News Declan Lynch

Tuesday 23 September 2014

We do not need to look beyond the obvious

Despite the desire for the 'exotic', the answer is more often seen to be in the bottom of a glass, writes Declan Lynch

Published 09/02/2014 | 02:30

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The image of the great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman with a needle stuck in his arm, dying of a heroin overdose, is now fixed in the public consciousness. The image of him drinking heavily in a bar in Atlanta a few days before that, could never compete.

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Indeed when reports of the drinking eventually emerged, they were mainly concerned with the fact that he made frequent visits from the bar to the toilet, presumably to take drugs.

That was what had them worried.

The notion that the two activities might be inextricably connected was not discussed in any meaningful way. But if it was considered at all, it was assumed that the booze was the minor offender, even a vision of relative normality next to the dark exoticism of the heroin-taking that was going on in the next room.

We also learned that Hoffman had been to rehab about 20 years ago for his addiction to drink and drugs. And there can hardly be any doubt as to which came first – there may be the odd rare case of someone who starts on drugs and moves on to the drink, but for the majority, it is the other way round.

And, of course, in one sense it doesn't matter how they call it, whether they are labelling Hoffman a junkie or an alcoholic or both. Addiction, of whatever kind, was at the heart of it.

But it matters in a broader sense, in terms of the "otherness" which is so often sought and seized upon in such appallingly sad cases.

Amy Winehouse, for example, died of drink. Not drugs.

Yet there is probably a lingering perception that drink just played a sort of accidental role in her death, that she had far greater problems with the drugs. In fact there is almost a longing for that analysis, a desire for the exotic, for that otherness.

It's as if we have difficulty accepting that the very talented can be brought down by the same stupid problems that everyone else has, by the same substances that are available to us all down the off-licence. We feel that there must be some other reason.

'He had so much more to give us' – Robbie Collin pays tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman, Obituaries Page 29

Something of this nature seemed to be going on too in relation to the death of Gerry Ryan, when the issue of cocaine suddenly emerged, at which point, for some, the matter was closed – in their minds, this was the "otherness" which explained it all, making it just another story of rock 'n' roll decadence.

And yet, in the many descriptions of Ryan's later life, the drug which appeared on the menu again and again was not cocaine, but alcohol. For every vague mention of cocaine, there were numerous references to wine, brandy, whisky, often consumed with meals, but consumed nonetheless.

Again, we are not trying to ascertain the precise cause of death here, just remarking on the enthusiasm with which we seek that "other" reason, that exotic note, rather than accepting the obvious, the mundane.

Last week we were talking about Neknominations, fearing that a grave new menace had arrived in our land, until eventually we started to remember that there's already a very old menace here, still to be defeated.

It's just that we can hardly bear to think of all the people who are directly damaged or killed by ordinary everyday drinking, and as for those who are indirectly damaged, the numbers are just too astonishing for the mind to absorb.

But we need to be talking about something, so we talk about something else.

When people talk about depression, for example, as they are increasingly doing, depression is indeed the right name for the problem that they have identified. Yet I have noted the odd case which leads me to wonder if the diagnosis of depression is always entirely reliable.

I recall the story of a sportsman who said that his depression caused him to drink large quantities of beer every day. And again I asked myself, which came first? Did the depression lead to the drinking, or did the drinking lead to the depression or was it somewhere in between?

Whatever it was, I would suggest that that man could save himself a lot of time and trouble just by giving up the beer. And then seeing how he felt about everything else.

Maybe he too was talking about the wrong thing, talking about depression when he should have been talking about alcoholism, and taking the only course open to him in dealing with that problem.

Yet I also understand how hard it would be for him or for any other celebrity in that situation to get to that point. As long as he was talking about depression, he would never have to make the ultimate sacrifice which the self-declared alcoholic has to make. He could still have a beer and nobody would think any worse of him, indeed they would applaud his courage in "going public" – even if he had gone public about a problem he didn't necessarily have.

Yes these things are so hard, virtually impossible to get right all the time. And in that individual case of the sportsman, only he knows the true question, let alone the true answer.

But again it is important, not as some exercise in terminology, but because when we talk about these matters of addiction, we are so often talking about the wrong thing.

Irish Independent

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