Alan Chartock: Actor's death puts spotlight on addictions


GREAT BARRINGTON -- I once interviewed a man named Harold Leventhal. Leventhal was a brilliant guy who managed the Weavers and, if the truth be told, was the single major force responsible for bringing Pete Seeger back into public life after he was blacklisted during the great Red Scare.

Leventhal told me that he had been approached by great musicians like Johnny Cash, asking him to manage their careers. He turned them down because of their drug addictions.

When a talented, sensitive actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman dies in his 40s with a syringe in his arm and an apartment full of drugs, do we feel badly for him? Do we ache for his family? Do we feel compassion and loss?

Everyone will have their own answer but for me, the answer is yes, I do. After all, addiction is an illness, a very cruel illness. Knowing all we do about heroin and the other drugs, it’s a wonder that anybody is foolish enough to go there in the first place.

But there are lots of reasons why people do self-destructive things. Sometimes it’s just plain arrogance. They think that they can beat the odds and it won’t happen to them. Some of these people start out just looking for thrills and by the time they realize they are addicts and need to turn things around, it’s too late. Sometimes they are running from something that is so troubling and painful they simply can’t face their lives with a clear head.

Think of all we know about the dangers of cigarettes: Smoking leads to lung cancer, heart disease, and everything else under the sun. Yet, cigarettes are readily available in stores all over our towns and villages. Heroin, of course, is against the law but cigarettes and alcohol are not.

So, when a friend or loved one dies of lung cancer, do we hate them for their addiction and for killing themselves? Because, let there be no mistake about it, they have indeed killed themselves.

Of course we don’t. We mourn them and grieve for them. We wish that there was something we could have done to help. We know that some of the brightest, most talented people in the world are, because of their psychological make-up, unable to resist the temptation of addictive substances. In many cases, they have everything to live for including their families and their work.

So what can we do? Arranged interventions sometimes help an addict recognize that they need help. Sometimes experts can help, people like Dr. Jennifer Michaels of the Brien Center in Pittsfield. Some folks have incredible success with 12-step programs and support groups that have been established to help addicts.

Many years ago when I was doing my Ph.D. in mental health politics, I was assigned to go out to a famous drug addiction rehab center in Staten Island. At the time, that institution believed that you had to start all over in life to ditch the addiction. I remember being horrified that some of these people were put in diapers and made to sit on stools wearing dunce caps.

We now have a major movement in this country to legalize marijuana. There are experts in the addiction field who will tell you that marijuana is a gateway drug to more dangerous narcotics. I am sure that with some people that is true. Did our famous actor start out with pot? How many other people have?

Yet there are many who never went beyond recreational use of marijuana. One might also make a connection between cigarette smoking and drug addiction or alcohol use.

It’s all pretty complicated. As the science advances we’ll probably find ways to make it easier to quit. All I know is that a brilliant actor has died. He knew he had a problem. He was battling it but in the end, it beat him. So sad.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.


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