On February 2, the news came that actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was dead. He had been found in his Greenwich Village apartment with a needle in his arm. A search of his home turned up large quantities of heroin and prescription drugs.
Hoffman had struggled with addiction in the past, but he had been sober since age 22. Last year, he checked into rehab after dependence on prescription medication led him back to heroin use. He was 46 when he died of an overdose.
Hoffman’s death pointed to a stark truth about substance abuse and addiction: there is no such thing as a former alcoholic or addict. Recovery is a lifelong process. Hoffman had been sober more than 20 years, but he was still an addict.
As my friend Pilar Timpane wrote in response to his death, addiction is tricky. It may come and go, but it knows where you live. Hoffman’s demons knew where he lived, and when they returned to find their house empty, swept, and put in order, Hoffman’s last state was worse than the first.
Addiction is not understood well in our culture. As I learn more about it, I am coming to see the many ways in which we get it wrong in the way we talk about—or don’t talk about—addiction.
40 years ago, President Nixon declared the War on Drugs, and today, more than 500,000 people are incarcerated for drug offenses. “Today, there are more people behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses than were incarcerated for all crimes, violent or otherwise, in 1970s.” (source)
What does this mean? Although the War on Drugs was supposedly designed to go after big-time, violent drug dealers, it has mostly locked up addicts. We think of drug use primarily as a moral failing, as a violation of the law. We think of addicts as criminals, and we treat them as such.
In his annual State of the State Message this January, Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont dedicated his entire speech to addressing what he called “a full-blown heroin crisis” in the state. But he did not advocate getting tough on crime. Instead, he sought “to reframe the public debate to encourage officials to respond to addiction as a chronic disease, with treatment and support, rather than with only punishment and incarceration.”
Governor Shumlin’s approach aligns with the philosophy of twelve-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. These groups see alcoholism and addiction as a disease. Comedian Mitch Hedberg jokes that alcoholism is the only disease you can get yelled at for having. “Dang it, Otto, you’re an alcoholic! Dang it, Otto, you have lupus! One of those two doesn’t sound right.”
Although addiction often leads people to moral depravity, at its core, it is, in fact, a chronic illness and not a moral failing. And if we think of addiction as a disease, we have to see drug abuse not as a criminal justice issue but as a public health issue. We should invest in treatment centers rather than in prisons.
Father Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest who wrote a book called Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. In it, he takes the spiritual principles of twelve-step programs and shows how Christian faith can be deepened by their application, and vice versa.
One of the main ways he does this is by re-framing our understanding of sin. Father Rohr draws on this idea that addiction is a disease. He says that addiction is an excellent metaphor for sin. He laments that Christianity often sees sin as something to be judged and condemned rather than something to be healed and reformed.
For, you see, we are all addicted to something. There is another story of demon possession in the Bible that Father Rohr points to in his exploration of addiction. In it, Jesus meets a man possessed by demons, and he speaks directly to the evil spirits. He asks them a question: “What is your name?”
Father Rohr calls us to name our addictions. There are obvious addictions like those to alcohol and narcotics, and other addictive behaviors like eating disorders, gambling, shopping, pornography, and so on. But we all have addictions, and we need to name them—success, attention, self-loathing, pride, relationships.
The first step is admitting that we are powerless over our addictions. Father Rohr says, “We are all spiritually powerless…and not just those physically addicted to a substance… Alcoholics just have their powerlessness visible for all to see. The rest of us disguise it in different ways, and overcompensate for our more hidden and subtle addictions and attachments, especially our addiction to our way of thinking.”
In the rooms of AA, you will occasionally hear people actually expressing gratitude for their disease. For some, having their powerlessness visible for all to see forces them into a radical transformation of self.
Alcoholics and addicts can be forced to change when they hit rock bottom. For those of us with less obvious addictions, that terrible mercy may never come. And yet, we are all powerless, we are all addicted, and we all need recovery from something.
The investigation into Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death turned up diaries the actor had written before his overdose. In it, he describes himself as wrestling with personal “demons.”
If we were to ask the names of his demons, we might call one of them heroin, another methadone—but I suspect that there were other, less obvious demons that led him back to his addiction. Substance abuse is not first and foremost about the substance. It is about loneliness, pain, and consumption with self.
Drinking and drug use is not the disease; it is the symptom. The disease goes much deeper. Healing requires a radical change in both thought and behavior.
Because the disease of addiction goes beyond the substance itself, sobriety is not enough. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous tells a fictional story to get this point across: “The alcoholic is like a tornado roaring through the lives of others… We feel a man is unthinking when he says that sobriety is enough. He is like the farmer who came up out of his cyclone cellar to find his home ruined. To his wife, he remarked, ‘Don’t see anything the matter here, Ma. Ain’t it grand the wind stopped blowin’?’”
The wind may stop blowing, but there is still work to be done. In twelve-step programs, the only time alcohol or the addiction is mentioned is in the first step. The house must be empty, swept, and put in order, but that is only the beginning.
Another translation of our passage from Matthew refers to the demons’ house as “unoccupied.” Recovery programs talk about “dry drunks,” or people who have stopped drinking but continue to behave in the same selfish, destructive ways they always have.
In order for them to fully recover, they must be more than just “unoccupied.” A vacant house is an invitation for the demons to return. The house needs to be renovated, and then it needs to be occupied in a new way.
In the same way, the life of faith is not about avoiding sin. It is about living fully into the life that God offers us. We can get caught up in the laws that tell us what not to do—do not worship idols, do not steal, do not murder, do not commit adultery, and so on.
But we sometimes forget that the Greatest Commandment is not a negative but a positive: “Love God. Love your neighbor.” Even if we get to that point, we may think that love is a feeling. But love is not just a feeling—love is an act. Love is a way of life.
The Big Book quotes James 2:17—“Faith without works is dead.” Twelve step programs are spiritually based, but this does not mean that they are abstract. Spirituality is as concrete and practical as it gets. As the Big Book says, “The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it.”
Recovery requires action. Step Three says, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.”
In the rooms, an old joke gets tossed around. Three frogs are sitting on a log. Two decide to jump off. How many are still on the log? Answer: Three.
Admitting powerlessness is the starting point. Willingness to surrender is key. A decision must be made. But without action, you are still just a frog on a log.
The AA program can be summed up like this: “Trust God. Clean House. Help Others.” What fills that unoccupied house is action. Action includes everything from going to meetings to prayer to helping other alcoholics. You can’t just think about or talk about the program. You have to live it.
The challenge stands before all of us. We are all addicted. We need to face our demons and ask, “What is your name?” Whether our demon is a substance or a behavior, a way of living or a way of thinking, we must admit that we are powerless over it. We must become willing to surrender. We must make a decision. And then, we must act.
But let us remember that it is not our action that saves us. Our action makes us available to God, who has already acted and continues to act on our behalf.
Step seven of the twelve steps says, “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.” We cannot remove them ourselves, no matter how hard we try. Our action is active surrender, cooperation and participation with the God to whom nothing is ever truly lost.
When you recover something, you get it back. Recovery is the chance to get back the person that God intended us to be. It is the chance to reclaim our true selves. As we do so, we are reclaimed. We are recovered. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell