I just got off the phone with Patrick Kennedy, the former Congressman from Rhode Island who has a history of mental illness and is in recovery from an addiction disorder. We shared a sacred moment of grief over the tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman as we dove into a weighty conversation about addiction and mental illness. Patrick devoted his life's work in Congress to achieving mental health parity and co-founded with Garen Staglin One Mind for Research, which aspires to end brain disease. They have brought together every major organization related to brain research to pool resources and form public and private partnerships to unlock the mysteries of the brain once and for all. This means everything from multiple sclerosis to bipolar disorder to Parkinson's disease to addiction disorders. Yes, you just read the words -- addiction disorders -- because the brain is the brain is the brain. One organ, that's it.
As we weep over the tragic loss of one of the most brilliant actors of our time, the questions of why and how are surfacing. One thing we know for sure is that the lethal secrets of shame and stigma strike once again. The complexity of the brain and how it affects behavior leave us all walking around suffering in silence, which only makes these conditions worse. Look at the language we use around addiction: instead of "person with an addiction disorder" we say "addict," or instead of "not using drugs or alcohol" we say "clean." It's as if we are insinuating that a person is dirty when their medical condition results in them relapsing. And we use "junkie" to describe someone with a brain disorder? Who would ever want to admit that and walk around with intense judgment and pejorative labels?
But really, worse yet is that Phillip Seymour Hoffman was open about his struggles with addiction. The problem is that in many cases, even if you admit to having alcoholism or some other addiction disorder, would you ever want to face the idea that another brain disorder that is classified as a mental illness might be co-occurring? While we don't know if he was diagnosed or in treatment for other challenges of the brain the reports have indicated that medication for ADHD and anxiety were found in his apartment. In some cases, it is difficult to know which came first -- the chicken or the egg, the ADHD, anxiety, or the addiction. Rehab and 12-step programs are the first but not the last step. Being able to breakthrough the debilitating shame to explore the possibility of other disorders is crucial in maintaining optimal brain health as self-medicating for managing symptoms is common. The whole brain, the whole body -- let's finally understand the neuroscience and move from the discrimination cycle that plagues us all. Acknowledging and seeking treatment, for both addiction and co occurring mental illness should not be perceived to be a" death by shame" sentence.
The timing of this tragedy is poignant for me. I just returned from Las Vegas, the city of great light and dark, delivering a talk called "Flawless Secrets." My topic was about unlocking the denial and secrets about our mental health challenges and how life-threatening it is to keep these topics taboo. I shared my own personal history of mental illness and how we need to come together in our common humanity around these issues. The brain is the brain is the brain. One organ, that's it.
I close with Tom Junod's stunning prose: a prayerful tribute to the beloved actor who shared his extraordinary gifts with the world,
There was no actor, in our time, who more ably suggested that each of us is the sum of our secrets... no actor who better let us know what he knew, which is that when each of us returns alone to our room, all bets are off. He used his approachability to play people who are unacceptable, especially to themselves; indeed, his whole career might be construed as a pre-emptive plea for forgiveness to those with the unfortunate job of cleaning up what he -- and we -- might leave behind.
You leave us with utter reverence for your flawless humanity, Philip Seymour Hoffman. THAT is no secret. Rest in peace!