Reports on Sunday night of the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman have got me thinking about addiction and how society treats those who struggle with it. The events of Sunday night are a stark reminder that we have a long way to go in how we view and treat those with an addiction.
Immediately after word of his death spread around Twitter, people began posting links to their favourite scenes of his and writing eulogies of an incredibly talented actor who could make you despise him or love him simply by changing the cadence in his voice.
A few minutes later, the news broke that Hoffman had died of a drug overdose, having been found in his apartment with a needle containing some heroin still in his arm. Suddenly, the tone of the conversation had changed.
People began expressing their anger at the “selfishness” of Hoffman. How dare he indulge himself like that and leave his family behind? One person on my timeline tweeted “I hope those momentary highs are worth the cost, addicts. Young kids, wife, left alone for a fix.”
The problem with statements like this is that it is an incredibly simplistic view of what it means to have an addiction. A real addiction (not the “addiction” to Red Bull or coffee many students claim to pick up around exam time) is an illness.
Nobody chooses to become an addict. Why the hell would they? When people call someone selfish for giving into an addiction, what they are telling the whole world is that they think addiction is just a fancy word for wanting something.
It has parallels with depression, where people mistake it for just being really sad. Addiction, just like depression, is not something that can simply be overcome by sheer willpower. Proper structures need to be put in place to prevent a relapse.
Our attitudes to mental health are changing, but there is still a long ways to go. In particular, Irish society has a real problem with its willful ignorance around the issue of alcohol addiction.
It’s no secret that this country has a problem with alcohol. Over the weekend, two young men died after taking part in the “Neknominations” trend that has been infesting social media over the last fortnight or so.
If you’re lucky enough to have missed them, allow me to explain. The concept is pretty simple: once someone nominates you, you have 24 hours in which to post a video of yourself downing a pint of your choice. At the end of the video, you nominate someone else.
As happens with any sort of meme, people quickly began trying to one-up each other and drink more ridiculous things in a more ridiculous fashion. Unfortunately, this led to two people dying, one after drinking a litre of vodka and the other after jumping into a river at the end of his attempt.
Irish people, particularly students, are incredibly immature in their treatment of alcohol. For some, a night out is a test of how much they can drink. The social pressures to take part in things like neknominations are indicative of this sort of dangerous drinking culture.
This is hardly a new revelation either. The caricature of the Irishman abroad is focused on his love of drink. We know this, but we do very little to do anything about it. In fact, if anything, we encourage it.
We have a tendency to get either defensive or dismissive when our cultural problem with drinking is brought up. It is literally killing people, but sure it’s all in the name of a bitta craic.
It’s a problem that’s sometimes hard to see from within the culture, but you only have to look at the fact that our government doesn’t trust us with the ability to purchase alcohol for off-premises consumption after 10pm.
The changing of a culture won’t happen overnight. The single most important part of changing the culture is that the Irish people need to want to do it, and it’s not clear that we do.
It doesn’t surprise me at all to see neknominations portrayed in the media as being an indication of today’s youth being out of control rather than being a product of a culture in which the Guinness Storehouse is ranked the number one tourist attraction in the country.
We live in a country where people dream of playing in the Heineken Cup or appearing in the Jameson Film Festival. We have embraced Arthur’s Day. Think about that for a minute.
In a country where history is supposedly so important, we happily celebrate a faux-holiday that was created in 2009 to celebrate Diageo’s victory over the stout market, so long as it means cheap drinks.
Perhaps this is why we are so dismissive of those with addictions, because we feel partly responsible.