On Phillip Seymour Hoffman and addictions to happiness

Addiction is a thief who steals the best things from this world all too soon.

Yesterday, I managed to live up to my title of clumsiest person in the West Bank by tripping and hurting my back, resulting in a(nother) trip to the doctor. This particular doctor and I have a complicated relationship, as he seems to think it’s my job to diagnose and suggest treatments for whatever ails me, while contrariwise, I prefer to rely on the opinion of someone who has actually been through medical school.

On this visit he tried some humor to lighten the mood, and left me a little nonplussed. After offering me a mild pain reliever for my back, he joked that if I needed something stronger, I could always take a pill or two from my husband, who has already written about his struggles with prescription medication (among other things). Since I have partially blamed the doctor for being so compliant about filling my husband’s prescriptions, I replied back testily that I really didn’t want to go down that road.

And that’s when I saw the faintest hint of relief pass across his eyes. Maybe he really does pay attention to how much he’s been prescribing my husband, and that it was even possible the doctor had been worried that I might be trying to sneak him a few more pills as an accessory. While there’s no chance of that, it reminded me of previous visits I’ve had for various traumatic injuries, where I would say to myself, “is aspirin really the best that twenty-first century medicine can do?” And I was left to wonder how many times I may have gone under-medicated because the doctor was thinking about my husband’s medical history instead of my own.

And so I slunk back home to recuperate with a hot bath, a hot pad, a hot cup of tea, and a “hot” download from the internet. And shortly before I got ready to spend the rest of the day making fun of people for cheering for grown men running around in helmets and color coordinated meggings, I saw the breaking news: Phillip Seymour Hoffman had died, probably from a heroin overdose. And I didn’t feel like laughing at all anymore.

With a name like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the man was destined to be either a great actor or a serial killer. And he definitely had enough intensity for it to go either way. While I must have first seen him in Boogie Nights or Twister, the role of his that made me sit up and take notice was from a movie that came out in 1998. No, not that one. I mean, yeah, HE was great in the Big Lebowski, but by 1998, the Coen brothers were already a little too popular to appeal to a true independent movie snob. I had already gone a level deeper, to the sub-basement of angst and despair that housed Todd Solenz and his deeply disturbing film, Happiness. Hoffman starred as a pervert who made obscene calls, and like most of the movie’s characters (and a heck of a lot of real life people), his alter ego was tragically unable to create a stable relationship. Happiness was one of my treasures, which I would take out and discuss with other movie fans like we were savants savoring prime numbers. How could this man, this genius, be dead? And how could he have died for something so petty?

I’ve never been addicted to anything, except maybe food, and even then, my love of food is that of someone who just doesn’t have to work too hard to get a lot of things I like to eat, instead of the desperate emotion stuffing of a person literally dying from weighing too much. I think watching my husband’s struggle with his prescriptions is the closest I’ve come to seeing firsthand what happens when the drugs aren’t just for fun anymore, and I’ve never been in a room with someone who’s done anything illegal harder than pot.

For me, when I picture an addict, I have to rely upon movies or a documentaries. And while these are typically grimy and creepy, something about the camera lends the depiction a certain romanticism and intimacy, particularly if you’re as self-absorbed as I am. I’m not saying that I would ever want to experience a full-on Requiem for a Dream “in the ring” moment. But addiction on film, and perhaps, even in real life itself (for how else would anyone even try it?) has a separation, a gap, between what it looks like to an outsider, and what it must feel like to the person going through it.

And so drugs can manage to suck in someone like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a total success at the pinnacle of his career, who I would imagine was an expert at reading the emotional states of others, and whom, based on his long and varied filmography, must have studied addiction up close and personal at some point. And even though I have never picked up a needle, or a pipe, or an expertly rolled dollar bill, when I read the growing list of florid obituaries, I can’t help but see a reflection of myself hidden somewhere inside. For in the end, are we not all addicted to happiness, wherever we have a chance to find it?

About the Author
Malynnda Littky made aliyah to Israel with her family in 2007 from Oak Park, Michigan. Her recent stay in Paris, enjoying both medical tourism and her new status as the trophy wife of a research economist, has renewed her love for Israel, despite arriving just in time to enjoy several weeks of lockdown.