The casket carrying actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of an alleged drug overdose leaves the funeral service on February 1, 2014 at St. Ignatius Of Loyola in New York City. (Dave Kotinsky / Getty Images)
Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s recent death from an apparent heroin overdose not only focused attention on the nation’s heroin crisis, it was also a big wake up call for all those who suffer from alcoholism and drug addiction.
When someone succumbs to the power of a drug or alcohol after many years of sobriety (Hoffman was reportedly sober for 23 years until he fell off the wagon last year) , the realization is that no one, not even an esteemed, Oscar-winning actor, is invincible. It doesn’t matter how much clean time he or she has banked.
“People on staff here and people who have been in recovery for a long time get worried because, it‘s like, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,” said Tom Ghena, administrative director of Henry Ford’s Maplegrove Center in West Bloomfield, a substance abuse in-patient rehab facility.
And while everyone’s path in sobriety is different, how someone with decades-long sobriety is lured back into the chaos-ridden throes of addiction (one writer described it as “a voice that supercedes all reason, an unrelenting echo of an infallible voice”) is really not all that complicated.
“It is not a mystery,” Ghena said. “People with long-term recovery know what works for them and once they start looking at themselves as a normal person who can do what everybody else does, they get in trouble. ... The fact of the matter is you learn in recovery that you just have to listen and follow directions. Once you stop listening and following directions, you get in trouble. It’s a very simplistic way of putting things, but the fact is when people are relapsing some form of that element is missing.”
Fifteen or 20 years ago Maplegrove’s inpatient beds — there are 40 — were mostly filled by people in their 40s with alcohol problems. Now, Ghena says, almost half are opiate dependent.
Heroin addiction is “very, very prevalent,” he says. Especially among young people
“In general, to develop alcoholism it takes about 10 to 12 years, but you can develop a heroin addiction between semesters of school. It doesn’t not take long. It has a limited room for error.”
That‘s because it is highly addictive, cheaper than prescription drugs and readily available. “Some will go to the inner city to get heroin, but they don’t have to. You can get it in Farmington, in Royal Oak, in Birmingham, and in Ferndale, in just about any suburb.”
And the physical dependence makes withdrawal so devastating, “they will sell their soul to get it.”
Whatever triggered Hoffman to relapse, the road back must have seemed insurmountable. “If you’re sober for 20 years, the last thing you want to do is tell people that you’re drinking again,” Ghena says. “It just becomes so overwhelming and that shame that you got your arms around in treatment just comes back in spades. Then that shame leads to isolation.”
The good news is that there is lot of good, solid therapy out there for people at risk. And too, there are new drugs to effectively treat opiad addiction, including rescue medication that can reverse the overdose process and withdrawal medicines that can dramatically reduce symptoms when detoxing.
While the course of recovery is largely unpredictable and high-profile lethal overdoses hit those in recovery hard, Ghena says the work is gratifying.
“I was walking out the door last Friday, around 7 p.m., and this young mother with her infant in her arms was just leaving. She was saying her husband had been here for six or seven days and she was beginning to see him get better. She was ecstatic and so grateful,” he says.
“In the addiction field, you can see turnaround like that pretty quickly.”