Mental Health and Heroes

A year and 10 days ago, Philip Seymour Hoffman left us all behind to rest peacefully among the greats and the not-so-greats. He was Hollywood’s everyman. His chunky physique didn’t factor into how large the characters he played seemed to us. He gave such honor to the ugliest types of humankind and somehow managed to expose the beauty in the most tortured of souls.  He was an anti-hero, but he was my hero.

His work embodied the suffering he felt in real life.  It was raw and visceral and for some, dangerously relatable.

We all have our burdens. Things that weigh on us, things that are constantly in the back of our minds and all too often, cripple us when standing on that fine edge between achievement and failure. Sometimes these conditions take the blurry, vague form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or an eating disorder. Sometimes it’s PTSD or an extreme (or not so extreme), psychotic or mood disorder. Sometimes it’s depression. Depression and suicide have cost me more than a few friends. People that were funny, warm, creative and smarter than they would ever have given themselves credit for. This world was better with them in it. 

For me though, it’s anxiety. For my hero, it was addiction.

Philip Seymour Hoffman had been sober so long (23 years to be exact-ish) that he thought he could risk drinking “in moderation” again. That was in late 2013. A few months later, he had checked himself into rehab. Shortly after that, he was gone, passing away from combined drug intoxication.

Mental illness lives and exists with us always. It lives with us after therapy, after taking medication and even after 23 years.  What doesn’t exist however, is this invisible nexus between mental illness and craziness or between depression or bipolar disorder and criminality. We hear of people that have committed murders, people that have died of drug overdoses, and people that commit crimes to survive because they’ve been forced out onto the streets and cast aside by society. While we may never know exactly what role mental illness plays in their life, it’s important for us to accept part of the blame. Where were we when these people needed help? We’ve created a world where people with mental disorders don’t feel safe. When we feel sick, we tell someone. We call our bosses and go see a doctor. As soon as we can’t put a finger on our pain, as soon as that sickness is in our minds, for some reason, we can’t call work anymore, so some of us lose our jobs. We don’t feel safe enough to go to a doctor. We don’t feel safe enough to tell our friends or family. The stigma we’ve created about mental health is one we need to forget.

Depression, anxiety and addiction might be hard to understand for those that don’t suffer from these or any similar disorders, but these traits aren’t marks on an imbalance of character, they’re based on a slight imbalance of our chemistry. For some of us, something as simple and wonderful as happiness is a struggle. This is a tough world for even the most capable of us, but a simple and even a basic understanding of mental health issues can save lives.

Maybe that understanding would have saved my friend Aaron’s life, or my friend Eric’s. Maybe it would have saved Mr. Hoffman’s.

Our mental health shouldn’t be something we’re ashamed of and re-starting this conversation might help end the stigma around it.

We were lucky enough to live in a world with Philip Seymour Hoffman for a little while.  He left us with his work and we’re lucky to have it. That work and our memories of him are ours forever.

For a little peak into his mind, here’s his rather beautiful outlook on happiness.  

Video via blank on blank.