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On The Shame Of The Addict

Here’s a remarkable e-mail, which I publish with the permission of the person who sent it:

You don’t have to publish this, because I know I’m late in responding, but I wanted to explain something to you that I think you missed when you wrote about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. I couldn’t bring myself to write about it on that comments section. Maybe it’s just for you, or it might be that I need to write it just for me.

I understand the anger you and many of your readers felt at Mr. Hoffman for throwing his life away as an addict. I share that anger, as a mom and a wife. I can’t imagine doing that to my daughter and my husband. On the other hand, I can’t imagine what it must be like to fight heroin addiction. Not that I’m saying I’m in Mr. Hoffman’s category, but I think my own addiction to cigarettes gives me some insight I would like you to consider.

My story might surprise you. I was raised in a very conservative church culture. We were taught to dress modestly, not to drink, and not to smoke. In my childhood (religious schools, church on Sunday and Wednesday, etc etc), we never knew anybody who did those things. Smoking was one of those gross things that bad people did. I had an uncle who smoked, but we knew he was trashy, and kept him at arm’s length.

Flash forward to my mid-twenties. I had gotten out of a bad, brief marriage, and had moved to a city far away from my parents. The experience of my failed marriage shook me to my foundations. My husband and I met in college. He was the “perfect man” from my sheltered Christian perspective. I didn’t see certain sides of him until after we were married. Thank God we ended it before there were kids. I felt like I had to make a clean break from our city, which was not far from where I grew up. (I am being non-specific on purpose for reasons you will see).

When I started my new life, I was a mess. I somehow had landed a good job, and made girlfriends in the office quickly. There were a lot of single gals in our office. We would go out on the weekends to bars — nothing sleazy or anything like it, but to me, coming from the background I did, it felt sexy and exciting, especially coming out of a controlling marriage. I only drank white wine, which seemed soooo rebellious to me. Why not? I had done the “right thing” by what my conservative church culture had told me, and it blew up in my face. If they were wrong about a “Godly marriage,” maybe they were wrong about alcohol too. Some of the girls in my office smoked socially, when they would go out. They convinced me to try it. I admit I was stupid, but once I had a couple of glasses of wine in me, it was easy for me to go along with the crowd. I was having fun, and for the first time, I felt free to be me. These gals liked me for who I was, and didn’t expect me to say all the right things, and to have read all the right books by the right authors at the moment.

I hated smoking at first, but after the first three or four after-work happy hours, it started seeming normal. I would bum cigarettes off my co-workers, but one Saturday, I felt a craving for a cigarette that I couldn’t resist. I remember it so well. It freaked me out, because I wasn’t with my girlfriends, and I had not been drinking, which was the excuse I used to justify the craving starting to build up in me. I confess that there was a part of me that said, “You go, girl!” In my mind, cigarettes symbolized liberation from my fundamentalist parents and that church-based society that resulted in me ending up in a bad marriage to a “perfect Christian” who was anything but. When I think back on it now, I can’t believe how stupid and childish I was. I guess this comes from never rebelling as a teenager. I can’t explain it to myself even now, but the point is, I gave in to temptation, and bought my first pack of cigarettes. I felt like such a rebel, and it felt so bad, but it also felt so good.

I got addicted. My girlfriends were able to smoke only when they went out on the weekends, and I figured that would be me too, but it wasn’t. (All of them, by the way, put cigarettes down for good once they got serious boyfriends who didn’t like smoking). Prior to this, I thought smoking was a moral thing, and that all these “bad” smokers needed to do to quit was to turn away from their sin, easy as pie. I thought the concept of addiction was an excuse. But there I was, not a teenager but a grown woman, feeling myself getting in way over my head with smoking, and unable to stop.

The weird thing is that all my social-smoker girlfriends would have looked down on me if they knew I was turning into a regular smoker. It was understood without anybody saying it that what we did was for fun, but we definitely didn’t do it during the week. As far as I knew, I was the only Christian in our group, but I definitely wasn’t the only one who saw smoking as something shameful. We looked down on the people who went out front of our office building to smoke. We were hypocrites, but it didn’t feel that way, because we could quit anytime. I felt all the old judgmental fundamentalism in my heart when I would pass them on the way to lunch. It took a while before I realized that I was just like them. I wanted a cigarette in the worst way on lunch break, but I was too ashamed to join them and come out of the closet to my girlfriends as a smoker.

