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Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger & Jane Doe: Every Death Matters

Francine Starks is an amazing advocate and educator. I was fortunate to hear her speak many times during her years of service to Spruce Run. She drove home the idea to me that tragedy creates opportunity because people pay attention when horrible things happen. While not diminishing the importance of any individual loss, we must seize the moment to educate because it’s so much easier to live as though major social problems do not exist in our backyards.

This past weekend Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an overdose. He’ll be the topic of water cooler discussions, news stories, and later tabloid fodder for the coming month. There will be comparisons to Heath Ledger and folks will share their consternation that celebrities have wealth and fame and yet inexplicably destroy their lives with drugs and alcohol.

Theirs are the only deaths that matter, save those that hit close to home. Everyone else is a sea of faceless names and numbers. Another statistic. Another headline.

The latest numbers from the Center for Disease Control (2010) tell us that 105 Americans die EVERY DAY from drug overdoses and many others per day use it as a form of suicide. Overdose rates have steadily risen since 1992.

Use of heroin continues to increase. This is due in large part to the rising cost of prescription opiates on the street but there’s another important factor at play here:

As a nation, we’re fairly bored.

How much entertainment can you get for twenty bucks? That’s not enough for dinner and a movie but it’s enough to give you the greatest, most euphoric experience on earth. It’s the new once a month outing for middle class America. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most addictive substances available.

Perception has shifted. In past years we associated heroin with skid row/rock bottom. It’s vastly more mainstream today. For many, (the rich and powerful included), there’s a progression from Vicodin to Percoset to Oxy to heroin. Climbing in severity fuels dissension into the hell that is addiction.

Addiction is the most destructive force in our country today and yet no new user believes it’ll happen to them. Every one of us who experiment secretly believe that we have too much will power, too much to lose, too much to do to ever allow drugs to become a problem.

Unfortunately, we’re not just bored, we’re arrogant.

Take a step back and gain some perspective. Examine closely the risks that you’re taking. Maybe it still seems like no big deal. Maybe you’re in control. Maybe the seduction is so subtle you can’t see it.

It seems unlikely to me that even a fraction of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s story will ever be known. As a society we will judge him as weak and ungrateful for our adoration of his work.  What we do know is that he admitted heavy drug use in his youth, had achieved long term sobriety, relapsed, rehabbed, and then seemingly out of the blue…died.

So did about 104 other people last Saturday.

Let’s get more imaginative, America and more humble while we’re at it.

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