February 7, 2014

Hoffman and the toxicity of “should”

Editor's Note: Here is a powerful guest column from http://questionmarxist.wordpress.com/.

Any sober person can tell you how frustrating it is to convey to a “normie” what getting high means to an addict.  And the keyword here is “means.” 

For an addict, the emotional experience is quite powerful that you are somehow doing something with actual spiritual importance, even if you understand intellectually you are merely flooding your dopamine receptors. Certainly you find it amusing that people shake their head at the “insanity” of using. You use. You experience a sense of euphoria. You want to do it again. What’s insane about that?

Obviously, that’s not the really insane part. The insane part is when the consequences of the perpetual hunt for that state of painlessness become jarringly, unquestionably unmanageable, and the addict is unable to make the completely logical decision to stop doing what’s causing all the damage.  Indeed that is the difference between addicts and non-addicts, alcoholics and the merely intemperate.  The capacity to react rationally to the obvious problem with the obvious solution.  Normies stop the behavior causing the craziness. Addicts try, try, again.

This is why 12-step programs are spiritually-based.  God – as one defines God – is not rational. To have faith in something you cannot see or measure doesn’t even make much sense. That’s the point. Using when it’s throwing a grenade into your life make no sense either.  That’s why all the sensible arguments against it are marginally effective, if at all. Measuring the consequences of your addiction is a rational motivator that in the end, is not why addicts do or don’t get high.  Neither is achieving or not achieving one’s material and professional dreams.

Which brings us to Philip Seymour Hoffman, a death that has left most of us (but less so the addicts) scratching our heads in incomprehension.   He had money, a loving family, and that career–oh God, that career! The envy of almost every actor on the planet, moving effortlessly  between theater and film, garnering award after award, picking and choosing the parts he wanted to play…how could he throw it all away?  There’s no lack of resentment behind the narrative.  Spoiled celebrity. What I wouldn’t have done to have his life.  What a waste.

I didn’t know Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I know that he was a very smart man: You can’t deliver such astounding performances without a profound intelligence.  I’m sure he knew how blessed his life was. I also know a lot of sober people, and no one maintains 20+ years of sobriety without feeling an enormous amount of gratitude on a daily basis. Philip Seymour Hoffman most certainly did.

This is admittedly conjecture, but what I imagine pained him acutely was precisely the gap between how he thought he should feel and how he actually felt.  When you don’t “have it all,” you can take refuge in the sure notion that if you did, the key would finally turn the lock, you would find yourself in that grand hall of perpetual fulfillment that society tells you comes with work you love, the recognition of your peers, and a huge bank account.  (Turns out there’s a lot to be said for not having everything.  You don’t expect to be happy the way you imagine the Philip Seymour Hoffmans of the world to be.)

But what if you get “there” and you find out arriving doesn’t make you feel much better than striving did? What if you secretly thought all these years that the money and the work and beautiful family were going to feel as good as the heroin did? What if you drift back into thinking that happiness is a form of euphoria rather than serenity?

“Should” is a bad place to live, but boy, do we set up a lot of tents there. I should have done that, I should be doing this; I should feel this way, I shouldn’t feel this way.  It’s a toxic enough tape to keep looping in your head when you can point to a slew of results in your life that seem to reflect less-than-optimal choices. But what if your choices were really good ones, that paid off well? And you still feel that incessant pounding of the “should” hammer between your ears?

Non-addicts go to therapy, or talk to friends, or just accept it — there’s no one way they might deal with it. But addicts–even with 20 years of recovery– have a deep, ingrained memory of relief from such thoughts.  They found a way to turn off the tape, to experience the most convincing illusion imaginable that life was fine, they were more than fine, that the only place they needed to be was right where they were — be it a plush penthouse or a seedy crack den.  In fact, when that place is a plush penthouse, the notion that sticking a needle in your arm will not bring with it horrific consequences is powerful indeed — and in some cases, lethal.

Mr.Hoffman unquestionably leaves us one beautiful legacy — decades of incredible acting captured forever on film. But his sad parting can leave us another legacy — whether addicts or not, in recovery or not.  Stay out of the “shoulds.” Stop comparing where you are to where you think you should be.  The place in between is a chasm–lose your footing and instead of leaping across it with ambition, you’ll find yourself in a free-fall of inadequacy.

Whether or not you believe in God, you can probably sign on to the idea that being kind to others is divine. Just remember to include yourself in that circle of kindness. I have a feeling that’s precisely what Phillip Seymour Hoffman forgot to do.


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