Over the past week, I’ve despaired at the amount of vitriol directed at actor Anne Heche after she suffered a fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
I’ve been haunted by the idea of her body covered in burns after her car crashed into a house in Los Angeles 10 days ago. I find it incomprehensible that people think she’s undeserving of empathy after experiencing such pain.
Heche was under the influence of narcotics when she rammed into another woman’s home. Although the resident wasn’t injured, she lost almost everything in the fire. When some of Heche’s friends, including actors Alec Baldwin and Rosanna Arquette, posted messages of support for her on social media, they were greeted with criticism and scathing comments about her actions.
The 53-year-old actor had been public about her struggles with drug abuse, as have I. For me, the compulsion to use drugs never felt like a choice.
Heche’s injuries left her brain-dead. On Sunday, her family took her off life support. I wonder whether it’s enough to satisfy those who have been calling for her head. They have it now.
As I read the comments, the word that popped out at me was “choice.”
“There are accidents and there are choices,” said one of the many Instagram users pummeling Baldwin, adding that “her choice burned down a family’s home.”
I will make no friends for saying so, but I’m not sure Heche did make a choice.
The 53-year-old actor had been public about her struggles with drug abuse, as have I. For me, the compulsion to use drugs never felt like a choice. It felt like a lightning strike. The rational part of my brain shut down.
I am going to get high now, thank you very much. Get out of my way.
I remember when it happened to me a few months out of rehab. My husband’s two sons were over. We were piled up on the couch, and they were watching sports. I began to drowse. It was a blissful feeling. A good night’s sleep had eluded me since the day I entered treatment. Perhaps I’d feel better after this rare nap. I was still enduring symptoms from long-term withdrawal.
As I nodded off, my phone buzzed. I ignored it.
“Your phone is buzzing,” my oldest stepson said.
“That’s OK,” I replied. I was almost there and could still fall asleep.
The phone went off again. My stepson said, “Liz, your phone is ringing.”
Danger was nigh. I was aware, in those milliseconds that give me a lot of information quickly, that I needed to temper my irritation. It wasn’t my stepson’s fault. He was just being helpful.
I was brand new to self-regulation after years of being mired in the total, all-encompassing selfishness of heroin addiction. I needed a lot of practice in consideration of the needs and feelings of others.
“Thanks, but don’t worry about it,” I said pleasantly. “I just want to nap.” I congratulated myself on my tolerance of humanity.
It’s also not logical that I’m alive and Heche is dead. It’s certainly not because I’m more virtuous.
You know what happened next. My phone buzzed again, and this time he poked me in the arm as he said my name. Three months of work were gone. The poke put me over the edge. I was done.
I didn’t say a word. I got up, took the blanket off, went upstairs and got my purse and car keys. I went back downstairs and walked out the front door. I was in my car when my husband came out the front door in his socks. He knew I was headed to my heroin dealer.
“Liz,” he said. “Sweetheart…”
I couldn’t care less. I gave him The Look, the one that says save your breath, there is nothing you can say to change my mind.
“I just need to take a drive,” I lied. “Don’t worry about it.” I will never forget his face as I pulled away.
Not once during this episode did it feel like a choice.
There’s a joke about addicts, and it goes something like this: We react the same way whether we spill mustard on our shirt or a Category 5 hurricane is headed our way. Being poked awake while drifting off is not grounds for diving back into heroin addiction. Any fool knows that, including me.
But I couldn’t access good judgment in that moment. The wiring of my brain is compromised. And that’s not a choice.
Compulsion is the crux of addiction. And compulsion is “an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one’s conscious wishes.” Nothing is more bewildering to me than harming myself against my own will.
Which is part of why the medical community has urged the public to see addiction for the clinical issue it is. In a 2020 article, the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics advised doctors, “It is ethically incumbent upon everyone in medicine and health care to recognize addiction not as a moral failing but as a treatable disease.”
That disease can be managed but not cured. And recovery is often elusive, rarely linear. A lot of my recovery is simply practicing ways to interrupt the signals from my brain’s faulty wiring.
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It’s what I did when I got to my dealer’s house that day. Instead of calling him, I phoned someone who talked me out of it. I had made one commitment to myself after rehab: I would call at least one person before I used a drug again. If I still wanted to get high after the phone call, I would. I stuck to my commitment and made it another day, but just.
I am perpetually one bright idea away from ruin.
Even those who accept the science of addiction have a hard time dealing with the symptoms, and that’s understandable. We poison others. We steal your money, lie, gaslight, manipulate, cheat, drive drunk, apologize profusely, then do it again.
We can no longer have a tragedy without taking sides, and if you aren’t on the correct one, get ready to be shamed.
We can’t be wished into good sense. We can’t be shamed into behaving well. Eventually we die or hit bottom. If we’re lucky, it’s the latter, and we have an opportunity to get help.
I was badly injured because of a drunk driver when I was 16. That accident resulted in my head being cracked open and my jaw breaking. I lost someone to a drunk driver two days before Christmas. A truck landed on top of his VW Bug, resulting in a fire much like the one that killed Heche. I understand the repercussions of drunk driving.
I’ve also gotten behind the wheel intoxicated. This is not rational.
It’s also not logical that I’m alive and Heche is dead. It’s certainly not because I’m more virtuous. I don’t consider myself morally superior to her. I consider myself lucky.
Not so those who stand ever ready to pounce on the calamities of others. We can no longer have a tragedy without taking sides, and if you aren’t on the correct one, get ready to be shamed.
If compassion is to be doled out only to the best-behaved among us, I think ours is a very cruel world. One I’d be inclined to try to escape through any means possible.