By Melissa Deuter, MD
Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead over the weekend with a needle in his arm. It’s heartbreakingly ironic to have this incident in the same week when I am scheduled to meet with the local Parents’ Al-Anon group, a collection of parents trying to cope with addicted children. I would like to think that a public tragedy like a famous actor’s death might raise awareness, that after hearing about it, our country would see a dramatic fall in drug use and drug related deaths, but it never seems to work that way. Drug abuse and addiction defy logic, even for users.
Experience treating drug addiction has shown me first hand how the denial of addiction works. An addict in recovery will vacillate between periods of gratitude and clarity, saying things like, “If I had continued using, I would be dead by now.” Philip Seymour Hoffman made a statement similar to that last year in an interview with TMZ while discussing his relapse to addiction after twenty-three years of sobriety.
It has long been recognized that addiction is intertwined with denial. Neuroscientists have studied functional brain scans of individuals who struggle with addiction, noting differences in activity in the brain areas associated with “insight,” the antithesis of denial. The science and the accounts of afflicted users and their families make one thing clear: reasoning with addiction doesn’t work. We can rant until we turn mad, but an addict cannot hear reason. The ranting inflicts shame more often than insight.
So what then are families and professionals left to do?
What works is raising insight before substance use starts, through effective education. That’s not to say that fear tactics, aimed to scare kids into steering clear of drugs, are useful. However, opening kids minds to the truth about pressures they will face related to drug use can help. Discussing the denial, the way a person’s mind can tell him lies, helps too.
Research studies show how love, patience, warmth, and acceptance are vital components to battling drug addiction also. “Secure attachments,” caring bonds with trusted loved-ones, facilitate insight, whereas hurt, shame, and anxiety diminish insight. Families can literally love an addict closer to sobriety.
Beyond education and warmth, slaying addiction is primarily the work of the afflicted user, with loved ones waiting, watching, and offering assistance by facilitating access to treatment and holding addicts accountable for unhealthy behaviors. Al-Anon, the twelve-step program for families of drug abusers, teaches families these vital truths. If prevention efforts fail, even parents learn they must “Let go and let God,” when it comes to addiction.
As our society copes with the news of another untimely death from addiction, I hope we can redouble our efforts to educate and prevent substance use. As honored as I feel to speak at the Al-Anon meeting this week, successful prevention programs may have given these affected families a more joyful way to spend their Wednesday night.
Dr. Deuter is a psychiatrist who specializes in the care of emerging adults.