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Philip Seymour Hoffman and the Russian Roulette of Relapse

I had the great fortune once again of working with a near and dear friend of mine, sadly, again  the occasion was sad. William Irwin, PhD is professor of Philosophy at Kings College in Pennsylvania and, among other distinctions, is the series editor of Philosophy and Pop Culture. Bill and I have been friends since we were teenagers and are both fans of Philip Seymour Hoffman and so we thought it fitting to write a piece about this untimely passing. We chose the venue of his blog on I have included it here in its completed form below:

Recognizing that he had a problem, Mr. Hoffman quit using drugs and alcohol after college, but he resumed his habit several months ago. Heroine, Hoffman’s preferred drug, produces “an exaggerated sense of wellbeing,” and this is the lure. As heroine use persists, though, it becomes less about the high and more about staving off withdrawal symptoms, which start within 6-8 hours of the last use. Heroine withdrawal has been described as “the flu on steroids” and can result in death if not medically monitored. Heroine addicts call using “getting straight” because it has the immediate effect of minimizing or stopping withdrawal symptoms.

Unlike other Hollywood celebrities who make the news with their on-and-off battles with addiction, Hoffman had been clean and sober for 23 years before resuming drug use several months ago. One might think all that time free from addiction would mean that he would stand a better chance of beating it when he resumed his drug use. Not so. There is an expression in the world of recovery that addiction is “chronic, progressive, and fatal.”

When an addict like Hoffman stops using drugs his body can often heal from much of the damage. Unfortunately, though, no amount of time away from the substance is enough to erase the addiction. This is why people in 12-step programs refer to themselves as “recovering” alcoholics or “recovering” addicts. They recognize that, even though they are sober and abstinent, their addiction is alive and well. It is “doing push ups outside the meeting room,” as they say. The bottom line is that addiction can be treated but it cannot be cured. Hoffman likely knew that, but the subtle insanity of addiction led him back where he came from.

In the world of recovery there are “slips” and there are “relapses.” A slip is a one-time or small-scale occurrence with immediate return to sobriety, whereas a relapse is a full-scale return to the former way of life. There is no way of predicting whether using the drug again after a period of sobriety will amount to a small slip or result in a major relapse. So, several months ago, when Mr. Hoffman took heroine for the first time in 23 years he was, in effect, playing Russian roulette. And he lost. The slip was actually a relapse, and the relapse cost him his life.

What could he have done differently? It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback. We do not know the details of Hoffman’s recovery, but we do know that he would have been welcomed back in the rooms of 12-step programs. It’s not okay to have a relapse, but if you have a relapse it’s okay to come back. There is no hierarchy in 12-step meetings. The person with 20 years of sobriety is no better than the person with 6 months. Movie star or maintenance man, any individual is treated equally. Although an individual might feel like a failure if they have a relapse after a long period of sobriety, they are always treated with dignity and often a round of applause and effusive hugs when they return. Coming back under those circumstances is literally like getting a second chance at life. The Russian roulette of relapse doesn’t have to end badly.


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    Eugene J.R. Lombardo LCSW - JR's Thoughts - Philip Seymour Hoffman and the Russian Roulette of Relapse
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    Eugene J.R. Lombardo LCSW - JR's Thoughts - Philip Seymour Hoffman and the Russian Roulette of Relapse
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