When I look back on it, I’m glad I was so ashamed of myself, because it kept me from becoming more of an addict than I was. There is no doubt in my mind that if it hadn’t been for my embarrassment and panic to keep anybody from finding out, I would have ended up a two pack a day smoker. The way it happened was that I only smoked at home, in my backyard, where nobody could see me because of the fences and the bushes. It got to the point where I wouldn’t invite people over because I was afraid that I was going to get caught. In retrospect, it probably wouldn’t have been a big deal at all, but it was a big deal to ME, especially because I was a Christian. I went to a more liberal church back then (and still do), and some of the hipsters in the congregation smoked, but it still wasn’t done. In Mom and Dad’s church, nobody smoked because they thought smoking was morally wrong. In my church, nobody except hipsters smoked because they thought smoking was tacky. I was too old and too ordinary in my job to be a hipster. If anybody at church knew I was a smoker, they would have judged me.

I went on like this for a few years. I wanted to stop, but I was powerless. Can’t tell you the number of times I tried to quit. I carried a small bottle of mouthwash in my purse all the time for those moments when I was away from home and couldn’t stand the pressure to delay a cigarette. I tried Nicorette, which kept me from going crazy stuck in meetings, but that’s it. I prayed to be set free from my slavery to cigarettes, but nothing worked.

Then one day, the department next to mine got this new guy, and I developed a crazy crush on him. We had an office barbecue a month later, and I got to meet him. We were perfect for each other — and he was a Christian!!! I found out on that first afternoon that he couldn’t stand smoking (hey, I was an addict, I had to find this information out). I made my mind up to quit so I would stand a chance with him.

I’ll cut to the chase here. We ended up dating, and we got very serious … but that did not make me quit smoking! It just drove me further into the closet. We were at each other’s houses all the time, cooking dinner together, watching TV, and hanging out. I didn’t have a lot of private time to smoke. You would think that would have broken the habit for me, but it didn’t. I had to get creative to feed my habit.

We got married after about a year together. My husband, who absolutely hated smoking, was married to a smoker, and didn’t know it. We lived like this for two years, until I got pregnant with our daughter. I quit the day I peed on the stick. The day I stopped nursing my daughter, put her in day care, and went back to the office was the day I pulled over on the side of the road and smoked a cigarette on the way to work. God forgive me, I was so full of shame that day, and every day afterward. I didn’t dare ask for help, because I didn’t want anyone to know.

What made me quit? My uncle died of lung cancer, like your sister did. He was a smoker, and an outcast in our family. He was a nice guy, a good family man, but he SMOKED and didn’t go to church, so we all thought of him as the black sheep. I know what Mom and Dad were thinking when he got sick. “The wages of sin are death.” Because I had broken away from my parent’s limited worldview, when I would go back home to visit him, I didn’t see a filthy sinner. I saw an addict. Even lung cancer couldn’t break his addiction. He smoked through the cancer, until his wife and grown kids refused to let him do it anymore after he got on oxygen, and it was too dangerous. Watching him die a slow, horrible death scared me so bad. He smoked way more than I did, and I tried to rationalize keeping up my habit that way, by saying that I don’t smoke all that much, and I’ll probably be fine. Nothing shook me up like watching my uncle on that bed at home, looking like a skeleton, gasping for breath, wanting a cigarette more than he wanted any of us around him.

After his funeral, I never smoked another cigarette. That was six years ago. I have never been seriously tempted to go back, but not a single day passes by that I don’t think about how good smoking made me feel physically. I miss that rush of calmness. I miss that first cigarette in the morning, on my back deck with my first cup of coffee. I do not miss the smell, and the fear of being caught, and the overwhelming shame I felt at being a slave to my craving for nicotine. To think that my desire for nicotine was more important to me in a way than my husband and our daughter shames me to this day, but I don’t let myself think of it. I am just glad that God gave me victory over it by seeing my poor suffering uncle, and getting “scared straight.” At least maybe there will be one less death from lung cancer or emphysema because of what he went through.

The reason I’m writing all this to you is because it’s been on my mind since reading your Philip Seymour Hoffman postings. Like I said at the beginning, I totally get the anger people have at him. What I don’t think you get is the shame of Mr. Hoffman holed up in his apartment, surrounded by heroin. I’m not saying you’re a bad person for this, but only that the mindset of the addict is something you’re probably not familiar with. There is a universe of difference between a stupid 27-year-old recovering fundamentalist divorcee cutting herself off from social interaction so she can hide in her backyard and smoke, and a rich and famous actor shooting up heroin in the bathroom. But Mr. Hoffman and I are/were in the same universe. I am in the same universe with the secret alcoholic, and with every other addict in hiding. You probably don’t see this because you see smokers all the time, not junkies. We exist on a continuum. I didn’t always see that, and to be perfectly honest with you, I didn’t see it until I started analyzing why those expressions of judgmentalism I read after Mr. Hoffman died made me feel so unsettled in my heart. Some of it is probably because I loved Mr. Hoffman’s acting, and he seemed like a real person to me, not just another stupid Hollywood celebrity who threw his life away. My uncle the nicotine addict was not the “bad person” my fundamentalist parents thought he was. They moralized smoking so much that it prevented them from seeing him as a person just like them, but a person who was horribly addicted (we’re talking three packs a day).

