Actor’s death brings needed focus on the problem of addiction

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

The Feb. 2 death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman brings the secret back into discussion. Those of us who live in and around addiction daily are not mystified by his story. We are saddened, like everybody, but we understand it. I know dozens of good, talented people who struggled mightily with an addiction, a dependency of one kind or another, who did not make it. 

It’s hard to watch the news, because it’s clear from the information sources that little is understood about addiction, about how a person with 20-plus years of clean time could die that way. Why couldn’t he just stop? Didn’t he have enough help? These shadow questions are the wrong questions.

It could happen, it does happen, because addiction is insidious, patient. When you have it bad, you have it for life, and it requires vigilance daily, every day, and generally never alone. Few go this road to recovery alone; that’s the first truth. You can’t run and you can’t hide.

You can’t run and you can’t hide from a problem — a hunger, a need — that isn’t entirely physical. An addict has an emptiness within, a hole in the soul, a space inside that we stuff with substances – with booze, with drugs, with sex, with food, you name it. Drugs become everything, drink becomes everything, something becomes everything to the addict. 

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The wisdom of the recovery model is that we face the real problem of addiction every morning when we gaze into the mirror. The problem is within. 

At the deepest level, the only dependable antidote is what we call a program, a plan for living, a deeper dive into the inner world where we fill that emptiness within with something more nutritious and sustaining. We become individuals with lives of value and purpose. We call this a spiritual program, and every recovery model that I know of that helps to change lives changes them from the inside out. We call this kind of thoroughgoing inward transformation a spiritual change. This is old wisdom.

Dr. Carl Jung, an early influence on the treatment of alcoholism and chemical dependency, loved the use of the word “spirits” to indicate substance. The problem has a physical component, and it has a spiritual component. Some people are physically predisposed, and all of us are spiritually predisposed. We are getting better with new strategies to counter the physical need; we have the oldest wisdom on the planet to grow the spiritual response.

It begins with a person taking responsibility. “This is my problem, and I have to do such and such to begin my recovery.” There is plenty of help once one realizes that. No one can do this for the addict; no amount of help will do this for the addict; and sometimes people who live with and around addicts make this harder for the addict by trying to do for him or her what he or she has to do for himself or herself. 

You can do too much for the suffering addict and, when you do, you are contributing to the problem by taking away the very thing the addict has to learn: responsibility. “This is my problem, my responsibility. I have to take action. This is my problem — not yours, mine.”  

I am sorry for every loss through the dizzy decline into drugs and alcohol, especially those I have known, have worked with, have been on that hard road with. Everyone should understand that recovery from a serious drug and alcohol dependency is one of the hardest inner journeys a person takes in life. It is thoroughgoing and demanding. What we say is: All you have to do is not drink, not take drugs and change your whole life.

Change your whole life. Does that help to understand drug and alcohol dependency? To make the hole … whole.

I am making a Kaddish in my heart for every loss, in the John Donne sense:  Every person’s death diminishes all of us. And my heart aches in the Deuteronomic sense, too: Not by bread alone do human beings live, but by Everything do human beings live [Deut. 8:3].

Only Everything is everything.  

Rabbi James Stone Goodman runs a program called Shalvah (“serenity” in Hebrew) that meets at 7 p.m. every Thursday at Congregation Neve Shalom. He and Rose Mass founded the program in 1981.