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The roots of addiction 

I've debated whether I should write something about this since shortly after Philip Seymour Hoffman died. To some readers, it may seem childish to complain about an editorial in a competing publication. But this is still bugging me, so here goes.

The subject is an editorial that ran in the D&C shortly after Hoffman's death. Titled "What's Fueling the Drug Culture?" the piece worries that we've become too accepting of drug abuse. Fair enough, I guess. Many people do seem to accept – even glorify – a lot of stuff that is harmful. It's not prudish to warn against society's embracing the abuse of any substance – alcohol, tobacco, you name it.

But the D&C's editorial jumps from that to a suggestion that the roots of drug addiction lie in the desire to flee from ordinary problems. ("Boss looked at you cross-ways? Go pop a pill in the restroom.")

I've got to assume that nobody in the D&C editorial writer's family has suffered from drug addiction. My mother did. Her drug of choice was alcohol, and she fought her addiction for much of her adult life. Unsuccessfully.

She didn't drink because somebody looked at her cross-ways, or because she didn't fit in or needed to relax. She drank because despite her desperate desire to stop, despite repeated stays in hospitals and clinics, despite her promises to our family, despite her anguish over the havoc she caused in our home, she had an addiction that she simply could not beat.

I have no idea how she started down the path to that addiction. But I do know that it was linked to depression, as alcoholism often is.

Drug addiction is a disease – in the words of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, "a disease that affects both brain and behavior."

Drugs and alcohol do not, of course, jump out and grab people. The addiction begins with a voluntary decision to take a drink or use a drug. And obviously, if you never take that first step, there's no chance you'll become addicted. But not everybody who drinks or uses drugs becomes addicted. Legal and illegal drugs are in plentiful supply, and our attempts to legislate them away, preach them away, and Madison-Avenue-advertise them away have failed, miserably and expensively.

Young people who, like Hoffman, take that first step don't always act responsibly. For mature adults suffering from emotional or physical pain, the hope of relief may override the awareness of addiction's danger.

And for recovering addicts, as its sufferers and their families know, the disease lies in wait, ready to come roaring back, as it did with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

In an important, moving New York Times article published a few days after Hoffman's death (weirdly, in the Style section), writer Jacob Bernstein noted the concerns of recovering drug addicts and alcoholics and their "rarely distant fear of relapsing back into the throes of active addiction."

Bernstein quoted from an essay in Slate by journalist Seth Mnookin, sober after years of addiction but worrying almost daily about relapse. Hoffman's death, Mnookin wrote, frightened him. "There's a lot we don't know about alcoholism and drug addiction," he wrote, "but one thing is clear: Regardless of how much time clean you have, relapsing is always as easy as moving your hand to your mouth."

As a child, I used to pray nearly every day that somebody would discover a cure for the disease that was crippling my mother, breaking the heart of my grandparents, and traumatizing my father, my sister, and me. To this day, nobody has.

The D&C editorial suggested that rather than launching a new War on Drugs, "scheduling congressional hearings or demanding answers from the surgeon general," we might focus on "personal coping mechanisms."

"Life isn't all about feeling good all the time," said the D&C. "Sometimes the struggles can make you stronger."

Buck up!

If only overcoming this disease were that simple. It is not. And sadly, editorials like that one may add to the pain.

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