(Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)
When news broke that Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, it triggered an outpouring of heartfelt reactions online. It was news big enough to eclipse the Super Bowl and heartbreaking enough to elicit genuine sadness.
But not all reactions were sympathetic. That day, actor Jared Padalecki called Hoffman’s death “stupid” and “senseless,” and he’s not the only one who voiced this opinion.
According to the New York Times, police confirmed Hoffman died of a drug overdose, most likely due to heroin.
All over social media, peppered amid the deluge of mourning, were comments similar to Padlecki’s — people claiming Hoffman’s death was not tragic, that they had a hard time feeling sad because, after all, these were his bad choices. No one forced a needle into his arm.
And while that’s true, it also ignores so many important parts of his story and of addiction in general. Writing it off in such a way is unfairly callous.
Hoffman was reportedly sober for 23 years and only recently relapsed. Addiction is a disease an afflicted person will battle his entire life — one that requires treatment and compassion.
Steve Wildsmith is the weekend editor at the Daily Times in Maryville, and he’s also a recovering addict.
“It’s a fundamental disease that most people cannot comprehend,” Wildsmith said. “It doesn’t matter how long you’re clean, your disease is out there doing pushups, waiting for you to slip up.”
When you’re an addict, “you exist, but you don’t live,” he explained. “It’s a place of darkness, like you’re one of the extras in ‘The Walking Dead.’ ”
Hoffman’s death, while tragic, has had at least one positive effect: It’s sparked important conversations about addiction that many, especially those quick to judge, need to hear.
As celebrities and journalists open up about their own struggles with addiction (I found David Carr's and Jeff Deeney's accounts particularly insightful) and new drug legislation is discussed (Have you heard of naloxone, an opiate overdose reversal medicine that can help save people from overdoses?), these issues come into better focus.
“The takeaway is that it can happen to anybody,” Wildsmith said. “So we need to do what we can to help all these other Philip Seymour Hoffmans who don’t have his fame or money or recognition.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 38,000 drug overdose deaths per year in the United States — more than 100 per day. And help isn’t always readily available, even locally.
“It’s a terrible thing here in Knoxville. There are more (people) than there are places to go,” said Johnny Lewis, executive director of the E.M. Jellinek Center, where the waiting list is approximately four to five months. “The majority just stay in jail until they can get in over here.”
And at Knoxville’s Helen Ross McNabb Center’s drug rehab facility, it’s even longer. According to PR coordinator Emily Scheuneman, if someone were to come in wanting immediate inpatient care, the waiting list is one year. For someone seeking outpatient care, it would still be 10 weeks.
Whether it’s 10 weeks, five months or one year, that can feel like more than a lifetime to an addict needing help.
The answer to this epidemic is neither to judge nor to punish — it’s to provide treatment and empathy.
As Meghan Ralston of the Drug Policy Alliance said, “We need doctors, not jail cells.”