Sunday 9 February 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Some deaths affect one more than others. Even when one doesn’t know the deceased, the full impact of their demise never really disappears. Often this happens with performers, be it actors or actresses who have left a long-lasting impression on us through an iconic role; or musicians who, with their charisma, have pulled us out of dark moments in our lives.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of those people.

To me Philip was in the same category as a John Malkovich, a Tilda Swinton or a Forest Whitaker. At their best, these actors make the audience forget that they are playing a role. And yet, when you see them with the make-up off, or without the special effects, or the prosthetic limbs, they look so ordinary. They look as if they are about to pop down to the shops for a bit of washing up liquid, a couple of lemons and some garlic. I grew up on the same block a famous Cuban actor used to live on. He still does. I often wondered: how is it possible that this man made me cry last night at the theatre and now he is queuing in front of me to get the same milk I’ll get, using the same ration card I’ll use and talking to the people from the barrio without any airs and graces?

I first saw Hoffman in Happiness, a film so disturbing that I remember travelling on the Underground at the time trying to work out who was hiding a possible Allen inside. I then saw Boogie Nights and I knew that he had it. He had that knack of not just transforming himself into the role he was playing but also transforming the viewer’s notion of what acting was. A couple of years ago Film Four showed The Big Lebowski and would you believe it? There he was again, in a minor role, but you couldn’t miss it.

Drugs: a complex issue
Seymour Hoffman  not only had a strong, chameleonic stage persona, he also had a trait common to all of us: he was a human being. A fallible human being, as it turned out. One who was addicted to heroin apparently. It is this dichotomy that makes his death hard to take. On one side we were exposed to his versatility as an actor, his fearlessness in taking on difficult roles (his Capote was as good as Toby Jones). On the other side there was a fragility, a vulnerability that even he himself must have repudiated and struggled with.

All this made me think of drugs and why people take them. I don’t just mean the act or the context, but also our views on the whole process. Mention the word “drug” and many of us put our blinkers on. We become judgemental rather than logical. It was only after I became a parent that I began to think of drugs more seriously. What if? There’s always a “what if?” with parents. The more I read about the subject, the more in the dark I found myself. Also, the more afraid I was.

I used to be a firm believer in prohibition. Ban drugs and order will follow. Lock up drug dealers and society will improve. Notice the past tense. I used to believe that. But not anymore. Just like it happened with capital punishment – in which I also had great belief – I used to think that if you put more resources on the ground, i.e., more police, more coastguards, better border controls, you could eventually solve the drugs problem. But addiction is not straightforward. First of all it's the nature of it. Is it a mental or physical condition? We know that the body doesn’t demand heroin natural (it demands food and water), so therefore the need to shoot up comes from a social environment. This environment could be a learnt one (children exposed to drug addict parents), or one they have accessed through their peer network. What I have come to realise is that we lack strategies to deal with different scenarios.

When someone suggested to me many years ago, when my children were still very little, that the better way to deal with the perennial drugs and booze problem was let teenager have them in a safe environment, I confess that I gave my interlocutor a dirty look. To me that was to admit defeat. However, he was half-right.

Hoffman died on his own, shooting up. He wasn’t in a party indulging himself in a cocktail of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. That means that it can happen to anyone anywhere. I have no information on the quality of the drugs he was using at the time of his death, but I do know that many of the junkies looking to get high right now will most likely end up buying an unregulated product from someone who doesn’t give a damn about human life.

Do I agree with the consumption of drugs? No, I don’t, even though the title of this regular column has the name “coffee” in it. Caffeine is a drug. Do I agree with people dealing with drugs? No, I don’t. I admit that whenever I think of this topic part of me sometimes becomes a human version of The Daily Mail whilst on other occasions it is my liberal, progressive mindset that is in control. But I believe that there is something on which I am sure everyone will agree. We need to talk about drugs. We owe it to Philip and others. We also owe it to the next generation, unless we want to see more people ending up dead with a syringe by their side.

© 2014

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About...”, to be published on Wednesday 12th February at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Oh yes - we need to talk about drugs - and, as a child of the sixties I'm sort-of liberal. But it's complicated - I have no difficult with a spliff or two, but when it becomes destructive of the self and others, then it's a Problem. But that point varies from one person to another - which makes blanket legislation such a blunt instrument.

    But with illegal drugs come crime - and some sort of regulation could have a huge impact on the both petty possession-type crime as well as the heavy-end, drug-running gangs.

    There's no easy answer.

    And thank you for commenting on my blogs from Cuba. I'll try to get some pictures up soon. And reflections, once I've begun to make sense of them.

  2. I am old school, therefore I find it difficult to accept the taking of drugs. I half understand that pressures drive people to take some kind of relief, although there are other ways of dealing with their problems, but I hate those who get youngsters started on the downward slope. We all have problems, but not everyone resorts to drug taking. Nor should they. I was sad to hear about Hoffman, he was a fine actor. So yes, we should talk about drugs, if that is the only way to remove the filth from our midst.

