An acceptable overdose

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Another prominent drugs death, that of Philip Seymour Hoffman, has again exposed society’s moral judgements about drug users. Reports of the ‘tragedy’ of his death portray Hoffman as a victim, a tortured soul, an artist battling inner demons. I feel for the poor guy, even more so for his three kids – but I am also left questioning the discrepancy in reporting between his death and the reports in my local paper about comparable situations. I wonder why the kid who spent his childhood watching his dad kick his mum’s head in, being raped by his uncle, then living an adult life of deprivation and misery before overdosing in a skip, only gets three lines on page 15.

You could say it is because the local lad never made a dint on the world. He didn’t offer art, beauty and insight to the masses. The difference in media representation reflects the size of the social impact each man had.

You could also say it is a class issue – a rich death is mourned, whilst a poor death is ignored. Maybe human value is just measured in wealth.

But why is it that Philip Seymour Hoffman, a man of considerable intelligence and opportunity, is considered a victim? Where is his agency in this situation?

It goes back to the same moral position I recognised in myself many months ago, this presumption so unwittingly common, that using drugs is bad. And, as with all immoral activity, for those who we choose not to perceive as bad – possibly because we relate to them, or respect them, and struggle to look at them without also seeing a reflection of ourself – we must instead formulate them as either mad or sad. So they become ‘tortured’, a victim of their ailment, circumstance or art. With such brilliance, it could happen to anyone.

Of course, your average die-in-an-alley heroin user does not evoke this sense of admiration. He would have lacked eloquence, instead conveying his pain through aggressive expletives, and probably smelled a bit. We would have tried our best not to identify with him – to imagine how we would have coped with the hand life had dealt him, how he might feel as door after door shut in his face, his options reduced to their basest – to live or to die.

And yet whose death really is tragic? A man whose life embodied success and choice, whose demise resulted from an informed choice?

It is sad, as almost every death is. I do not feel, however, that Hoffman deserves our pity. He made his choices. And when he chose to inject himself, he had a number of other options available to him that day, chances most only ever dream of.

For those who stand in Daily Mail judgement of the drug users in their community – not the professionals who have the odd line or the students using MCat, I mean the drug users who with pasty, clammy skin and homemade tattoos – I recommend you watch “Stuart – a life backwards”. I had no idea it was possible to fit twelve years of drugs work into one film. And, as with many of my clients, the main character is mad, sad and bad all at the same time – as well as being a man worthy of admiration and bloody hilarious.

I just wonder, without presupposed moral judgements about drug users, how much more we would learn about the human experience. Hoffman must have had reasons for choosing to take the risks he did, not because he wanted the deification his death seems to have provoked. But no doubt any realism of his motivations will be media-ised into a preformed box to prove he was mad or sad. Whilst the local lad will be remembered for his convictions.

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15 comments on “An acceptable overdose

  1. A Fan says:

    I think you’re missing the point here. ..

    The reason Hoffman’s death has gained such a huge response is that we as fans really feel the loss. Not seeing him in another movie is just too sad.

    And I would feel the same way about Tom Hardy (the actor playing Stuart in that wonderful movie) should he relapse and go the same way.

    This is the difference of ODing when the world loves you vs noone even knows you. Also when you pay for your own drugs and lifestyle or when others pay for it. I don’t think its about good or bad or victim or not.

    Speaking of the screen…I have been waiting for you to write a blog on Breaking Bad….

    • I agree with the reason why the amount of reporting has differed – my point is about the manner in which the news is reported. It is the false dichotomy that is created when the use of drugs is portrayed as a moral issue – hence the user needs to be perceived as either good (or sad/mad) or bad.

      And re: Breaking Bad, as I am not generally a fan of American… well anything cultural really, I didn’t pick up on it until very late in the day. Love it so far though!

  2. A Fan says:

    Can you give examples of OD’s reported as “bad”?…

    I’m also late to Breaking Bad so no spoilers; )

    • Ha ha no definitely no spoilers!

      In terms of ODs reported as ‘bad’, I guess I’m talking broadly about the media’s demonisation of drugs users as a whole – unless they are under 18 or famous (in which case they are victims). The 1-dimensional, uncompassionate portrayal of ‘addicts’ make moral judgements about people who choose to use drugs, but particularly the most vulnerable and needy in our society. No-one would choose to be poor, or desperate, or ill – but a person’s reason for living such a lifestyle is omitted in the reporting of events.

      I suppose, after so many years working with heroin users, seeing how they are perceived and treated, and hearing of their largely miserable existences (for those who consistently abuse themselves generally have a history of childhood abuse, and use substances so unhealthy as a maladaptive coping mechanism), I just feel a little irritated by the extreme compassion offered to superstars who, by comparison, are less worthy of the emotion. In the deprived areas where I have worked, options are few – and yet the reaction is not ‘poor, tortured soul’ but ‘what a dirty scumbag’. Just a little more parity between polarities would seem more realistic. Neither end of the spectrum is right, in my eyes. I just find the discrepancy hard to swallow.

