Anatomy of a Relapse: Lessons from the Hoffman Tragedy

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The time to try and prevent a tragedy like the one that befell Hoffman is when a person is showing the signs of poor psychological adjustment. When it comes to many substances, by the time a person begins indulging, it’s often already far too late.

The entertainment world and many admiring fans were shocked and disheartened upon learning of the untimely death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Sadly, losing vibrant, talented people with everything to live for early in their lives to the scourge of drug addiction has become an all too familiar event. While it would be nice to think that Hoffman’s tragic loss might drive home a message powerful enough to help prevent similar future events, the fact is that despite high public awareness of the dangers associated with drug use, too many people still think they can beat the odds, allow themselves to dabble in dangerous substances, eventually get hooked, and invite disaster into their own lives as well as the lives of many around them.

Reading stories about Hoffman and his struggles, and listening closely to what his friends and acquaintances were saying, I was reminded of similar circumstances involving an acquaintance of mine who, after over 20 years of sobriety, suffered a tragic and nearly fatal relapse. Many aspects of that relapse paralleled those of Hoffman’s. I have found many of these same aspects while working with hundreds of addiction-prone people over the years, and I hope that sharing the story might help at least one person avoid going down the same potentially fatal path. In the interest of fairness and accuracy, however, note that the story to follow is not derived solely from the events of a single individual and contains elements that I have altered in some ways to ensure anonymity. But inasmuch as the key aspects of the story actually apply to so many real life situations with which I am familiar, I thought it both a worthy and essential story to tell.

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My friend had been sober for the better part of 21 years. After suffering a significant “hitting bottom” experience in young adulthood, he came to believe he was an addict and for many years actively participated in Alcoholics Anonymous. During his sober years he managed to forge a highly successful career in real estate, married, raised a family, and became active in various enterprises beneficial to our community. At 50 years of age, it seemed he had it all: ability, financial security, three beautiful children, the respect of his peers, and a fair degree of public prestige. That’s what made the relapse all his friends and professional acquaintances sensed might be coming so hard to bear or understand.

Yes, we saw it coming. Everyone saw it — everyone, it seems, except my friend. We weren’t exactly sure what was coming, but we knew trouble was afoot. I can’t help but wonder if my friend didn’t really see it coming, too. Sometimes I think he probably saw it but simply refused to accept it. You see, that’s a strong part of my friend’s character: he’s always been a fairly rebellious and anti-authority sort. Even when he knows something to be true he’ll often stand against it just to be contrary. He’s a feisty one, and he’s always been that way, at least as long as most of his friends have known him. He’s also always been one to play fast and loose with boundaries and limits. He’s the quintessential limit and boundary tester: always seeing how close he can come to the proverbial line, and sometimes, deliberately and defiantly crossing over it. He’s especially that way when he gets frustrated or angry about something. When he crosses lines, he seems to feel “entitled” to do so. That’s a big issue for my friend, too. He can get pretty full of himself and often comes across as both superior and especially deserving. My friend is very smart and definitely gifted, and he knows it. He’s probably the sharpest mind in our immediate group of friends, and none of us is a mental midget. He’s also far more talented artistically and musically than any of us (he’s well aware of that, too!). But he has a tendency to “wear” his many gifts like a badge of honor and distinction. To be frank, this can be quite a put-off. These less than desirable personality traits are bearable most of the time. But when they show up on steroids like they did during a stressful time in his life several months ago, they’re truly disgusting. Those traits had us all sensing there would likely be big trouble ahead. But none of us said anything.