  3. Thanks Jo and Valerie for your thoughtful comments. This is a thorny issue and I realise that many people will have very strong opinions about it. So, I really appreciate your balanced views.

    There were a few typos in the post. I apologise for those. These have been amended now.

    Greetings from London.

  4. I, too, used to believe that drug addiction could be overcome by locking up the drug dealers...more police devoted to weeding them out etc.
    But it really isn't that simple, is it? I see now how I had such a naive view of the subject. It is so much more complex than that. There are probably more reasons people turn to drugs than there are days in the year.

    It does really make me think when someone famous, with seemingly everything going for them, turns to drugs. I ask myself "why?"
    There is no simple answer.
    We all have our demons...I think it's all a question of how we deal with them.

  5. Seymour Hoffman, enorme actor, lastima que haya caido ante las drogas.

  6. Can't say I feel overly sad for the guy, he did it, it was his decision, no one forced it into his arm. it is an addiction, no argument, but he chose the path to the addiction. We should talk about them indeed though and it has to stop being made "cool" to do them.

  7. Yes, we must talk about this. I too, like Valerie, am old school. But with age, with experience, one begins to see how one can become addicted to something as strong as heroine. Don't we rely on caffeine to get our morning wake-up call? Don't we rely on sugar for similar reasons? After we experience the calming effects of meds after an operation, don't we crave that same feeling when things feel painful and out of control?

    Few of us choose a path. We end up on that path through circumstances, and never truly see all the warning signs. Drugs ought to remain in the realm of medicine, prescribed and managed by a third party who can see how our bodies react. Having said that, and having seen too many good people die of overdose, I too think that this whole idea of addiction needs to be talked about.

  8. we def. have to talk about drugs, about the dangers, the risks and also why people are endangered to consume them... when i was a teen i read the book "wir kinder vom bahnhof zoo" written by christiane f. - a drug addict in berlin and she told her story, how she became addicted to heroin, the background, the friends she lost to overdoses - def. helped me understand the whole thing a bit more and there was a time when i was taking some drugs as well - and one of the things that saved me was the knowledge i had from that book

  9. just checked... in case you're interested... the book is also available in english...there's a film as well but it's not half as good as the book... "we children from bahnhof zoo" is the english title... bahnhof zoo is the name of the subway station in berlin where the drug scene met at that time

  10. Philip Seymour Hoffman was 46 years of age. A directory I located listed 46 films, including two in pre-production, in which he had a role. As best I can tell, I have seen four of those movies so, obviously, I did not have much of a feel for him as an actor other than having seen "Capote" five or six times because Truman Capote was a fascinating creature. I have read most of what Capote wrote, and I thought Hoffman was brilliant portraying him on screen.

    You cannot save a person from himself, but I do subscribe to John Donne's tolling bell imagry.

    As for addictions, I am not certain I believe in them. I have read quitting cigarettes is more difficult than quitting heroin. I have not tried heroin, but stopped smoking after a number of years and while I was going through three to four packs a day. I like liquor, but seldom drink to excess. As a reporter, I once did a bit of extensive reporting about drug usage, which included several interviews with users and dealers. I ran a drug treatment unit for a while when I worked in corrections and, ill-equipped as I might be, frequently counseled and advised inmates who were in prison solely because of drug-related crimes.

    With this background, I believe in harsher laws, not reduced laws, and in real-time incarceration with rehabilitation programs in facilities which do not house "career" or "hard core" criminals.

    Heavy-duty stuff for a Sunday morning, CiL, but certainly a topic worth thinking about and talking about ....

  11. Addiction is a complicated topic with no easy answers. I can't even imagine the personality that becomes addicted. Well, in some cases I do understand - US vets have a high addiction rate but that has to be a way to drown out the horrors that they have experienced. For others - such as the rich and famous - I really don't understand. The police found 50 bags of heroin in Hoffman's apartment. 50 bags! The mind boggles. But we do know from American's failed experiment with prohibition that trying to ban the stuff doesn't work.

    Self-knowledge, self-discipline, a path in life that is focused on creativity, kindness, giving more to others - that might be some of the answer. But then, that would require a different kind of education and a different kind of parenting.

    As you say, no easy answers. Those who want to become addicts find the easy answer. The rest of us struggle with the mess they create while trying to protect the innocent.

  12. Thank you. There are rather a lot of things that we need to talk about - and listen to others too. Addiction is an important one. As is mentai illness. All addictions, all mental illnesses.

  13. Es la vida de muchos famosos que terminan con ella antes del tiempo previsto.
    Un abrazo.

  14. One of the worst things that can happen to someone with an addictive personality (and/or when too young) is fame, adoration and excessive wealth. It gets many into a heap of trouble. What a sad loss to the world.

