I have been thinking a lot the past two weeks about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s shocking drug overdose, especially after being in San Antonio with my friend Adrienne–we talked about it quite a bit. I’m still trying to process the whole thing, really. According to one article, Hoffman first entered rehab back when he was 22, and then stayed sober for two decades before relapsing two years ago. He went back into rehab last May, but obviously, it didn’t take: he died with a needle in his arm and reportedly 50 bags of heroin nearby.
I am not addicted to drugs or alcohol myself, nor have I ever lived with anyone who is/was, so I admit to having an entirely outsider’s perspective on this. From that vantage point, I confess to being shocked that someone could be drug-free for 20 years—20 years!—and still be at risk enough to be able to slip back into such destructive, painful behavior—even unto death. How was he not able to develop different coping strategies, alternative stress-releases, a stronger support network? Why wasn’t twenty years enough to kick the habit for good?
The only way I can make sense of this—even a little bit—is through the theological lens of sin, and the language the church uses to describe how we are captive to behaviors that we hate, irresistibly drawn to words and deeds that tear down and destroy—and on top of it, powerless to free ourselves from them. Particularly in a Lutheran understanding, sin is not something we can overcome by working hard, avoiding temptation, or thinking good thoughts. It is inextricably in us, and taints all of what we do and all of what we say. We can’t get away from it, and every single one of us lives with it every single day.
And yet, at the same time, we are responsible for sin—heroin doesn’t inject itself—and we willfully and consciously make awful choices, and we do and say horrific things, even while knowingfull well their consequences. Whether we are addicts or not, we all have had the experience of making a really, really bad decision—with full awareness and deliberation—and suffering greatly because of it. We cheat, we steal, we lie, we have affairs, we live beyond our means, we exploit others, and all kinds of cruel words drip from our lips daily. Why do we do those things? Why can’t we stop? And so when you really pause and think about it, aren’t we all “addicted” in some way? It seems to me that addiction is a metaphor that accurately and vividly describes the experience of being “in bondage to sin.”
Late last week, someone sent me an article Russell Brand had written about his own addiction—and let me say, I had low expectations [I hadn’t read anything by him before]! However, Iwas amazed at the depth and honesty of his reflections—and unsettled by the stark power heroin still wields in his life, even as he is 10 years sober. He begins the article by noting that even though he has been drug-free for a decade, the last time he thought about heroin was “yesterday.” And resisting what is still seductively alluring to him requires “constant vigilance”—“incredible support and fastidious structuring.” You can find the article here: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/mar/09/russell-brand-life-without-drugs.
So what to do? Clearly, I have no great new words of wisdom, no fresh insights to share: I wish I did. The only thing that seems very important to me to reiterate in the face of the debilitating addictions that compromise the lives of so many people is the enduring power of a community of love: a community made up of people who are deeply aware of their own vulnerability and powerlessness; people who don’t judge—but also don’t offer “cheap grace;” people who have the patience and courage to abide with the addict in her moments of doubt and weakness, until the desire for the escape, the high, the calm, the oblivion drugs provide passes. In short, the power of the body of Christ. The church has a bad reputation as being the home of judgmental goody-two shoes, a place where only the squeaky clean need apply. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth; and in fact, the church is the place where those most aware of their sinfulness gather, because they know more than anyone their need for God’s forgiveness and grace, and for their sisters’ and brothers’ love and kindness.