My friend’s slide into relapse began fairly insidiously. The feisty part of him began saying things like: “I haven’t gone to meetings for several years now, and sometimes I wonder if I ever really needed to go in the first place. It seems crazy I shouldn’t be able to have a good glass of wine now and then.” Then there were all those hints he dropped that he’d been crossing some significant boundaries again. He’d tell us of “harmless flirtations” he’d engaged in over the internet with other women, some of which had already created some discord in his marriage. He’d also been hanging out with some fellow musicians of less than noble character, several of whom were known to be active drug users, all the while protesting that those of us who dared to question his judgment about the company he was keeping were only revealing a level of sanctimoniousness he simply couldn’t stomach. And, as always, he seemed to have an attitude of entitlement about everything he was doing. He was well aware that his family and friends were both displeased and concerned about much of his behavior. But he was a gifted, wealthy, and influential man, and he didn’t need anyone “lecturing” him about how he should conduct his affairs.

Given all the lines my friend had already crossed, taking that “first drink” seemed inevitable. By the time he’d taken the last drink we knew about (having also mixed the alcohol with a few “pills” he’d gotten from one of his musician friends), he was already near death in the hospital. Along the way, his business had gone on life support and his marriage fell solidly on the rocks. In a way, it seemed to happen very fast. But in reality, it didn’t happen all that fast at all. The warning signs were there long before he took his first drink.

My other friends and I don’t feel responsible for any of our friend’s actions. But many of us have some regret about not confronting him sooner about what we were seeing. We did stage an “intervention” or two once it had become clear he’d been drinking again and letting his life fall apart in the process. But he was already too deep into denial and in the firm grip of his addiction by then for those interventions to do much good. In retrospect, what I think my friend needed more than anything else was for those who cared about him to confront him on the troubling aspects of his character that we saw intensifying in the early phases of his descent into self-destruction. I confronted him only once and on a relatively minor thing. While he actually responded somewhat positively to that confrontation, I simply didn’t have the courage to confront him on anything more. I have some regret about that because I’ve seen this very kind of thing many times before. There are certain mentalities commonly associated with the willingness to enter dangerous territory, such as experimenting with or using drugs, especially dangerous, illegal ones. Emotionally healthy, character-strong folks simply don’t “go there.” And while I’ve encountered a few isolated cases in my lifetime where folks inadvertently became addicted in the absence of any problematic character traits predisposing them to either flirt with or actively engage in dangerous substance use, I’ve known many, many more whose character played a very significant role in their addiction dynamics. (I give examples of this in Character Disturbance and The Judas Syndrome.) And the time to help them avoid the slide into utter oblivion is when those characteristics are clearly causing problems. By the time they’re actively using again, it’s usually too late.

Many of the reports I’ve read about the Hoffman tragedy suggest his friends had been bearing witness for months to many behaviors similar to those my friend displayed in the early stages of his relapse. There’s even evidence Hoffman himself was well aware of the downward spiral he was in. He told one acquaintance quite bluntly that he was a heroin addict and near relapse. But when he was displaying all those troubling attitudes and behaving erratically and irresponsibly, no one dared confront him. When his friends felt he sounded “high” when they talked to him, they didn’t confront the fact that he was using or urge him to check himself into treatment. Long before any of that, when he was engaging in all those preliminary kinds of conduct that create turmoil in a person’s life and in turn increase the cravings for drug-induced relief, no one called him on it. Perhaps they were too in awe of his talent, too afraid of losing his favor, or too deeply immersed in their own denial to call his self-destructive conduct into question.

There’s been the entirely predictable litany of lauds coming from friends and associates about an amazingly gifted man. While the fact that another person of great potential lost everything in the prime of their life due to substance use is tragic enough, the tragedy and losses extend beyond that fact. The young child Hoffman fathered and those of us who will never again have the benefit of his talent are victims, too. The tragedy is compounded all the more by its non-necessity. There are the obvious lessons here: drugs are dangerous and they can kill you. There’s another lesson to be learned if only we can bring ourselves to embrace it. No one makes that first flirtation with danger out of emotional, behavioral or attitudinal health. There are often signs that someone will be drawn to the “high” as a solution for other problems. The time to try and prevent a tragedy like the one that befell Hoffman and my friend is when a person is showing the signs of poor psychological adjustment. When it comes to many substances, by the time a person grants himself or herself permission to cross the line — even for the first time — it’s often already far too late.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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