The first time I called the police to intervene in family matters, I was about 12 years old. I can still see myself standing in the kitchen of my childhood, looking into the living room where my parents would not stop yelling at each other, announcing – as if were the most normal thing to do in the world – that I was calling the police.
They didn’t hear, or didn’t care, and I dialed the number and the dispatcher (“How old are you?”) sent two police officers who came into our home, stood between my parents, told them to calm down and explained that it would be a good idea if they stopped drinking for the night.
“You have kids,” one of the officers said, and I recall my parents looking around as though alcohol and arguing had made them forget that, yes, indeed, my little brother and I still existed.
The next time I called law enforcement into family matters was a week ago, when my sister posted messages on Facebook that included a young woman with a sign stating suicide is never the answer. My sister had commented something to the effect that maybe it might be.
Like so many people in my extended family tree – and the guy who sat next to me on the bus today reeking of booze and pot at 7:15 a.m., and the professor I know who can’t meet for Saturday morning coffee because he has to make an AA meeting, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman – my sister has an addiction. It is a cross to bear that seems so much heavier than most.
She has suffered long and hard fighting her addiction, and has managed extended patches of dry and sane punctuated by dark, troubled times under the influence. The news of Hoffman’s death – and the uncharitable reaction to that death by some – had really affected her. She explained that unless someone has an addiction, they simply can’t understand what would drive anyone, against all logic and common sense, to do the thing they know they should not do.
When I saw the Facebook posts, I emailed my sister, asking her to hang on – as others on social media were doing – and saying I’d call in 30 minutes. But when I called, both her cell and landline went to voice mail. I left messages and waited for responses. I called other relatives to see if they’d had luck reaching her, but they hadn’t. I waited a little longer and then called law enforcement in her town for a well check.
I call the sheriff on my sister because I remembered a call I didn’t make decades ago when my mother started saying things similar to what my sister espoused on Facebook. I was 20 years old then and had lost the bravado of my 12-year-old self. At 20, I reasoned if I called the cops on my mom, I’d bring more pain and embarrassment to a woman whose life that had already had too much of both. In other words, I didn’t want to cause a scene.
The next day, when I found her motionless in bed and grabbed the phone to dial 911, it was too late. Exactly 30 minutes too late, according to the time of death estimate.
I didn’t want to make the same mistake with my sister. So I called, and it did cause a scene. The sheriff went to her house and she called me, pretty angry – but alive. We talked for a long time, I convinced her to hang on and the next day when I called again, she was grateful the sheriff had shown up. Her cross of addiction wasn’t any less heavy, but she was past the crisis point where it felt unbearable.
My mother’s death certificate labels the cause of death “Respiratory failure due to, or as a consequence of, overdose of multiple chemical agents.” There are classification areas on the certificate labeled “natural causes, accident, suicide, homicide, undetermined or pending.” The coroner ticked off “accident.”
That’s because most people with an addiction don’t mean to kill themselves. They are driven to their drug of choice by sadness or anxiety or the overwhelming chemical desire and brain circuitry that creates addiction, or 1,000 other things. They pick up a drink or a drug and another and another until they can’t pick it up anymore. Usually, when they do this, they are alone. Sometimes they wake up and sometimes they don’t. It happened to my mother. It happened to Hoffman. It could have happened to my sister.
Aaron Sorkin wrote the best obituary about Hoffman I’ve seen, with this section was especially on point: “Phil Hoffman, this kind, decent, magnificent, thunderous actor … did not die from an overdose of heroin – he died from heroin. We should stop implying that if he had just taken the proper amount, everything would have been fine. He didn’t die because he was partying too hard or because he was depressed. He died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it.”
There are a lot of those days in a week, and a lot of people dragging a cross of addiction through them. Don’t be afraid to reach out. It’s okay to cause a scene.
(I thank my sister for being willing to share herself in this column through my writing.)