  3. Jamie says:

    Good observations of what is essentially a class issue , isn’t it?
    Surely Hoffmann’s value was in part given to him via parents, education , belief , confidence …His choice may have been no more informed than the community smack head and his desperation/ pressure may have been relatively equal… However surely he was afforded more opportunity to throw away?
    Ps – you owe me a quality lecture !!!
    Pps -a Fan- Breaking bad-depravity to saciate middle America in glorious technicolor , breaking bad is a well produced sitcom but hardly a social comment on drug use in my view …. Have you seen ‘the house I live in’ not as entertaining but a similar angle to the one DWTW has focused on which is the systematic and constructed demonisation of a whole section of society … Impoverished drug users are not simply the new scapegoats since women got the vote and racial equality was embedded into the western idea of civilisation , there is a whole financial industry in keeping people ‘bad’

  4. A Fan says:

    Honestly I don’t see it like that….. the “bad”in Breaking Bad refers to the main character who decides to use his chemistry skills to cook meth to raise money for his family. This is the moral dilemma….he does this because he doesn’t really know and understand the devastating effects of the drug on the people that use it and by the time he does …its too late and he stops having a choice as the situation takes a life of its own….

    Pretty much like addiction. I think there are basically three ways that addicts are perceived and it depends on the person perceiving rather then the addict:

    1. An addict in recovery reads about an OD and thinks phew thank god that’s not me

    2. A practising addict reads about an OD and thinks that’s going to be me some day if I don’t stop this.

    3. The healthy person reads about an OD and thinks why did he go and do something stupid like that….They really don’t understand feeling so bad about being yourself or living a life that is only bearable by being out of your mind so you can’t feel anything. They just don’t get it and therefore I cannot judge them for it.

    I don’t see it as a class issue at all.

    • I think substance abuse IS a class issue, in that it tends to prevail where options are restricted. Where I live, there is mass unemployment, high social exclusion, and really not much else to do. I remember when I first came to work round here, having only ever worked before in cities. Being encouraging and positive (and clutching at straws), I said to one young lad who was third-generation unemployed and injecting heroin into his neck, “What is there to do round here – football team, community centre..?” and he answered “There’s two options, the dealer’s or the pub”. The pairing of minimal opportunities, a complete lack of positive role models within a community, and the chance to achieve respect and notoriety within the only social group you know, mean that in some communities, it definitely is a class issue.

      And I suppose, in part, that was the point I was trying to make in this article.

      However, I’m not convinced that the difference in reporting can be out down to class differences. Of course it will be a factor – people round here don’t go into careers in the media – but, for me, the most interesting aspect is the use of moral polarities, and what purpose that serves.

      We all know that everyday folk try and relate their drab existences with the lives of celebrities. Magazines tell us how to ‘get that look’, Facebook asks us ‘which famous person are we’ or ‘do we share a birthday with’.

      People do not have the same response to drug users. Nobody wants to know the back-story, to imagine what life might be like for them, or why they have made the choices they have. And so there is an urge to label, blame, create distance. Instead of likening ourselves, we try and disassociate.

      Then of course there is the current political agenda – to blame the poor and desperate for the state of the country – which seeps, in one extreme or the other, into every piece of media coverage at the minute.

      But there is also the legally-supported War On Drugs. Current power structures benefit and profit from maintaining the dichotomy between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ drugs. In order for this to be preserved, the moral polarities also require constant reinforcement. Drug users are bad, scummy, sub-human, a risk to society. So when a well-respected celebrity becomes exposed as a drug user, one of two things happen – they are either berated and turned on by the media (Nigella Lawson being a recent example – the fact that crying ‘drug user’ is a common technique used by domestic abuse perpetrators to devalue the victim seems to have been overlooked by our well-informed journalists, and her relatively unproblematic cocaine use has been used to redefine her), or they are portrayed as tragic Shakespearean figures, whose fatal flaw was their art, the struggle for which also made them brilliant.

      The truth is – we are all substance users in one form or another. And as with Nigella Lawson or Philip Seymour Hoffman, we all make our choices, be that to sit up drinking whiskey or get an early night. Amy Winehouse was not a victim – she was an intelligent, privileged woman with an array of choices before her. Yet in making stupid decisions, she has somehow been deified. Had she been an abused single mother with extremely limited choices, living in a shitty area of low aspiration, and she had made the same decisions, she would be labelled as a selfish person, a bad mother, and someone whose faults and demise were completely her own.

      I understand the human need to liken ourselves to people we admire and divide ourselves from those we do not. I just wish it wasn’t so crude, that the media would be less morally polarised in their reporting, and that the rest of us would be a little more analytic in our reading of these stories.

