Artistry, Addiction and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip_Seymour_Hoffman_articleAnother incredibly talented artist dies before his time, and at his own hand. It’s all so tragic and sad, and most of us will read the obits and the tributes and let our hearts ache for his partner and parents and children, and then go back to our own normal, our individual and personal struggle to maintain sanity in the midst of internal chaos.

Hoffman, according to news reports, used heroin to quiet that chaos, a fact that is so desperate it makes me angry and sad all at once.

But it also makes me wonder: Why? And it scares me because at the same time, I think I might know why.

Whenever one of these talented souls implodes, it seems to be due to the weight of his own celebrity or the burden of his art. As a writer with an artistic temperament who is often too sensitive to criticism and too pressured toward perfection, I feel a kinship with Hoffman. But I also see this tragedy through the lens of having witnessed the lives of so many I know and love destroyed by drugs and alcohol. I share DNA with most of them, so it makes the spectator aspect more mirror-gazing than theater-watching.

I’ve wallowed in self-pity and insecurity over my career — Am I good enough? Am I advancing fast enough? I’ve soaked in the praise that comes with getting it really, really right. And I’ve felt that euphoria transform into a paralyzing fear that the next time, I’ll get it equally wrong. I’ve drank too much, too often as a way to ease the pressure that no one puts on me but myself. But there’s a line, rigid and barbed and haunted by the souls of lives I’ve watched go to waste. I’ve never crossed it because I know to do so would put me in a place where, like Hoffman, I might not be able to find my way back. But what separates me from those who cross that line? I believe it’s several things.

I’ve seen the scars that addiction leaves upon a family. I’ve felt its lashes myself. I’m never very excited about the holidays, and I wonder if it’s because as a child you never knew when a fist would crash into glass, your grandmother would spill silent tears or words would become weaponized. I remember being 16 years old, my uncle in a drunken Thanksgiving rage, my 12-year-old sister collapsing in tears in my arms and my response being to chase that man out of the house myself, screaming my own angry, tear-filled rant with no care of what the neighbors could see or hear. I remember arguing with that same uncle, 15 years later, after he walked out of rehab and showed up at my grandfather’s nursing home room, angry because we made good on the threat of: Either you go into rehab or we change the locks. A few days later we got the call: My grandfather, sick of this life and done with fighting a hopeless battle, was gone. A coincidence? Absolutely not.

I have parents who went hungry because their fathers drank away their paychecks. I have grandparents who suffered the exact same fate, and have often wondered if seeing it repeated in their generation wasn’t as shockingly sad to them as it is to me, because they didn’t know to expect any better.

I’ve had enough run-ins with addiction that I am confident I will never go down that road. But I’m also aware that the minute I rely on that confidence I put myself at risk.

My greatest fear now is that the family disease will repeat itself in the next generation. And so when my daughter snaps in anger because a project isn’t coming out “just perfect,” when we bake a cake and it doesn’t look exactly like the one in the magazine, when she is disappointed at getting a 92 on a test instead of a 100, my warning siren goes off. Don’t aim for perfect, I tell her. It’s unattainable. It’s not fair to yourself or to the people around you. And then there are the words I don’t say: It’s what I do to myself, and it’s crippling. So please, please don’t.

Was Hoffman aiming for perfect? Was he trying to mask a deep hurt? Was he powerless against some genetic predisposition to addiction? Maybe one, maybe all. But regardless, I think there’s a lesson to be learned, especially for us creative types.

Go easy on yourself. Don’t expect greatness but revel in it when it arrives. Never lose faith in your ability to create. And know that the future always has the promise of offering more than the past.

These are words I live by, words I will raise my children on. I can only pray that they are enough.

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