Over the last several decades, we have lost talent after talent to alcohol, cocaine, heroin and pills. In 1970, Janis Joplin overdosed on heroin. In 1986, it was Len Bias, dying after using cocaine. John Belushi left us in 1982 after using a cocaine-heroin combination. In 2012, Whitney Houston’s death reinforced the danger of cocaine use. And just days ago, we lost a giant, Philip Seymour Hoffman, film and theater actor extraordinaire, to an overdose of heroin.
He had publicly admitted an earlier drug problem in his youth, but he managed to overcome it and stay sober for more than two decades. Of his past, he told the television magazine show 60 Minutes, “It was anything I could get my hands on. Yeah. I liked it all.” This is a common statement by addicts. Few addicts focus on just one drug to the exclusion of others. Many mix heroin or prescription opiates with benzodiazepines, or use cocaine and alcohol together.
In 2012, a relapse sent Hoffman for a short rehab stay. Perhaps his closest friends knew how long he successfully stayed sober after that. It’s very possible that some friends or family may have tried to convince him to go back to rehab. But there are signs that his recent drug use had been heavy. His apartment in New York was littered with used syringes, empty baggies that had once held drugs, and bottles of prescription drugs.
If his death could have any positive effect at all, it has been to shine a bright light directly at the existing, “right now” heroin problem in this country. On television and in online news articles, this is the story of the week: the way heroin usage has escalated “out of hand.” For many people, their heroin habits started in a doctor’s office with a prescription for painkillers.
How Painkiller Use Turns into a Heroin Habit
An injury or surgery may be the start. Painkillers are prescribed. Most painkillers are chemically based on or similar to opium and may have naturally-derived and some synthetic components. (A naturally-derived painkiller is called an opiate and a semi-synthetic or fully-synthetic drug is called an opioid.) Once a body gets accustomed to the presence of opiates or opioids, they no longer have the same painkilling effect that they used to — this is called developing a “tolerance” for the drug. Instead of 10 milligrams, a person now needs 20. In another two or three weeks, he may need 30 milligrams. The patient returns to the doctor to describe the way the painkiller is no longer providing relief. The dosage may go up again or maybe the doctor will say, “You’re taking as much as I dare prescribe for you.”
By this time, the pain sufferer is physically addicted to the drug. He is no longer thinking clearly because of the effects of the drug. He knows he needs more to be able to tolerate day to day life. So he does whatever he has to do. Steals pills, forges prescriptions, finds another doctor to prescribe more, lies and cheats as necessary.
But prescription painkillers are expensive. Heroin is cheaper. (And don’t be so naive as to think that the Mexican drug cartels have not taken advantage of this prescription drug abuse epidemic.) In the last few years, some pharmaceutical companies have begun to reformulate some of the most popular painkillers so they are more difficult to abuse in the usual manner. And so gradually, more people who never, ever would have thought they would use heroin have begun to seek out drug dealers to sell them the small plastic packets of tan powder.
Easing their entry into heroin use is the fact that in the last several years, it has been possible to smoke heroin because of its higher purity. So many people who would not consider injecting heroin could start snorting or smoking it. The next discovery might be how much more they liked the high from injecting heroin. The trap door slams shut.
The truth is that addiction to prescription opiates or opioids or to heroin is the same set of chains, however different public perception might be. Sadly, unbelievably, heroin use has come to be almost…cool. Certainly, if not accepted, understood — “Oh, he’s on heroin now.” “Yes, I thought that was coming up.”
Is Recovery Even Possible?
There are many “experts” in the addiction recovery field who claim that a heroin addict cannot recover, that maintaining them on a daily dose of synthetic opiate is the answer. Thus there are methadone programs and Suboxone programs. Both these types of maintenance programs keep a person on opioids, keep the drugs circulating through their bodies every day, often for years.
If this “expert” met with failure after failure when trying to rehabilitate opioid addicts, this viewpoint could be understood. Fortunately, it is possible for an opioid or opiate addict to find lasting recovery — from pills, from heroin.
William “Willie” Benitez was a heroin addict in the Arizona State Prison system when he found a way to recover from his own long heroin addiction. He discovered the books of American humanitarian and educator L. Ron Hubbard in 1966 while serving his sixth prison sentence associated with drugs. Mr. Hubbard wrote about his discoveries into the mind and life and Willie realized that these teachings could provide him with a way to overcome his own addiction. Willie used Mr. Hubbard’s work to conquer his own craving for drugs and then helped other addicts leave addiction behind. Willie went on to found the first Narconon freestanding drug rehabilitation center in Los Angeles a few years later. The program spread through the prison system and then soon all Narconon rehab focus was on its centers outside prison.
Benitez overcame those disabilities in life that made it seem like heroin was the only solution. The Narconon program was and is based on raising life skills so that a recovering drug addict finally can feel better mentally and physically off drugs than he did on drugs. If we could have reached Philip Seymour Hoffman before heroin took him away and helped him discover for himself similar relief from seemingly incurable disabilities, perhaps we all could have had his great talent for decades into the future. There are different approaches — if one method does not work for a recovering substance abuser, then he should look for others. Recovery IS possible.
The only saving grace is that it is still possible to help millions of others who are addicted. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are 23 million Americans who are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. If you care for someone who is out of control from drug or alcohol consumption, find them effective help before the drugs take that choice away. The loss of a great artist is a tragedy, but every life has value.