Dear Life Matters,

I can’t seem to get away from all the news about Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I certainly agree that we lost one of the greatest actors of our time. I did not know, but do now, that there is an epidemic of heroin use in our country.

What I really don’t understand, and I haven’t heard anyone explain, is how could he relapse and go back to using such a horrible drug when he had everything, including all kinds of people who loved him, a family, money and a great career. How could this happen?

I understood Michael Jackson because he was clearly unhappy. But Philip Seymour Hoffman, why and how could he do this?



Sadly Puzzled


Dear Sadly Puzzled,

I can certainly understand your questions and bewilderment since you’re looking at it from the outside in. But there’s so much more to the story of drug abuse and addiction.

These questions are not surprising because chemical dependency is a very complex, multifaceted, bio-psychosocial disease that is incredibly insidious.

You see, addicts are addicted to the drug, whatever the drug of choice may be, and any reason to use it is as good as another. They may use, or so they tell themselves, because it’s been a bad day and they feel terrible or they may use (or drink) because it has been a great day and they want to celebrate.

No, there’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to it, not when it comes to addiction.

There’s an ancient Japanese proverb that says, “first the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.” Many people struggle to understand this middle part, when the drink is taking the drink or the drug is taking the drug. This is where it no longer makes sense to most people and even to the addicts themselves. But it is at this point that “why” is the most irrelevant question to ask, but we all still want to ask it. You see when the drug is taking the drug, the brain has become involved in a big way. Neurological pathways are stimulated and receptor sites are screaming, craving and the nervous system is rebounding; the drug has taken over the brain and the brain, not the person, is now in charge.

It is also true with the drink; alcohol is a drug too! It’s like the brain has been hijacked and it’s no longer under the control of the person who originally made the choice to use, no matter what the reason.

When they say addicts have a monkey on their back, believe it, they’re not kidding! When the drug or drink is taking the drug/drink, even the addicts scramble for reasons to explain it to themselves. We often refer to this as denial.

If someone is really full on into addiction, then asking what the psychological reasons are makes absolutely no sense. Again, the brain has been hijacked and it is no longer under their control.

So we wonder what makes someone vulnerable to start using something that can take him or her down this road? First off, most people don’t believe that they will end up in so much trouble. The reasons vary from physical pain to self-medicating of psychological/emotional problems to simply being social. You might think heroin does not sound like a social thing to do, but in some circles it can be.

Some are more fortunate than others; one can start as a social drinker but if they have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism or addiction, then they may be off and running. The one thing I can guarantee you is that no one plans to be an alcoholic or drug addict when they grow up! “It will never happen to me” are the famous last words of every addict.

In the case of this celebrity, we don’t really know whether he was happy or not. The one thing I can point out, as a psychologist and substance abuse specialist, is that he seemed like someone who was always “on.” Using again may have been his way to get time out or be “off duty.”

In his early recovery he mentioned how important being away in a quiet place where he could be himself and look at what he really needed and wanted to do was for him.

That was before he became really famous and was working almost 24/7. If he had another chance, I would wish for him, healthy time to himself, for himself.

Sadly, we will never know.



Dr. JoAnne Barge is a licensed psychologist and licensed Marriage/Family Therapist with offices in Brentwood. She is also APA certified in the treatment of substance abuse disorders. Visit her at or send your anonymous questions to

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