Christine Flowers: No retreat from stand on addiction - and surprising support

commentBy CHRISTINE M. FLOWERSFebruary 14, 2014 

Nothing touches the psychological third rail as much as saying that "addicts are selfish." Since early last Friday morning, when my column on Philip Seymour Hoffman first appeared online, I've been receiving emails from all over the country with various levels of outrage, self-righteousness and, most surprisingly, gratitude.

I expected the comments like "I want to bitch slap you" from the woman in Florida who said that her son had just died of a heroin overdose. The supercilious tsk-tsking from those in what I call the industrial-addiction complex was hardly surprising, either. They took me to task for my ignorance, including the self-described therapist who told me that she understood that I had the right to my opinion but that it was dangerous to express that opinion. It's as if calling Hoffman "selfish" would burden recovering addicts with unhealthy guilt. Personally, I think it is the lack of guilt that lies at the root of the injuries we inflict on others, if not ourselves.

But what really struck me with more force than the bolt that hit Saul on his way to Damascus was the volume of readers who agreed with me that Hoffman was selfish in failing to consider how his actions would affect his babies.

There, I said it again and will continue to say it until the last codependent parent writes to call me a jackass because his daughter just got out of rehab and I apparently don't know what the hell I'm talking about.

But I do, you see. I have never made a secret of the fact that my family has been touched by addiction, several generations' worth. Years ago, in a less generous age, it was called being a "lush" or a "dope fiend" or any other of the words we are now taught to avoid out of sympathy and good manners.

But it doesn't change the fundamental nature of the beast to wrap it up in shiny paper and place it alongside leukemia and cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy and say, "Look, it's a disease just like all the others," and that the addict is no less diseased than one of Jerry's Kids.

I disagree.

So, I was amazed to find out, do hundreds of others, all of whom wrote to tell me that they were surprised that I had the guts to speak truth to political correctness.

More than guts, it's just a deep-seated anger that comes from being forced to watch relative after friend after acquaintance destroy themselves and their families because they decided to stick that needle in their arm, or take that first hit of coke or, if they had the money of Hoffman, buy thousands of dollars' worth of heroin.

I have been schooled this week in the vocabulary of addiction. I have been told that the addict is out of control, that there are synapses in the brain that react to chemicals, that there are compulsions and obsessions that don't respond to reason and can't be halted by normal stimuli. The homegrown therapists and those who make a habit of attending Al-Anon or reading self-help books were generous with their time, and their profanity.

But the great joy in this experiment was hearing from the family members who thanked me for validating their suffering, for pointing out that while an addict might very well be incapable of abandoning that road to destruction, the people who love him are justified in saying, "Enough, I'm finished, you have cut out my heart."

People like Sally, who said, "I am a survivor of breast cancer and lost both my parents to cancer -- you said exactly what I think."

Like Connie, who said, "I am sick of all the levels of sainthood Philip Seymour Hoffman has attained just by killing himself."

Like Nathanial, who admitted his addiction and said, "It's important to me not only to live for myself but for my family as well; when I lose sight of my purpose then I am on my way to my destruction."

People like Jim, who said, "What Hoffman did was very selfish and I think that calling it what it is is the right thing to do -- you can't just sugarcoat everything bad about society."

I have been conditioned to believe that my own strain of Spartan intolerance is unique, or shared only by those who have -- as one writer said -- hate in our hearts.

But voices from Indiana, Alaska, Miami, New York, San Diego, Iowa, Texas and Pennsylvania convince me that it's not.

There is love, yes, and support and a true desire to see the addict move on from his death valley into the light.

But there is also a willingness to say "enough!" and a refusal to be shamed into silence.

Hoffman's children deserve to be seen. Survivors deserve to be heard. This is my thank-you note to the ones who reached out.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Email, cflowers1961@gmail.com.

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