The Deadly Risk Of Relapsing

Two years ago today, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead on the bathroom floor of his New York City apartment – needle still in his arm.

The cause of death was ruled a Heroin overdose.

At 46 years old, Hoffman was no stranger to addiction; he had checked himself into rehab for alcohol and drug abuse at least twice throughout his career.

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During a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Hoffman said, “Just because all that time’s passed doesn’t mean maybe [my addiction] was just a phase. That’s you know, that’s who I am.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman worked on more than 50 films during his 25 years as an actor, director, and producer.

While he was open to discussing his struggles in the past with addiction, in 2006 Hoffman told 60 Minutes that he had been sober since the age of 22. 

I saw him last week, and he was clean and sober, his old self. I really thought this chapter was over.

- David Bar Katz, playwright and friend of Hoffman’s, New York Times

Katz was the first to find Hoffman in his apartment and call 911.

A Loss Of Tolerance

How did Hoffman find himself in a situation where he was not only using drugs again, but that an overdose took his life after not using for 24 years? Shouldn’t he have known how much was too much?

Hoffman’s death received an overwhelming amount of press due to his role as a Hollywood actor and Academy Award recipient. However, it is important to note that Hoffman’s situation is not unlike the circumstances of thousands of other users who start abusing Heroin again after a period of sobriety and end up fatally overdosing. 

When addicts stop doing [Heroin] for a while — for years or even just days — and then return to it, they are often killed by amounts they could previously withstand. The hypothesis is that their tolerance has diminished.

- Lauren F. Friedman, New York Times

Relapse And Overdose Prevention

A study conducted by a team of Italian researchers in 1998 investigated how so many fatal Heroin overdoses occur during a relapse and why the amount of Heroin it takes to cause an overdose can vary so greatly.

They found that the amount of drugs in the system of someone who had overdosed was actually lower than the amount in active, current users.

The researchers also found that most individuals who died from Heroin overdose had virtually abstained from Heroin during the 4 months preceding death.

This study is incredibly valuable in that it emphasizes the need to educate recovering addicts of the very real dangers of using again after tolerance has decreased.

Education In Recovery

As is described in Shane Darke’s The Life of the Heroin User: Typical Beginnings, Trajectories and Outcomes:

It has been demonstrated that awareness of risk factors can be raised by means of [educational] campaigns…Improving [Heroin] users’ responses to overdoses may also reduce overdose morbidity and mortality, as we have seen that responses in these situations are typically very poor.

Darke goes on to say that if we begin by providing Heroin users with simple CPR skills during rehab, this can ultimately keep overdose victims alive long enough for help to arrive and thus reduce the overall rate of death by overdose.

Returning to the question of how Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead of a Heroin overdose after more than 2 decades of sobriety, it seems as if Hoffman’s death is unfortunate but tragically common evidence that Heroin relapses can be fatal for returning users.

His tolerance had significantly decreased, and what may have once produced euphoria for Hoffman instead ended up killing him.

Hoffman was described in his New York Times obituary as “perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation,” and it is easy to see the impact he left on Hollywood and the film industry at large.

Those who are in recovery for a drug addiction should be extremely cautious of the risks that come with relapsing. Using drugs after abstaining for a period of time isn’t just compromising your sobriety or resorting back to addictive behaviors. It truly could be the difference between life and death.

If you are struggling with an addiction or have relapsed, there is help available. Contact a treatment provider today.

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