Everything I know about my son, I learned from Philip Seymour Hoffman

I am thrilled that my first official act as a Sisterwife is to introduce Kathleen O’Donnell’s story about her son and his addiction. If I could stretch my arms through the interwebz and find Kathleen, I would grab her and hold on to her because mothers of substance abusers need each other. We live in a special kind of hell that is filled with guilt we don’t deserve and ‘what ifs’ that have weight and substance that we know will crush us one day. I felt every single word she wrote. It was hard to read, but the pain is pierced with the sweet relief of knowing that there is someone else out there who knows the pain of loving an adult child who is also an addict. -Michelle


As anyone with a TV now knows, the beloved actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose after 23 years of clean living, surrounded by bags of heroin. The reason why, not immediately evident. In the days following, his diaries revealed a tortured, hurting, guilt ridden soul who perhaps, thought he could handle it, now that he wasn’t a young, unknown kid.

My oldest son is a recovering addict.

On the face of it, my son and Mr. Hoffman are completely different, other than they both struggled with addiction. My son is gay, not famous (yet), has no children, is considerably funnier, and is mercifully still living.

But something about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, and the surrounding press, made me uncomfortable, in a way that felt too personal. I didn’t know him and I’m not one of those kind of fans. But my conscience felt pricked, my heart heavier. And, as it goes whenever I look inward, I came up lacking.

It all came together in my head, an epiphany, of sorts.

All addicts have two things in common.

Every day they live they walk on the thinnest ice.

Their hearts are broken.

Get in line. Life is hard for everyone. We’ve all got our shit, everyone’s heart gets broken, we all make mistakes, and most of us are not addicts.

If this is your thought process, you would be right.

But, not all the way right.

Every fat person doesn’t have diabetes.

Every smoker doesn’t die of cancer.

Everyone that drives a car doesn’t die in a car accident.

You follow me.

I believe most, if not all, addicts are without the protective covering that makes life tolerable. Their emotions ride on the outside of their bodies, they feel everything more. They love harder, they hate with more intensity, they laugh louder, they live like the plane’s going down.

And every cut to their psyche is a gaping, bleeding wound.

I grew up in a house full of addicts. I come from a long line of them. Yet I knew very little about the condition other than I often stood in its path and got slammed.

Three of my grandparents were alcoholics. At least two of my uncles died of alcoholism. My father was a sex addict who married eight times. My step father was an alcoholic and a smoker. My mother was a compulsive gambler, spender, smoker, and enabler.

As for me?

I am not an addict. Yet.

I don’t know what intolerable heartbreak lurks for me. No one, no matter what they think or say, knows their level of tolerance for stress, pain, pills or booze. It’s easy to stand by your principles when they’ve never been tested.

I don’t know for sure how long my son was an addict. I know it was longer than I was prepared to acknowledge – at least a decade. And after living with addicts my entire life, by the time my son’s struggle reared its hallucinating, booze addled head, I was worn out by it, exasperated, infuriated.

I don’t know how many times I thought, he’s too smart for this, he’ll snap out of it.

I thought a lot of things.

I thought he was self indulgent. Lazy. Bored. Spoiled.

I had not one ounce of empathy for him.

It’s a sad thing about parents. We’re human, which makes us unfit right out of the gate.

When our kids graduate from medical school, pass the bar, win a gold medal, we’re the first in line to brag, take credit, get our kudos.

But when our kids are damaged, angry, hurting, we are often nowhere to be found. At least that’s how it went for me. I can assure you there was no bumper sticker on my car that read:

My son is stoned, sleeping on someone else’s couch, because he isn’t welcome here.

I didn’t want my son to be an addict. But at least as much as that, I didn’t want the blame.

Was I to blame? Is anyone else ever to blame for another’s addiction?

Truly, I don’t know.

But, did I participate in his downward spiral?

You can bet your life on it.

His heart was broken, and I never thought to acknowledge it, or apologize for my role in it.

It’s not news that divorce sucks for kids. And for a ten year old, sensitive kid like my son, who’s addict switch sat at the ready in his brain, waiting for that one thing to turn it on, his parent’s divorce devastated him. The switch got flipped.

Long after we’d all moved on to much happier lives, it seemed everyone had gotten over it.

Except him.

The intervening years brought the instant information age. We all got smarter about pretty much everything with a finger stroke on Google. Mental health issues no longer cowered in the closet. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that addicts don’t get over it. They get drunk.

Was a divorce enough to do my son in?

I doubt it.

But it peeled back a layer of skin he didn’t have to begin with, leaving him exposed, raw, moving through life easily burned. He’d felt alone, abandoned, rudderless, afraid he’d lose his mother, responsible. At 34, I believe he still does, to some degree.

As time passed, our once close relationship devolved. His anger and pain became more and more unmanageable. My disappointment and frustration got harder to hide. He blamed me. I blamed him. I blamed my mother. I blamed his friends. I blamed his friends’ mothers. It wasn’t just the divorce anymore. It was everything and anything. We piled it on, relentless, no end in sight.

Finally, we just stopped. Stopped faking it, stopped trying, stopped speaking.

When I could admit my son had a problem I did a lot of things that many would, and did, say were absolutely the right things to do.

It’s okay to not let your son bring drugs into your home.

It’s perfectly understandable to not want your son to show up to Christmas dinner stoned.

You don’t have to let your son bring his druggie friends home with him.

You don’t give your son money that he’ll just use to buy drugs and booze.

You should never enable an addict.

All of those things might’ve been right, in fact, they probably were absolutely right.

So, why when I think back on them, do they feel so wrong?

Because I didn’t know I could still love him without enabling him. I thought those two things were one and the same.

I was wrong.

Today, he is sober. I can’t, and won’t, take any credit or kudos for all the hard work he’s done. He climbed out of the hole he’d fallen in all on his own. In many ways, I think it had to be that way. The addict has to want out, to change, to live a different way. No one can do that for them.

I get that.

I’m so proud of his progress. But somewhere inside, as a mother, it doesn’t feel good to know I was present for the fall but absent for the rise.

I’m almost 52 years old. I’ve done things in my life I’m not proud of. The way I handled my son’s addiction is number one.

If I had it to do all again, what would I do differently? What could I do differently?

I don’t know.

But wanting to do it differently would’ve mattered. Just like wanting to get sober matters. Wanting it makes it possible.

After Philip Seymour Hoffman died, I realized my son will never be off the ice. His guard up, careful to avoid the weakest spots for fear of falling through.

Actor, comedian Russell Brand said, “The last time I thought about taking heroin was yesterday.”

I can’t change the past. I can’t force my son not to use. But I can make sure I’m on dry land with a stick long enough for my son to grab if he needs it.

Clearly, this is not a “how to” for parents hoping to put their addicted kid on the straight and narrow.

This is just me. My son’s mom. Regretful, humbled, grateful and scared.


K O'Donnell

Unlike shoe sales or brunch buffets, I arrived late to my writing career.  I wrote my first manuscript well after my nest was empty. The Last Day for Rob Rhino was released July 1, 2013 and is a two time Book of the Year finalist. Sometimes I blog about my crazy life.

I’m Amerasian, if that’s still a word, born in Tainan, Taiwan and adopted by American parents. I’ve lived all over the world and am now retired and living in Henderson, NV.

Hubby and I have four children, five grandchildren, I make no apologies for loving clothes, food, shoes, weirdos and Lucy. I’m forever grateful for my family, fried food, and the written word. – See more about Kathleen here.