With the sudden and tragic death of the extremely talented Phillip Seymour Hoffman, I find myself reflecting on what leads someone to abuse drugs, and what, if anything can be done to curb this trend.
While doing so I was reminded of an experience with my two-year-old son who couldn’t swim without the aid of “floaties.” After taking a break from the pool for lunch, my son—oblivious to his reliance on flotation devices—excitedly ventured back to the pool where he immediately found its bottom. Fortunately, the only casualties that day were the eardrums belonging to anyone in my vicinity as I watched my son submerge.
But what does a toddler’s inability to swim without aid have to do with drug addiction? The answer is simple: just as a toddler depends on a buoyancy device to survive deep waters, a drug addict is subservient to drugs as he or she navigates life’s “deep waters.” It is therefore incumbent on us to learn for ourselves and teach others those life skills necessary to avoid defaulting to the coping that drugs and other addictive substances offer.
So what are those real skills? First and foremost the most essential skill that we need is an ability to be close to God who is all-powerful, all knowing, and all loving. Research suggests that our relationship with God is the best healthy dependency available. The academic attachment theory teaches that people who suffer from unhealthy attachment issues are the most susceptible to dependencies and addictions. It is no wonder then that the inspired 12-step-alcoholic- anonymous program calls for that attachment and dependency to a "Higher Source" in order to combat the addictive behavior.
Karen Walant, a noted psychoanalyst and author suggests that we are all seeking that state of "harmonious oneness" that can create the peace and comfort that we naturally crave from birth. Unfortunately, the temporary euphoric feelings of drugs and alcohol can become a false sense of security and create a pseudo kind of harmonious connection and a "sense that all is right with the world" while intoxicated or high. Bill Wilson, a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, sums it up best: "Before Alcoholics Anonymous, we were trying to find God in a bottle."
More poignant to the recent events of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and others of his ilk, research shows that gifted and talented people are more prone to drug use. While correlation is established, causation remains a mystery. Are they more susceptible to drug and alcohol addictions because of the more intense highs they experience due to their tremendous abilities and fame? Could the propensity towards superficial and potentially hurtful relationships with people wanting to benefit from an association with the rich and famous be a factor? Could our society's license to publicly criticize and condemn famous people make them feel more isolated and insecure without a healthy place to turn? And finally and perhaps most important, could extraordinary gifts negate the need to be close to God?
Of course, stars and the gifted and talented aren’t the only people more susceptible to addictions. Early disconnect in childhood and being raised in a social or religious environment perceived as punitive rather than unconditionally loving and accepting, can also create difficulty in establishing healthy attachments, especially with God. This void can thus create more susceptible to seeking that intoxicated state of bliss that potentially addictive substances and behaviors can offer as an unhealthy substitute and false sense of security.
So what can we all do to help those that might be prone to turn to drugs and alcohol to cope? How can we all help people learn to trust in us and trust in a loving God in order to establish those healthy connections and attachments? We can start by no longer feeling license to make fun of, judge, criticize, and condemn people, including famous people—after all, they are just like the rest of us but for an acute, unique talent. We can have more compassion and truly understand that when people are seeking a false sense of security in any kind of addictive behavior, that what they need is healthy connections and attachments. They need to hear the truth about what the false sense of security is doing to them but spoken in love—sometimes a little tough love.
In short, we need to learn to swim with God and His love so "floaties" aren't necessary.