Needle In The Arm

Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead yesterday in his Greenwich Village apartment. According to reports, he was found in his bathroom, with a heroin-filled needle in his arm. It was an ugly, grisly death for someone so talented.

Unfortunately, Hoffman’s death is just a very visible sign of the significant drug problem in the United States. At the same time some states have moved to decriminalize recreational drugs like marijuana, cheap and powerful strains of heroin are producing new legions of addicts — and overdose deaths. In January, Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin devoted his State of the State speech to what he called the “full-blown heroin crisis” in that state, where deaths from heroin overdoses are soaring and addiction to heroin and opiates is skyrocketing. Heroin plagues cities like Cleveland, and this year in the Pittsburgh area a new blend of heroin has been blamed for 22 deaths.

Of course, overdoses are only the tip of the iceberg. Heroin use is directly associated with theft and violent crime. Addicts steal from their families and loved ones. If you know anyone who has dealt with a family member who is a heroin addict, who has seen their child or sibling turn into someone they no longer recognize, and who has exhausted their retirement savings trying to treat the addict, you’ve gotten a brief glimpse of the anguish and heartbreak heroin is causing. It is a terrible drug.

It’s tragic when a great talent like Hoffman dies so senselessly, but it’s also tragic that it takes the death of a celebrity for many of us to focus on the very serious problem of growing heroin use and opiate addiction.

A Terrible Waste

The death of Whitney Houston is horrible news for her family, her friends, and her fans.  At this point, it’s not clear exactly what caused Houston’s death, although there seems to be rampant speculation about the surrounding circumstances.

What seems to be clear is that for years Houston battled substance abuse issues.  As a result, she never reached the heights that were anticipated for someone with her stunning voice, her exquisite phrasing and timing, and her transfixing stage presence.

The social costs of substance abuse are staggering.  Those costs are borne, most directly and most brutally, by the families of those who are in the grips of addiction.  Those families must deal with the lying, the heartbreak, the anger, and the pain that the addiction of a family member inevitably brings.

At times, when a well-known figure falls prey to addiction, the pool of people affected becomes broader, and society as a whole is deprived of the music, or artwork, or performances that the addict might have delivered.  The failure of gifted individuals to realize the full potential of their enormous talents is a tragic loss for the world — but we should never forget that the most profound loss will be felt by the families.

Celebrities Are Sons And Daughters, Too

I was saddened to read of the death of Amy Winehouse.

Winehouse was a talented singer with a distinctive voice and a larger-than-life persona that included a larger-than-life beehive hairdo, tattoos, and heavy makeup.  Her best album, Back to Black, combined her fine vocal stylings with a retro lounge feel and included the great song Love Is A Losing Game.  Winehouse struggled with drinking and drug addiction problems.  Officially, the cause of her death is unexplained, pending an autopsy, although acquaintances are being quoted as saying she was on a binge.

On these sad occasions, my heart aches for the family of the deceased.  We tend to think of famous people as iconic figures who exist solely for our amusement and entertainment, without remembering that they are people like anyone else, with families who love them and have tried to help them when they struggle with their inner demons.  Winehouse’s parents didn’t look upon her as some famous singer, they saw her as their daughter and someone who brought joy to their lives.  I cannot imagine the pain they are experiencing as they attempt to deal with a gaping void in their lives.  I hope the media respects their privacy as they deal with their profound loss.