Philip Seymour Hoffman died yesterday, apparently alone in his bathroom with a needle in his arm. I grieve for him, his family, and his close friends that must now face a reality that has been dulled by his absence.
His death, like many other Hollywood and music superstars before him, begins a new discussion about drug addiction and the struggle to get clean. Inevitably, there will be a large portion of the population that will view his drug use as a choice and his death, therefore, a decision. It’s often not said that succinctly, but if we tease out the underlying sentiment, I think I’ve nailed it down pretty well.
Let me be clear on one thing before we begin: I am NOT, nor have I ever been, addicted to drugs or alcohol. I am NOT married to, been in a relationship with, or lost anyone I love dearly to the disease of addiction. I DO care a great deal about humanity and I mourn the loss of anyone to disease of any kind. I DO think it’s important to recognize addiction for what it is.
I don’t believe Phillip Seymour Hoffman had any choice in his addiction nor his death. The only way I can help you understand how I feel is to explain this in terms of sugar. Before you put me on blast for comparing a drug to a food, consider this statement from a report by NPR, “recent studies have shown that sugar can produce changes in the brain and behavior that resemble addiction.“
Just like heroin, not everyone who tries sugar will become addicted and those that do become addicted to sugar will most likely not be able to stop without intervention.
Have you ever had an obese friend, family member, or acquaintance that expressed how much they would love to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle? Have you also watched that same person continuously make horrible food decisions day in and day out? They may succeed in losing weight for periods of time on any number of fad diets, but sadly return to obesity every time.
Each doughnut, chocolate bar, or big mac they consume inches them closer to death. From the Surgeon General’s Office: There are around 300,000 obesity related deaths each year, with risks rising as weight increases. These friends and loved ones know the risk, if not the actual statistics, but they do it anyway.
We humans love to judge others and their decisions. For those of us not addicted to sugar, it’s utterly confusing why anyone would choose to do something that destroyed their quality of life and put them at risk of early death. Those not faced with addiction will look at each and every meal as a choice. But that is precisely the point at which addicts are separated from non-addicts.
We make choices every day by using our brains to evaluate the risk/reward, cost-to-benefit-ratio, chance of success or failure, etc. Based on our experiences in the world, we have each finely tuned our brain to assign value to all things in life – people, places, activities, and so on. Imagine for a minute if that powerful choice machine, your brain, decided to change the value of certain things without your input. No amount of pleading, thinking, or praying will sway the brain in its decision. It has decided to do a big chemical backfire, and there is nothing you can do about it.
That is how I see addiction. I’m not a scientist, doctor, or anyone with any letters after my name, but I am someone that believes addicts do not have a choice.
It’s easy to look at a heroin, alcohol, or even sugar addict and think it is a choice. Was it a choice the first time someone tried heroin? Absolutely. But that choice was based on their experience with the world and the value their brain put on the experience of trying heroin; the risk versus reward. The choice to try heroin was the product of experience, the addiction to heroin was the product of the drug itself.
The choice to eat sugar is not as complicated since most of us get introduced to it within a few moments of birth, but addiction to sugar is a product of the food (drug) itself. When we begin to learn more about the power of sugar as an addictive substance, I hope we also gain a better understanding of the disease of addiction itself. Sugar is something that affects all of us and harder to ignore and marginalize.
If you enjoyed this, please share. It’s love and understanding that will move us forward.
If you are looking for treatment for you or a loved one, please call or email one of the resources below. It’s not a choice, it’s a disease that needs treatment.
SAMHSA – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association
Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous