(Planet Me)
Sunday, June 22, 2014
The Master

As I put my son to bed one Sunday night in January, I carried him upstairs, his prone and exhausted form draped over me. He said just one word. “Mummy.”

“Mummy” is the word that is often the last word of the dying. As I carried him upstairs, I realised that Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the greatest actor of our generation who died recently, was once this small, this fragile. That his last thought may have been for his Mother. That he had children that he will never put to bed again. What a loss on an absolute personal basis, irrespective of anything as irrelevant as the fact he was in my opinion, the greatest actor alive.

Whilst some people may have thought he was selfish, or who squandered his talent. Absolutely not true. He was a very talented man, but also, just a person. A person, with loves, hopes, fears. Just a man with a man's courage. He did not have a disease, or a choice. He was born the way he was. We are born with the sexual orientation we have, gay, straight, whatever. Others of us are born with a natural skill for sport, or playing the guitar. Philip Seymour Hoffman was born with an affliction, not a disease. Cancer is a disease : it is something you develop. Sometimes, being a drug addict, or a sex addict, or whatever else you may have, is who you really are, and to deny that is to deny part of yourself. But also, to fight a battle and lose against that is to let that deny you from being yourself. The battle between two sometimes mutually exclusive desires is eternal, and the only hope is the side of self-preservation wins long enough.

In the interests of self-disclosure, I used to have an extremely addictive personality. I know from the minor vices I have let into my life, such as music, and sex, that it is very easy to let go and give in to the lure of serotonin and dopamine. I'd want to lose myself. If I could feel like that - weightless, free, without the chains of responsibility and reality some of the time... why not all time?

I know from the mild moments as a teenager, that were I to actually commit to it, I'd not be a part-timer. Having an addictive personality, and liking control, are the two dominant elements in my personality. So far, control has won. In some ways I regret not being braver in my life, but in others, being a coward has kept me alive. Not following my dreams completely has given me an ordinary life, for good and bad. I never tried to be the most creative person I could. Never truly tried. I dabbled, but never made the leap of faith. Fear held me back. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a drug addict who happened to be, for a lot of life, a lapsed drug addict, like a Catholic who doesn't go to church, or a guitarist without a band. You don't stop being that person, you just stop practising, or stop worshipping. You lapse. I would when younger go to absurd lengths to experience that sense of escape, and now frankly, I am older, wiser, and more boring, but also, less willing to go to those lengths. I realised those behaviours were potentially very destructive and making me the person I didn't want to be. I would be around people who I didn't like (and don't worry, it's almost definitely not you), and who I don't know anymore, because it enabled me to experience that moment of surrender, when everything else – the unsatisfactory real world – goes away. Nowadays my vices are aging rock bands and damn good movies. But at the time, in the grip of that, I didn't care about the personal risk I exposed myself or others to, or about my job, my relationships, or my friends. I cared only about the temporary bliss of escaping everything for a brief while. And it stopped being fun, and started being simply not not fun. Sometimes around people, I was lonelier than if there was no-one there. Being an addict – of whatever it is – is a lonely existence, because no one else can experience it. Thankfully for them. Everytime I felt guilty. We all have our habits. Our vices. I was lucky. I knew when it was time to stop, time to step back, time to let go of the thing that had stopped making me happy and started making me the person I didn't want to be. There comes a time when simply we realise this, and we fight it. Sometimes it beats us, and sometimes it doesn't. My self-preservation instinct pulled me back before it was too late to ever come back.

No one wants to be chained to the compulsion that is ruining their lives : welded, as it were, to Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? I managed to escape, but I could relapse at any moment : though it is staggeringly unlikely I will to be honest. Others – including the greatest actor of our generation – had a different path laid before them. We are all of us, just one fall from grace away. One car accident with morphine to kill the pain. One biopsy. One smear test. Addiction is like depression. Don't think it couldn't happen to you. It could. The monster is always there, waiting. It has all the time in the world, and it only needs to win once. Think of a small boy, called Philip, aged four, being carried to bed, and softly saying “Mummy” as he goes to sleep. Think of the fact that all of us were four once. It could be any of us.

This was an incredibly brave post, and I admire you for it. I myself am an alcoholic and, though it's been 17 years since my last drink, I could just as easily pick up later today. Not likely, thankfully, but I live with it always. I wasn't able to pull back for my own self-preservation, as you were. I live with some regrets to this day as a result. But I can't change anything, only learn and hopefully grow from it. Hoffman's story breaks my heart. Yours gives me hope. Thank-you for that.
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