A couple of years ago I was horrified to hear about the tragic death of someone I knew. The last time I saw him, he was around 9 or 10 years old, and I was his 17-year-old babysitter. He was a happy, silly little boy growing up in a loving, suburban family. He died at 33 from a fatal dose of heroin. He wasn’t famous or of public interest, so there was nothing on the local TV about it. Just a quiet, gut-wrenching funeral.
When the news broke about Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death last week, social media and news networks began grappling with the loss of another celebrity gone too soon, which quickly gave way to blame. Blame the pressures of Hollywood. Blame the availability of drugs. Blame the drugs. Blame the drug dealers. One of my old high school classmates posted a tirade about how she didn’t understand why people do drugs in the first place, even claiming to have never done drugs herself. “How do you go back to that when you know it’s bad? What’s so hard about just saying no?” she ranted. This struck me as particularly odd, because I have a different memory of what she was like around the year 1989. The best and worst thing about social media is being connected to people.
Sadly, none of that changes the fact that Phillip Seymour Hoffman is dead, likely caused by a heroin overdose. Only he knows if he saw it coming. Most people have no way of knowing when or how they will die, in fact, they probably try not to think about it at all. I’m not most people.
I think about death because I spent a good chunk of my 20s caring for nursing home and hospice patients. I’ve watched over 70 people—including my own father—take their last breath. I’ve done post-mortem care and consoled family members. I know too many details about how death takes a person, depending on their diagnosis. My twisted, morbid outlook has endeared me to a few friends who’ve come to expect my lucky Halloween socks year round.
Nearly a year ago, Russell Brand wrote a brutally honest piece for The Guardian about his struggle staying clean for the last decade. He wanted to tell people about Give It Up for Comic Relief and Red Nose Day, which aims to raise awareness and offer compassionate help to addicts. I really connected with Russell’s struggle, but not for the reasons you might think. True, I am a big Russell Brand fan. True, he has a gift for speaking in a way that cuts through all the crap while elevating the discussion to an intelligent, spiritual, mindful place and usually while being really splendidly funny.
We’ve all heard countless celebrity stories about getting sober, including the moment they slipped up and started using again only to spiral to a place where they bottomed out and had to get clean again. This was different. Russell’s story captured me. I was drawn in by his conveyance of living on the very edge of addiction’s unrelenting pull and still finding a way to not give in. It was raw. It made the pit of my stomach hurt. It brought tears to my eyes. I could feel how badly, even after ten years of saying no to the dragon on a daily basis, part of him still wants to say yes. God, my stomach hurts now, just in recounting it to you.
It was while reading Russell’s story that I realized I could die fighting a similar dragon. I sincerely hope not. But if I do, it will be sudden, violent, and stupid. And it will really piss me off.
In the fall of 2012, after years of feeling like an unsolvable medical mystery, I was sitting in a doctor’s office ready to start several hours of allergy testing. I was baring my arm for the litany of needle sticks ahead when the nurse casually asked, “Did you know we can become addicted to foods?” I sat up a bit straighter. I’ve heard about women who cried into ice cream cartons after a bad break up, and I’m not one of them. I didn’t use food as a comfort. In fact, I had grown to hate most food, because so often it made me feel like crap—skin rashes, stomach aches, fatigue, body aches, mood swings, fluctuating weight—it was my frenemy. I was definitely not a food addict.
Sensing my disconnection, she asked if there was any food that I would absolutely need if I was stranded on a desert island. “Potatoes,” I replied without thinking. For months, almost daily I had made myself mashed potatoes, because it was one of a handful of foods that didn’t give me a stomach ache and made me feel full. “But I’m not addicted to potatoes. I mean, I’m not robbing some poor store clerk at 2 am for a bag of potatoes,” I joked.
Then she asked me, “Have you ever known anyone who had a shellfish allergy, but couldn’t stop eating it even though it made them really sick?” (Remember in that movie Dr. Doolittle, when Eddie Murphy’s character finds the woman in the bathroom, red and swollen, eating lobster?)
She handed me serious medical literature that explained the differences between IgE reactions (emergency room worthy) and IgG reactions (non-emergent but really annoying and life interfering). It detailed how for certain people, certain foods can cause production of morphine-like substances which affect the brain. It said people with this “addicted” food allergy often have a family history of alcoholism. It even went so far as to claim that alcoholism is a severe type of food allergy. The nurse told me she had tested sober alcoholics who, after finding out they were allergic to yeast and sugar, had significantly lessened their struggle to resist drinking.
My defenses lowered as I realized she wasn’t talking about the psychological issues of lonely binge eating, she was talking about the effect of modern, processed food on brain function. I tried to open my mind to what she was saying as she started poking me with syringes of various foods. Some made me feel sleepy. Some did nothing. Others made my stomach hurt or stuffed up my nose. She took notes as we went along. Then something really weird happened.
She pricked my arm again and I swear to all that’s holy, it made me instantly burst into teenage suicidal tears. She let me experience it for a couple of moments, before neutralizing the reaction as quickly as she had caused it. I stopped mid-sob and the overwhelmed deluge of emotion disappeared. “Potatoes trigger the heroin spot in your brain,” she said in a detached, medical tone.