When I think about my uncle and his smoking addiction, I think about how much he and I were alike in so many ways. I look like him, and people who knew my family would always would comment on how much my mannerisms were like his. A part of me can’t help but wonder if we both had a genetic predisposition to addiction. I never became addicted to alcohol (neither did he). I still drink socially, and have since those days after my divorce. Nicotine was the thing that set the hook in me. If it was so hard for me to deal with nicotine addiction, how much harder must it have been for Mr. Hoffman to deal with heroin addiction? I’m not saying that we are the same, but I am trying to get you to think that maybe Mr. Hoffman was like me: deeply ashamed of his addiction, but powerless to fight it alone. On the other hand, like I said, if it wasn’t for the powerful sense of shame over smoking that my parents gave me, I would have probably become an addict at the level my uncle was.

Please don’t think I’m excusing my uncle or Mr. Hoffman! I’m only trying to help you see what it’s like to be an addict against your own will. Either you or one of your readers said you don’t understand how Mr. Hoffman could have loved the needle more than he loved his own children. That makes logical sense, but you could have said the same thing about me with my petty smoking habit. You sure could have said the same thing about my uncle, spending his last months laying on that bed, his kids and grandkids visiting him, but everybody knowing that he would have traded them all for a pack of cigarettes if he could have. Addicts don’t work by logic. The addiction possesses them, and drives all their thinking. If it was this way with me over a minor addiction like smoking, think about how it must be to an alcoholic, or a drug addict. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Mr. Hoffman loved the needle more than his own kids. The only thing that would have saved him was the love of his children, and of his God. His ability to connect with the power of that love failed him.

It’s his fault, ultimately. It was my choice to put those first cigarettes in my mouth. It was Mr. Hoffman’s choice to stick those first needles in his vein. Now that I’m older and have been free of cigarettes for years (hopefully forever), I can see how my own physical make-up and my own background (rebelling against my religious upbringing), and the place I was in at that time in my life, coming out of a bad marriage, all brought me to a place where it made sense to say what the heck, let’s try it … and I was hooked. I don’t blame my parents or my home church for what happened to me. All the kids at the church we go to now get anti-smoking lessons from the adult culture that are every bit as strong as what I got growing up, though it comes from a place of health, not of morals. I’m glad they get that, so maybe they will not make the mistake I did. On the other hand, I am a lot more merciful towards people who slip up and fall into the addiction of smoking, alcohol, or drugs, than I would have been before. I don’t know much of anything about Mr. Hoffman’s life, but I am willing to bet that if you looked into it, you would find some things there that help explain why he gave himself over to addiction.

To be honest with you, there’s a part of me that is still captive to my shame. I have taken my lunch break to write you this letter. If I wrote this from my home computer, there is a slim chance that my husband would stumble across it and read it, and learn my shameful secret. I am taking a risk by writing this at all, in case you choose to publish it, because I am scared there are enough details in here where he would recognize me if he read this. He is a very liberal Christian, and wouldn’t read anything online with the word conservative in it. So I think I’m safe. 🙂

My hope and prayer for you is that you and your readers will be more compassionate about addicts. I never started out to be a nicotine addict. I don’t think alcoholics start out to be alcoholics, or junkies start out to be junkies. Most of us who recognize we are addicts woke up one day and realized something we thought we controlled had control of us. Nobody really wants to be a slave, but not everybody can save themselves from their cruel masters. The shame of slavery keeps some of us from reaching out to those who might help us to freedom.

Thanks for reading. I enjoy your blog. God bless!

Boy, that was something. I have never been able to figure out why people around town who saw Ruthie (a non-smoker, and a never-smoker) die a long, slow, agonizing death from lung cancer continue to smoke. I think maybe I understand it better now.

UPDATE: Interesting comments in the thread about shame. This letter touches on something that I think about a lot re: shame and social control. I’m pretty sure that the fact that drugs were stigmatized when I was growing up had a lot to do with the fact that I never really partook. I say “never really,” because I did dabble, but I hated smoking, so there was no pot involved (except in brownies two or three times). Mostly I stayed away from the drugs crowd, not because I had a high moralistic view on it, but because it just made me uncomfortable. I’m sure this was all the legacy of social stigma. Alcohol was not at all stigmatized in my culture, so there was never the slightest discomfort within me being around it, though there was always discomfort within me when I was present where drugs were being used, even though I tried to rationalize the discomfort away. Point is, when the author of the letter credits the stigmatization her religious upbringing gave to smoking for preserving her from becoming even more of a cigarette addict, I understand that. At the same time, I feel sorry for her being so lashed to her shame that she couldn’t reach out to anyone for help. It’s a complicated thing.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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