Philip Seymour Hoffman

The unexpected death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has gotten people talking about a potentially addictive painkilling medication called opioids. It’s also gotten people wondering how it’s possible after 10-plus years of being drug-free that a successful and talented man could slip back into addiction and ultimately end his life at only 46 years of age.

The Catch-22 of addiction is that you can get it under control, but you can’t cure it. The risk of relapse may decrease somewhat over the years, but it never goes away. In the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman, drug-free for more than a decade, he started taking prescription painkillers—perhaps for a legitimate medical problem or perhaps because it was available and he was at a point of weakness. That was all it took for him to go back to heroin, which ultimately ended his life.

Most people who take a prescription painkiller—even those who occasionally misuse them for recreational purposes—can stop without much difficulty. But even the use of legitimately prescribed medications, particularly opioid painkillers, can be dangerous for former heroin users as it reminds the brain of the even more intense heroin high and has them craving more.

Addiction is a chronic disease affecting the brain’s chemical makeup and thought processing that is characterized by irrational, compulsive behavior which continues despite increasingly harmful consequences. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 40% to 60% of those in recovery will eventually relapse. This can be extremely trying for friends and family, but strong support systems are an integral part of recovery and staying clean.

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