“How could he be so selfish? He had a wife and 3 kids. Didn’t he care at all about them? Why would he throw it all away to do drugs? Life gave him everything. He had money, opportunity, talent. He had it all, and he still chose to do heroin anyway. Why didn’t he just stop? What a waste.”
Pretty harsh, right? Yeah. Just writing it and then reading it back gave me shivers. I didn’t really feel how cold and judgmental and superior the above thoughts sounded, until I wrote them out and then sat back and read my own words. Yes. These are my words. My thoughts. Well, sort of. These are the thoughts of the “old me” – the one that existed before July 13, 2011 – the early, earth-shattering morning of my husband’s sudden death. If actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death had occurred back then instead of now, the words typed above would have been some of the very first thoughts that popped into my mind. Of course, the “old me” wouldn’t have been brave enough to share thoughts like that, so instead, I would have jumped on the much easier bandwagon of posting careless and borderline cruel jokes about the famous person’s shocking and untimely death. The comedian in me would have been pining away for that best tweet or that most shared Facebook status of the day, ending, of course, with a very sincere #RIP so-and-so. And although my joke of choice would not have been of the cruel type, (mean-spirited humor has never really been my thing) it still would have been my only immediate instinct – to post a silly pun about it, get a cheap laugh, and make it go away. After a day or two of posting my favorite clips online from some of Hoffman’s best acting roles, and saying to other friends in a concerned whisper: “Can you believe it? He was only 46 years old!”, I would have then, very quickly and without much confetti or fanfare, proceeded on with my otherwise self-involved, naive little life.
It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know anything at all about hurt or loss or death. I didn’t know that one second I could be ecstatic and in love and planning our life together, and the next second, riding in a taxi cab on my way to being told by the E.R. nurses and doctors at the hospital, that my very healthy, paramedic, 46 year old husband suffered a massive heart-attack an hour after arriving at work, and that he didn’t make it. I didn’t know that in one moment, the word future would be replaced with the phrase “What the hell just happened to my life?” I didn’t know that losing my spouse would transform every cell in my being, and that it would change every single thing, forever. I didn’t know the first thing about being a 39 year old widow. I didn’t know that there was a pain this deep, this all-consuming, this frightening. I didn’t know that my husband’s death would cause me to not want to be alive any longer, and I didn’t know that it would take so long to no longer feel that way. So please forgive me, universe, for my past behaviors. I didn’t know a damn thing.
Until, of course, I did.
The thing about knowing something that you didn’t know before, is that once you know it, you cannot unknow it. It is impossible. Instead, it sits inside of you and it alters the way that you see the world around you. For me personally, once the shock and fog of my own pain finally began to lift some, I could suddenly see and feel all of the pain that others held in their hearts. Where there used to be judgement, there is now compassion. Where there was assumption, there is now empathy. Where there was celebrity, there is now human being. In my “before” life, I saw the death of someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman as the death of a famous person. In my “after” life, he is just a person. He is a person struggling and crawling and wailing and guessing through life, like all of us. He is a person with addictions, and unless you are a person with addictions yourself, you cannot possibly comprehend the hell of that particular demon, and the control and the hold that it must have over you. This person, this extremely talented and flawed and real person- had been clean and sober from drugs for 23 years. And then, just like that – he wasn’t. I am not an expert on addicts, but to me, that says a lot about how fragile the world of an addict has to be. I would imagine it is something like living your life inside a house of cards, just always waiting for that one card to topple over and ruin all your hard work. A simple gust of wind, an unexpected emotion, or even something as ordinary as a doctor’s prescribed pain medication – could be that card that knocks your house down, and sends you once again running toward the familiar destruction that you unconsciously run toward.
In my new life as a widow, I have met many other widowed people, lots of them way too young to even be thinking about or using that awful “W” word. Many of my fellow widowed friends lost their partners to alcohol or drug addiction. Some of the deaths were suicides, some were overdoses, all were the result of someone being in a massive amount of pain. I am a 42 year old woman, and I know way too many people whose partners lives ended because of addiction. I have sat with widowed friends on the phone or in person, holding their hands and comforting them as they try and live with the torment and the guilt and the feeling of helplessness that addiction leaves in its wake. It is heartbreaking. It is terrifying. It is real. The demons are beyond powerful, and sometimes the demons win.
Every single one of us has demons. If you look inside of yourself – really look – you probably know what yours are. We all struggle with something, and some of us win that struggle. Others don’t. But the very fact that we all have a struggle makes us all the same. And in that way, you are only a few threads away from being Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s true. You are him. He is you. Or, he could be.
I am still a comedian, and so I will probably always make silly jokes when someone dies. Comedy is a huge part of how I cope with my own husband’s death. But now that I am a widow, posting a funny comment is no longer the first thing that pops into my head when a famous person dies. The first thing that came into my head when hearing about Hoffman’s sudden death was this silent conversation that I had with myself: “His wife. His poor wife. I wish there was some way I could connect with her and just tell her that I get it. I wonder where she was when she found out. Was she alone like I was? Did somebody tell her personally? Were there cameras on her and her children in that moment when they found out the absolute worst thing you could ever find out about your loved one? What will happen to them? How will they live inside of the pain?” The very next thing that came into my head was about Philip Seymour Hoffman. Not the brilliant actor part of him, but the man himself. The son. The father who had two daughters and a son. The partner to long-time girlfriend and costume designer Mimi O’Donnell. I thought about the fact that this man was sober for over 20 years. And then he relapsed on prescription pain medication. And he knew. He was an addict, so he knew the slippery-slope was eminent, and he checked himself into a rehab facility in May of 2013. I didn’t know the man, but I am guessing that he loved his children and his partner very much. And I do not think that he, or any addict, chooses their particular drug or addiction over their family or their life. But sometimes the addiction is just a little bit stronger. Sometimes the demons win.
Believe me when I tell you that I wish I didn’t possess this new knowledge. I wish like hell that I could go back to the days when a celebrity death was just a blip in my radar, and when I thought it had nothing at all to do with me. I wish that I could talk to my husband about what a great actor Hoffman was, and that we could watch his favorite Hoffman movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” together, and remember him with fondness. But I can’t. That life is gone now, and so is that naive person who was too quick to judge people and make assumptions.
I am different now. I know better than all that, and I know that I cannot unknow what I now know.
And now that you’ve read this, neither can you.