Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Addiction

Phillip Seymour Hoffman was one of the great talents in Hollywood. He was in some of my favorite movies: The Big Lebowski, Capote, Doubt, and The Talented Mr. Ripley to name a few. His death is a loss for all of us who love movies. His charm and “average guy” attitude were refreshing. His children attended public school in New York City and he continued to do theater roles in addition to the movies. He did not seem to be caught up in the glitter of Hollywood. Reports say he was devoted to his children. Given his success and the lifestyle he chose, I was shocked to learn of his problems.

His death is a dramatic example of the profound effect alcoholism and drug addiction has on our society. He got sober initially at the age of 22 after quite a party time in college. After all those years of sobriety and he began again to struggle. And he was not successful this time in beating the drugs. As the 12-Step programs say, it is “cunning, baffling and powerful.”

Just as I am shocked to learn of his heroin addiction, those of us who practice family law and who have some background in addictions see the profound effect of alcoholism and drug addiction on families. Many times a spouse comes in complaining about the alcohol and drug use of the other spouse. Many times a client comes in saying their spouse is complaining about his or her drinking or drug use. Many times a client describes behavior that is consistent with alcoholism and drug addiction but the client denies it. In far too few cases, one will get treatment to preserve the marriage and the family. But too often that doesn’t happen. Addicts and alcoholics (and, often their families) think that if a person excels at work and has never had a DWI there is no substance abuse. That is not the case.

Even more dramatic is the effect of alcohol and drugs on domestic violence. Sometimes the abuser gets drunk or high and beats his or her spouse. Sometimes, it is the spouse who gets drunk and the abuser is violent as a result of the frustration in dealing with the addiction and the repeated promises to stop. The effect on the family is profound. The effect on us as a society is profound.

In addition to the effect on the family of spouses with addictions, children also have drug and alcohol problems. I have had more than one case in which grandparents are trying to get custody of their grandchildren because their son or daughter has an addiction. Often, both of the child’s parents are addicted. The cases I see are “normal” middle-class families. It is surprising the frequency that the drug of choice is often heroin.

When I hear stories, I wonder why anyone did heroin the first time. I understand addictions well enough to understand why addicts continue to use drugs but knowing what we know about heroin’s rank on the addictiveness scale, what would make someone do it the first time?

As family law attorneys, we often hear what goes on behind closed doors outside the view of friends and family. People would be surprised at the things that we hear.. We practice in Annapolis, Maryland. Those who are not familiar with drug addiction would think that in a community like this, the problem does not exist. Drug addiction is not confined to low-income areas or people. People would be surprised at what happens in homes that appear to be “Leave It to Beaver” households. Alcoholism and drug abuse are much greater problems than many people think.

As I was shocked to learn of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s struggle with drug addiction, people would be shocked to hear what we do as family lawyers. Our hearts go out to the partner, young children, and the family of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Our hearts also go out to families everywhere who are struggling with the curse of drug addiction and alcoholism.