  15. Well, we've been talking about drugs for a long time in this country but little has come of it.

    Heroin is a pain killer. Most addicts are people who are in great pain. If you've never suffered from depression or any other serious mental illness, then you probably can't relate. It's not a matter of being an "addictive personality."

    I think a lot of good actors see life differently than most of us and that they probably have had more than their share of internal suffering and strife. It's been said that a disproportionate number of actors use drugs and/or alcohol.

    I could be wrong and it could be that heroin addicts are simply lazy people looking for a high, but then I could be right. Who is to say? Some will say, "Don't give me that poor suffering addict crap. They're all just a bunch of low class shiftless vultures." Such is a good part of the discussion we seem to have had in the past.

    Personally, I think legal heroin programs might help. We have legal methadone clinics and methadone is known to be more addictive than heroin so why not heroin clinics? Because of the stigma attached to the word "heroin." This is one idea we have not talked enough about.

    Sometimes I wonder just what does the overused word "addictive" mean anyway. Is an addicted personality actually a personality type? Could it be that given enough suffering from mental/emotional pain, we might also turn to heroin to stop the pain?

    Btw, I also like Philip Seymour Hoffman a lot.

  16. Drug addiction is a problem which will never be entirely solved. Take away or restrict one drug and another pops up. A certain percentage of the population will always choose to experiment, or abuse substances to escape reality.

    As for the argument "I quit, why can't everyone else?" that's rather simplistic. Drugs affect people in different ways, and a lot has to due with how the body metabolizes chemicals and the number/type of receptors in the brain as well as genetic makeup. There are those who can drink or use prescription drugs and never become alcoholics or addicts.

    As a friend or relative, the best that we can do is to support rehab efforts and resist enabling them in any way. But the sad fact is that addiction is an ugly disease that continues to kill despite our best efforts.

  17. why do good artistes need to turn to drugs.

    It's so sad, can't imagine what level of loneliness or pain strangles them.

  18. Addiction is a complex issue and heroin can be relatively well managed if the user has a good income, a stable life and 'good quality' drugs. But poverty, instability or bad drugs can cause all sorts of complications. A lot of people apparently use heroin for pain relief too which can of course tip over into addictions.

  19. Many thanks for your kind comments. Gracias a todos por sus comentarios.

    I'm glad that all the feedback so far has been balanced. As many of you have already averred the issue of drugs, the consumption, the sale of them and the legalities around them are too complex to deal with in a 900-word article. I've often got up on my high horse and said "well, the fact that he or she does drugs is their problem, why should I care?" Because it could be someone really close to me next time. And I need to be prepared to face up to it. Anti-drug enforcement is a good immediate solution, but let's be clear about it, we're protecting ourselves, not the user. Only through rehabilitation and education of the future generations will we be able to decrease the amount of drug users. Note the word "decrease". I already acknowledged many years ago that drugs were part of our lives. Sad but true. And they will be around for many more years after I'm long gone.

    Keep your feedback coming.

    Greetings from London.

  20. i swear i came by here on sunday...sorry man...was sad to see this...all the more the circumstances...and that far too many that fall into fame fall as well....we promote a lifestyle and even expect it from them and then....

  21. Yes - we need to talk about drugs and develop strategies to deal with the causes for people taking them.

  22. From my personal observation here in the States, it seems that drugs are becoming an unnecessary necessity.

    People go "ooooh" and "ahhhh" and "what a shame that he died so young" etc. etc. etc., without giving it more than a second thought when they hear of someone young passing away from an overdose.

    We all have personal demons that may or may not someday consume us, but in the long run, the only real decision we can make about drugs, of any kind, is to either use them or not.

    The tired adage still applies here with devastating clarity.

    You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink it.

    No amount of legislation and/or programs will do any good if a person chooses not to use them.

    Contrary to popular opinion among the ultra liberals and their President, we do possess free will. And that's the one thing that the nanny government will never take away from us.

  23. It was a sad way to die. Part of it is the drug culture but part of it is biology. 10% of people are genetically more likely to be addicts, and it's worse if they are exposed early as children. It seems like the drug thing often goes hand in hand with fame. I don't know if that is the opportunity and cash, due to stress or the addict is a good performer. Still, I agree that more talk about drugs and how to help addicts is good. I was sorry to see Philip Seymour Hoffman die as he was a good actor and enjoyed watching him perform. I'm sorry too for those unknown addicts who die alone.

  24. You make a an excellent argument and I was sorry to hear about his death.

    Legalization has been good for countries in some respects as well as a challenge in others. I would rather people choose to make better decisions about themselves so young children are not left behind missing their dad--as was the case in Mr. Hoffman's death.



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