Nothing wasted nothing gained

I’m so fucking sad about Philip Seymour Hoffman.

It’s been a long time since I felt proper physical grief over the loss of someone in the public eye. Quite possibly the last time – or at least the one that made the longest-lasting impression on me – was River Phoenix.

Another young, beautiful, talented actor with a terrible secret which claimed his life.

I loved him. When he died I was 23. The same age as River was in fact. I remember driving to work in complete shock the morning we heard it on the news, and I spent the day mostly just staring, trying to wrap my brain around it and disappearing to the toilet to cry.

I know it sounds barking. I knew at the time it was ridiculous to grieve for someone I didn’t know; had never met. But somehow through his films and I guess the interviews I’d read with him, this young man had touched me. He’d driven emotions through me with the power of his craft. I’d believed him. I believed in him. And then he was gone. On an L.A. sidewalk outside a club while his younger brother and girlfriend watched in disbelief.

And I mourned the lost potential. So much potential. It seemed like he was just getting to grips with his art. Was just showing flashes of brilliance. Was about to soar stratospherically on a career that would have been incredible to witness. But a mistake in a bathroom stopped him dead.

So I understand why people say it’s a waste.

“Such a waste,” they say.

“He had it all but he threw it away.” “Damn him.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

It’s a funny thing about drugs. When people come back from an addiction we’ll laugh at their earlier antics, cheer their public confessionals, applaud their strength of character. “Ah, addiction is a terrible thing but it can be beaten!” we think.

Well yes it can, but it’s incredibly hard. How many times did Robert Downey Jnr have to see the inside of a jail cell before he was able to master his demons? And I bet he still has dark days when he wonders, “Just one drink, just one line, what harm could it do?” before wrestling the thought away again.

But for those who can’t beat their demons? Well they wasted their gifts. They wasted their talent. How very dare they? They threw it back in our faces. So selfish.

Heath Ledger? He made a tragic mistake. He was tired. He forgot how many pills he’d taken. It’s so awfully sad. What a terrible loss.

James Gandolfini? Clearly a man with his own addiction to battle. But it was food. Food is good. We all need food. What a terrible loss.

But no one said “What a waste.” No, food we understand. We can empathise with that. A mistake with prescription drugs? Well who hasn’t forgotten whether it was three or four hours since they took their last painkillers? And who hasn’t wondered whether they’ve hit their maximum dose for the day or whether they can still take another couple?

It’s a tragedy, but it wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t deliberate. We can empathise with them. But this?

So here I am today crying over Philip Seymour Hoffman. Grieving the lost potential. A mistake in a bathroom.

It is a tragedy. But it isn’t a waste.

Hoffman didn’t waste his talents. He shared them on a global stage. But yes we are deprived of the splendour of what might have been. And undoubtedly it would have been splendid.

What he didn’t choose to share, it would seem, is the pain, the sorrow, the loneliness or the extent of his disease. By which I mean dis-ease.

Because addiction is a disease, and ‘waste’ implies intention. A deliberate act. A decision. And you have to know that there are very few controllable decisions in an addiction. It’s not a lifestyle choice. People do not choose to be addicted. Yes you can choose to sort yourself out but christ it’s hard. It’s really fucking hard. There’s no switch you can flick and addiction goes away. Addiction never really leaves. It’s a constant battle fought in the heart and mind and those battles are often lost. Maybe for just one time and it’s a low you beat yourself up with but pick yourself up from, or maybe it’s a spiral which sends you back into treatment, or maybe it’s a mistake with devastating consequences.

Ask any dieter. Maybe you’re determined to have the self control required to eat just one biscuit but an hour later you’re hating yourself for pigging another five. Even if you lose the weight it’s a constant battle to keep it off. It never goes away. All that food that’s so bad for us, but it tastes so damn good. You really have to work to keep from eating it.

Now imagine how hard that battle is with an actual physical, chemical addiction. Imagine trying to grapple that self control. And you think this is something you choose?

Sadly I never met Philip Seymour Hoffman but I did have a close encounter with him once. He was here in London with his play Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. We were queuing for a table in a Soho Indian restaurant and suddenly he was there. He was leaving. Right next to us.

My partner and I did that crass ‘it’s you!’ thing of just staring, open-mouthed, in awe. We were in awe because this was 2002 and we had fallen in love with him and his talent in a string of beautiful but ridiculously different performances; Boogie Nights, Lebowski, Happiness, Flawless, Magnolia, Ripley, Almost Famous… Like the best character actors he morphed, apparently effortlessly, cuttlefish-like.

But I guess it wasn’t effortless. And when two or more things in your life take a lot of effort to manage, something will tend to give.

I wish I could have had that moment. I wish I’d been brave enough to say hi and how brilliant I thought he was; what a joy and a treat it was to watch him unveil another complex, layered character. Instead we sat at the table he’d just vacated and talked about the things he’d given us. Unknowing.

When anyone dies like this it’s a shock. A source of regret. If only. His friends and family will be tearing themselves up with those.

We’ve all lost out. It’s awful. And so fucking sad. But please don’t call it a waste. And please have a little empathy for the regular guys in your community – the kind of people Hoffman sometimes portrayed – who are battling their own demons. They really deserve some support and belief because they have little belief in themselves.

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