  5. A Fan says:

    Drug use prevails where pain and loneliness resides…that’s both at the top with the millionaires and media stars and at the bottom with the disaffected. But not everyone uses and certainly not everyone gets addicted…there are some healthy people out there…..I have met a few myself.

    As someone from a third world country I can tell you that anywhere in England is ripe with opportunities. Education is free and with hard work the world is your oyster…..there are areas with much greater poverty where there isn’t the same level of drug use. Even if that third generation heroin addict lived in London he would still be injecting as he was created in a heroin filled womb and saw it as part of life growing up.

    As for choosing to take drugs that lead to OD, I don’t know how I feel about that. Does anyone choose the kind of trauma that causes addiction…I’m not saying that Amy was a victim but I am saying that she found living sober impossible….I don’t think she “chose” that.

    • A couple of things I want to say in response..

      I fully agree with the first point. Drug use exists everywhere, but drug abuse breeds like bacteria in areas of infection and weakness.

      Secondly, the heroin user I mentioned was not third-generation heroin user – he was third-generation unemployed. The industry that fuelled his community went a long time ago, and all that was left was a council estate in the middle of fields. There were NO employment opportunities where he lived, and only minimal opportunities available via public transport. He could, of course, got a job one way or another – but the type of aspirationless community from which he came is something which people who live in even the poorest areas of cities will struggle to envisage. It is social exclusion not just in the psychological sense but also the physical.

      In tema of you final point about addiction – if I believed that drug use wasn’t a choice, I would have wasted the last 12 years of my life. I have seen people with the most restricted of opportunities make positive decisions about their drug use – it is definitely a choice. I agree that those with mental health problems, on particular psychosis (because heroin is a better antipsychotic than anything on the market) and post-traumatic stews disorder (because it is the best emotional blocker) will have much better reasons to keep using it – and they were always the client group I most enjoyed working with, because I felt their choices were most restricted. But even amongst those populations, I have seen the most abused, damaged and alone decide that thy want something different for themselves.

      You yes, people can get jobs but it’s hard, and hey can stop using but it’s

    • ..sorry, but it’s hard – but if I didn’t have faith in, and multiple examples of, people changing their lives in the face of adversity, I wouldn’t speak so strongly about people who I know could have done something better with their life choices.

  6. A Fan says:

    I wonder if “choice” is the right word here.

    If I say ” those people are choosing to stay in the middle of nowhere” then you say ” well he is so geographically and socially so excluded that he can’t even see other possibilities” so I say “well then he really doesn’t have a choice.

    A similar thing happens with drugs, people take drugs to escape pain and loneliness. They cannot see another way of existence so they really don’t have a choice.

    I think what may happen with people that manage to escape either exclusion or drugs is that the current reality becomes more unbearable then the fear of change or moving to the unknown. They cannot stay where they are anymore. They don’t have a choice and this fuels the energy for focused sobriety and geographical relocation.

    It’s just an idea. ..

    • Yes, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. Drug users often say ‘you have to hit rock bottom’. The motivation to change has to be greater than the reasons not to. So it is a choice, in all the examples we have discussed – but the pros have to outweigh the cons. (These are exactly the tools we use in drugs work to encourage behaviour change, as it happens..)

      I wrote a policy several years ago about referral for rehab funding. In our area, the purse-strings were being held by one megalomaniac social worker, who reserved the god-like right to make sole decisions on who was worthy of rehab funding. Myself and a colleague put together an evidence-based document to challenge her decisions about who was ‘ready’ for rehab – and the evidence stated, very clearly, that motivation could come from many sources. So a defendant given the option of rehab or prison, or a parent losing their child to adoption unless they participated in a rehab programme – these types of external motivation were just as likely to end in a successful drug-free outcome as someone with high motivation and good resources.

      And if you live in a shitty area with no prospects but your mum is there and she makes you dinner every night, maybe that is enough to make you stay. I know that the most difficult drug users to work with are the ones whose parents bail them out all the time – because, when it comes down to it, they never really reach the lows that motivate change..

  7. A Fan says:

    Well if it is a choice based on pros and cons calculated while sitting on “rock bottom” then do users have any choice of how high or low their rock bottom is?

    Rock bottom is such a variable place….and do we have a choice about where our own is located….

    • I think it’s different for everyone. It depends on many things such as self-worth (and how low you are prepared to LET yourself go), social norms (what everyone around you thinks is acceptable), and individual resources and differences, such as pride, available support, determination, etc. I have had some clients say that a word of concern from a parent or child, or even a comment from a friend about changes in appearance, have provided enough motivation for that person to stop using heroin.

      And you don’t have to let yourself get to rock bottom! You have the choice to intervene in your own destiny before you let things get that bad!

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