Really bummed about Philip Seymour Hoffman. Like, in tears bummed. One of the actors I would go out of my way to catch even in bit parts is gone. I saw PATCH ADAMS on the big screen and BOOGIE NIGHTS on the little screen in the same year, and I remember being floored by this talent, this guy who dared yell at my beloved Robin Williams, but do so with such authenticity and zeal that I was like, “Yeah, Robin, chillax, man.” Which probably wasn’t the point of the scene, but Hoffman was fond of stealing them. He didn’t care. He was just too damn talented. I can imagine directors yelling “cut” and shaking their heads and asking Phillip to do it one more time, but not quite so good. “You’re supposed to be unlikable,” they would say. Or: “You’re the supporting actor. Stop hurt everyone’s feelings by making this look easy.”
The last time I felt this sense of loss for a young actor, we were losing Heath Ledger, also to an accidental overdose. (Yeah, 46 is young. To me, anyway.) And maybe it’s wrong to get angry at drugs when this stuff happens, maybe it’s too soon, maybe we’re supposed to grieve for a few weeks or months before we look back and get pissed at the needle or the pill, but I’m all jetlagged and upset, and dammit I need something to blame other than the man we just lost.
I find few things sadder than addiction. Poisoning oneself in an attempt at happiness? What’s sadder than that? I had to watch FLIGHT twice, painful both times, just to appreciate how brilliantly that film portrayed the tragedy of addiction. And poor Jesse Pinkman. Yeah, I finally caught the last two seasons of BREAKING BAD. And every damn time he’d kick the habit and then use again, I wanted to strangle him through the screen.
This is the part where I get in trouble, so stop reading right now.
I don’t know if I’d be strong enough to do this if I had kids (it’s easy to give parenting advice to the world when you don’t have any of your own), but I think we’re going about the whole drug thing in the wrong way, and I think it’s getting people killed. Again, it’s probably poor form to make this about drugs so soon after Hoffman’s death, but that same reluctance to tackle this issue, to be honest about it all, does real harm. I can’t be pissed at the man who slid into addiction. Practically no one is stronger than the allure of such cheap happiness. I’m angry. And I think we could do a better job. But it would mean losing the bullshit.
Because that’s the way we talk about drugs with our youth today: We bullshit them. And they know it. “Drugs are bad for you,” we say. “Drugs are horrible.” This invariably comes a decade or so after we’ve taught them we’re full of crap with that whole Santa thing. They’ve got their lying parents on one side, telling them that alcohol and drugs are horrible, and they’ve got their friends on the other side saying how great that buzz feels, and you’ve gotta try this, it’s the best thing ever, man.
Whom do they believe? The people who lied about the Tooth Fairy? Everything parents say is no good — from sweets, to staying up late, to the joys of small explosions — kids quickly find out they like. A lot. We teach them not to trust us. And do their friends ever lie to them? Not about stuff like this.
“Mom and Dad are trying to keep us from being happy, aren’t they?” they think. “Trying to keep all the joy in the world to themselves. Alcohol is bad, but Dad gets to crack a few after work, doesn’t he? I watch him smack his lips and sigh and smile like nothing else makes him smile. He’s always laughing with his friends when they watch the game and have a few drinks. Having all that fun. And they tell me smoking is bad, but I catch Aunt Susan puffing away behind the oak at the cookout, bliss leaking from every pore, looking so serene. There’s a pattern here. Anything they tell me not to do, they think I’m not mature enough to handle. They keep all the good stuff to themselves. Here’s my chance to be an adult, to be as mature as my friends. Sure, pass it here. I’ll try that. Let’s see what all the fuss is about.”
Our brilliant plan is to say “just don’t do it.” Meanwhile, their peers, whom they respect and trust far more than their parents, say “just try it a little. You’ll love it.” That’s a tough battle for parents to win. Because we’re lying to them, and they know it. Their friends are telling the truth, and they know it. This pattern has been established over and over.
So what if we came clean with them right from the start? Just be honest. “Drugs are great,” we could tell them, before they hear it from their peers. “You take drugs, and everything feels amazing. Better than you’ve felt from any other thing in your life. That’s why, once you’ve tried drugs, you’ll never want to do anything else. You’ll throw your life away. You’ll live in the streets in a cardboard box smelling like piss, and you won’t care. You see, drugs are so damn good, so delicious, that you’ll never even care about your family again. That’s right. You’ll never care about me or your father. You won’t even care about your friends. Or going to school or having a job. All you’ll care about is how great that high feels, just for a little bit, and you’ll chase that feeling for the rest of your life. You’ll lie, beg, and steal to get it. And you’ll hate every dull moment in between, every moment that you’re not high. You’ll never enjoy anything else quite like you do now, not once you’ve tasted how great that sensation is. And however strong you think you are, nobody is stronger than drugs. They’re so good, they can take down anyone. Look at this list of people who had it all, who were at the top of their game and had all the money in the world. Every one of them died because of how good drugs are. They’d rather die than live sober. And you will too. You’ll want to die. They’ll kill you, they’re so good. All it takes is dipping a toe, and you’ll want to drown.”
What if we told kids the truth? Because then, when someone passes a joint and says, “You’re gonna love this,” the response is, “Oh, I know. I’ve heard that shit is the bomb. But I’d rather not know how good it is. Spoils the rest of your life, you know? Rather not know. But I believe you. Oh yes, I totally believe you.”
For some reason (maybe my parents were honest with me about drugs when I was young), it was how good drugs were that made me never want to try them. I believed my friends. Maybe I didn’t have their lie in my other ear that made me want to see who was being straight with me. All I knew was that drugs were so awesome that anyone who got into them would throw their entire life away in a never ending pursuit, a mad chase for a tail that didn’t exist. I was terrified of drugs. Still am. But not because someone was warning me that they were “bad.” It’s because I didn’t ever want to be beholden to something that was so all-powerfully good.
Kids are smart. Smarter than we give them credit for being. I remember feeling like an adult at age thirteen or fourteen. Like it was nonsense that I couldn’t drive already. These are the bright youngsters we’re trying to fool. Drugs are scary enough for what they are. These substances tap right into the pleasure centers of our brains, and it skews the world, makes everything else not-as-good. They wreck our ability to feel pleasure. Wouldn’t that scare you more than just hearing that drugs are vaguely “bad?”
Is this a dangerous thing to suggest, being honest with our kids? Is it better to absolve ourselves of guilt if they happen to try drugs on their own? Because this is what I suspect we get out of lying to them: At least we told them drugs sucked. We can’t be blamed if they gave it a try. We warned them. Now it’s their fault. Their friends’ faults. We never suggested that drugs would make them feel good, even though we knew. Because if we did suggest that, and then they tried them, we’d feel culpable. Wouldn’t we? So we stick to the lie. And maybe we’re to blame when they test us, when they decide to see whether their friends are telling the truth.
I don’t know. It just sucks. Rest in peace, Phillip. You’ll be missed.