Sunday, February 2, 2014

Lessons from Philip Seymour Hoffman

Is it that some of the most talented among us are drawn to opiates, or that we only hear about the famous, admired figures?  Before Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was certainly among my handful of favorite actors, there were others like Health Ledger, Chris Farley, River Phoenix, and Jim Morrison (to turn back time further), and Robert Pastorelli (whom we remember best as “Eldin,” Murphy Brown’s painter who never quite finished the job).

According to the Center for Disease Control, the rates of fatal opiate overdose have more than tripled in the past 2 and a half decades.  Of course, the incidence of death reflects an increase in the number of individuals using these substances.  As I’ve seen in clinical settings during that time, initial exposure to painkillers like Oxycodone (Percocet) or Hydrocodone (Vicodin) too often leads quickly to addiction, characterized by powerful cravings and painful withdrawal symptoms relieved by repeated use.  People who thought they were just following a surgeon’s orders or having fun with drugs in college or neighborhood settings fail to recognize their addictions until they become severe.  Many proceed from pills to heroin, which is much less costly though also more likely to cause overdose (because of unpredictable variations in purity).
If you are concerned about your drug use or that of someone you care about, there are a number of treatment approaches that can help in the very difficult path to sustained recovery.  The process starts with a clinical overview, either with someone in private practice like myself or at an appropriate clinic.  Not every clinician knows much about addictions, which does not prevent them from saying that they do.  Look for either experience working in an alcohol/drug-focused setting or a certification (CADAC or CAS) or alcohol/drug counseling license (in Massachusetts, called LADC).  
If only we had reason to hope that Philip Hoffman’s tragic death would be a turning point for our society, just as the death of Len Bias in 1986 seemed to puncture the myth that anyone was immune to the dangers of cocaine.