that which has saved me, I will drown.
So let me say this again, directly to those who believe that addiction or any vulnerability or weakness is an indulgence, a self-inflicted game: There is nothing wrong with the ‘weakness’ of vulnerability. It is, in fact, the strongest and most brave thing one can do. And if we’re going to dismiss celebrity addict’s deaths and not ask ourselves what this says about our society and learn that lesson, then so be it. But I will not be part of that, and I will continue to speak my truth. Because it saved my life, yes; but also because I am surrounded by beautifully vulnerable people who are authentic and who do not sweep things under carpets. And I, for one, cannot go back to conversing with intimate strangers and closeted addicts about the petrol price and that cool place in Maboneng.
* (A beautiful example, and one which speaks to the topic of humanness and vulnerability in this piece, being Tom Junod’s tribute in Esquire Magazine, where he speaks about how we have lost one of the greatest actors, if not the greatest actor, of our time).
** Which brings me to another aspect about vulnerability that infuriates me: addicts (those addicted to substances/activities/people/depression) who refuse to take responsibility for their lives, who blame the world for their own choices and who live their lives from one personal disaster to another. This is weakness and different from vulnerability. Vulnerability is the capacity for self-knowledge to recognise and accept one’s shortcomings, and the guts to reach out for help from a support system while realising, accepting and doing something about the fact that overcoming addiction, depression, etc. is something only you can do for yourself.