At that point, I didn’t need any convincing. I followed all of her instructions to the letter, and avoided all the foods on my list. My blood chemistry changed significantly from high risk for heart disease to the low end of average. I even lost 35 lbs. I felt fantastic. I stayed clean for five whole months.
Then my husband and I were invited to dinner at an acquaintance’s home. She went to a lot of trouble to make a really spectacular meal that I wouldn’t be allergic to. She tried, but nearly every dish had something I knew I shouldn’t eat. I didn’t want to offend her, so I ate it anyway. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in that moment I chose her feelings over my own wellbeing. I drank a carbonated vitamin C packet to keep from having a stomach ache, and hoped I would be ok.
Guess what? No noticeable reactions. I was thrilled.
I now know that was the worst possible outcome.
With a false sense of safety and a hint of arrogance, I began testing the waters with other foods, and only occasionally had mild reactions. Before I knew it, I was eating all the foods on my allergy list, even potatoes. I dismissed an occasional upset stomach or muscle ache. Gradually all my old symptoms returned and I gained back all the weight I lost, plus more. I got more and more fatigued and then moderately depressed.
A low point was when my terrified children had to call 911, fearing I was having a stroke. My husband rushed home from work, afraid that he might lose me. In the end, the hospital doctor scratched his head as he told me it was a complex migraine of unknown cause. In my heart, I knew it was food. After a few days of rest, I confirmed it with a Johns Hopkins book on food allergies. Migraine with numbness, body aches, blurred vision and slurred speech were specific to a food additive I had eaten the day before my ambulance ride. Sadly, that wasn’t rock bottom.
Rock bottom was several weeks later, when I ate a handful of cashews and had an immediate reaction. My lips felt numb, my throat tingled and I puked so hard I thought an internal organ might pop out. I had never had to use my just-in-case-EpiPen®. Unsure, I opted to drink water instead and the severity lessened within an hour. I woke the next day exhausted and aching like I’d been out all night drinking. I convinced myself that I was just paranoid. I waited to see if anyone else in the family got sick. No one else got sick for over a week, so I called the doctor. It turns out it was the scary IgE reaction I had hoped to never experience. I should have used the EpiPen® and I am incredibly lucky I didn’t stop breathing.
One would assume that if a certain thing could cause a person to choke, swell up like a Christmas ham, or have a murderously painful migraine, the person would want to avoid said thing. Here’s where I finally connected with the dragon of addiction.
For over 20 years, researchers at CASAColumbia have led the way in understanding addiction. Their website states that “the same changes in brain structure and function that can be seen in addiction involving nicotine, alcohol and other drugs appear to occur in relation to other compulsive behaviors such as gambling and certain sexual and food-related disorders, such as bulimia and compulsive eating.”
After my 911 headache, my husband had to purge the freezer of the leftover culprit food because I wanted to eat some so badly. I swear. I was craving it. After the violent reaction to cashews, I had to throw away perfectly good cashews because I still wanted to eat them. I am not kidding. I know logically that I could die, or at least get violently ill from it, yet I still wanted it. I mean really wanted it. Weird and scary, right?
The CASAColumbia website explains how the changes in brain structure and function can impair judgment, driving a compulsion to obtain the addictive substance even with the knowledge of harmful consequences. Further, “these changes can remain even after the person stops using the substances” and cause vulnerability to “triggers which can increase their risk of relapse.”
So, that’s how Phillip Seymour Hoffman relapsed after nearly 25 years. That’s why Russell Brand meditates and keeps positive people around him–it’s his dragon fighting armor. And yes, as silly as it sounds, that’s why I have to be careful how many cooking shows I watch.
Some of you might be offended that I am comparing food allergies to serious conditions like heroin addiction or alcoholism. Maybe you think I am a crazy hypochondriac. Maybe you think my doctor is a quack. Maybe you think I just need to quit whining. Your opinion of me is simply none of my business.
My point is, when I hear about someone—celebrity or not—who is spiraling down a path of obvious self-destruction, I try to take a few seconds to center myself and send them healing thoughts of strength and inner calm. Not because I’m somehow better than that person, but because I know in my heart of hearts that I could be that person. I know the sleeping dragon.
I am not in any way trying to oversimplify the complexity of drug addiction or to minimize the torturous pain it can inflict. But what if we stop thinking of addiction as something that only happens to weak people, to those who need an escape, to those who fall for the trappings of celebrity? What if we give up trying to place blame for addiction and become part of the unconditional, compassionate support system that helps to steer the addict away from the thing that will hurt them? What if we stop clicking ‘share’ without thinking, instead pausing to consider how it would feel to have a hurtful story written about us? If only more of us were like Russell Brand’s friend—the one who answered Russell’s 3 a.m. call despite being asleep and kept him alive just by listening. If only Phillip Seymour Hoffman had been able to make a similar phone call. If only more of us wouldn’t wait for the phone call.
It is true that I am not on a street corner looking to score some chocolate covered cashews. But I can most definitely say that I have had just a minuscule glimpse of the terrifying, desperate helplessness of knowing that something could kill me but craving it really badly anyway, and the sheer force of will it takes not to give in to that seductive dragon.
It is not my happy place.
Keep meditating Russell.