When Philip Seymour Hoffman OD’d, one of the comments I heard the most was, I don’t get it! How could that happen? He had kids! But, to me, that’s just silly. Do people really think having kids makes life easier to deal with? Calmer? Less anxiety ridden? Or that money, fame, success put the demons to bed?
And, man, seeing him act, we feel his propensity for excess, for going over the top. His death is sad, just as all such deaths are sad. But is it really so surprising? The fact that people express shock is, to me, shocking. How can they know so little about taking drugs?
Russell Brand wrote the most insightful thing I read about Hoffman’s death. “Addiction,” Brand writes, “is a mental illness around which there is a great deal of confusion, which is hugely exacerbated by the laws that criminalise drug addicts.” This leads Brand to ask: “Would he have OD’d if drugs were regulated, controlled and professionally administered? Most importantly, if we insisted as a society that what is required for people who suffer from this condition is an environment of support, tolerance and understanding.”
Yet Brand still remains within a culture that sees drugs as a problem. Yes, Brand understands the drug experience having been a prolific user. But he’s really concerned with one thing in particular: the way our laws and society criminalize the addict. That is no doubt a keen, important point.
But I want to focus elsewhere — not on policy or government or how best to treat addicts. I want to focus on how we think and talk about drugs in our everyday lives — in the press, with family, friends, with strangers on the street, with ourselves alone in our lives.
What are we even talking about when we say drugs? There are the obvious ones — pot, cocaine and crack, meth, acid, mushrooms, ex, heroine, and so on. But things get more complicated when we start talking about so-called medicine, the pharmaceutical drugs.
No doubt, many drugs are what we might think of as strictly therapeutic: statins, anticoagulants, the panoply of cancer meds, antibiotics, insulin, GI drugs. People don’t really take these to get their groove on, even if abating an illness aids in getting on said groove.
Then there’s the enormous litany of drugs for anxiety, depression, pain, birth control, and erections. Are these strictly therapeutic? Well, sure. Many people are very depressed and these meds, in some cases, can help. But when you look over the uses of these drugs, I think it’s fair to say that they are not just treating illness — or combatting illness, to use the belligerent metaphor of medicine — but are about fine tuning one’s mood, maintaining one’s emotional and cognitive focus. Or, of course, fostering sex with big hard ons and no babies.
And what, I ask, are street drugs used for? We like to say they’re recreational but what does that mean? Everything we do is, at some point, to modulate our mood. If I’m feeling cranky, often I’m hungry. So I eat. But I don’t east just anything. Certain foods make me feel lousy. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of the effects the world has on my body and the various things I can do to maximize the effects I want. So, like many these days, I don’t eat dairy or wheat. When I do, I feel freakin’ bad. Sometimes, when I’m cranky or sad or feeling ill, I’ll change my environment, go for a walk, stretch. And, sometimes, I’ll have a cocktail. And perhaps a Xanax.
We are little machines, systems that take in the world, process it and make a life from it. Certain things don’t serve my system well. Some things serve it well but only at the right time and place. There are very few things — if any — that are always right for me. In fact, the one thing I can think of that is most often effective in altering my state for the better is booze.
The last few years have seen the rise of food culture and this incredible attention we pay not just to what we eat but where our food comes from, how it’s prepared, how much of it to eat, and even what to eat it with. Everywhere I go in San Francisco and New York, everyone I meet has concerted opinions about what should and shouldn’t be eaten. Kale is great but only four times a week and assuming it’s organic and raw. Or: Beets. It’s all about beets — cooked through, however. And then: Nothing but grass fed beef from Marin. There’s even a name for this culture, for these people who focus so intensely on their diet. They’re called foodies.
What I want to suggest, then, is that we need to pay such attention to drugs. We need a culture of druggies. A culture that is open and rigorous and opinionated about where its drugs come from, how much to take, which mix well and which don’t. After all, drugs are so potent. A tiny pill, a dropper full, one puff and you can be lit and loaded. Doesn’t it therefore behoove us to pay attention to how we take them? I mean, if I eat raw kale every day for a month, I might get the runs but that’s about it. Drink too much, pop too many Xanax, then take an Ambien and there’s a good chance I’ll never wake up again.
We need druggies. We need an entire druggy culture: columns in the paper; sections of magazines; outdoor markets where people can peruse pot, junk, blow, Viagra, Ativan, tequila; television shows where people compete to make the most refined drug cocktail. We need open discussion about our drug diet — the provenance and terroir of our drugs; how they pair with other drugs, activities, or foods; best times of day or year to take this or that.
Sure, there are online drug forums now (see Erowid). And while one might occasionally find some useful information, for the most part they are really, really unreliable. Trust me.
Like foodie culture, druggie culture would teach people responsible, smart drug use. Just as this food movement has been deployed to counter obesity, druggie culture would teach people how to avoid addiction and overdose.
So, yes, of course Russell Brand is right as we need new laws and need to treat addiction not as a criminal offense but as a sickness. And, yes, I agree with David Simon: the war on drugs is absurd and counter-productive, turning our police into soldiers and our cities into war zones.
But I want something else. I want a culture that doesn’t just say Yes or No to drugs but a culture that says: Which Drugs and How Often? I want a culture that considers its total diet, not just food but how it takes in everything, including drugs. I want a culture of considered consumption. I want druggies. Perhaps in such a culture, Philip Seymour Hoffman would still be using. But he’d still be alive.