The Loss of Phil, or The Addicted Brain

I saw Phil Hoffman three times up close in 2000. The first time from the third row when he and John C. Reilly took on Sam Shepard’s True West in top form at NYC’s Circle in the Square. The second was from a dinner table at Atlantic Theater’s 15th Anniversary gala at the Crystal Pavilion when he, John C. Reilly and Heavy D performed a deeply moving and highly memorable scene from Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. The third was as I stepped out to cross 8th Avenue, gaze cast downtown for traffic.  He whooshed past me on his bicycle, cruising the wrong way on a one-way street, grazing my arm with his forceful body. “Hey! Watch it, Phil!” I yelled. “Sorrrrry!” he called back over his shoulder. He was a part of the theatre scene in New York, my scene, too. I never knew him, except peripherally.

It’s part of the grieving process to try and make sense of what seems to be a senseless death. The internet is electric with such graspings right now — fans and haters alike both trying to fit Phil’s death by heroin overdose into a nice little box.

The classic head shaker is that Phil was one of them tortured artists. This one always pisses me off even though, technically, it is most likely true. He was tortured and he was an artist. But the mass assumption that one necessarily follows the other, and the inevitable conclusion that one cannot even be a creative artist without being tortured in some way flies in the face of multitudes of artists working hard to create balance in their lives every day. One friend posted that possibly, Phil’s “art provided a release from his darkness.” I responded with this:

I would go further and say that art is not a release from darkness, but does offer the artist, (and in this case, the addict), a catharsis that resembles a release from darkness. A temporary respite. Perhaps even some perspective. But it is NOT freedom.

In my opinion, the greatest service one can do for one’s own art (and one’s own life, for that matter) is to work on oneself constantly with professionals of mind-body-spirit. It’s the job of each of us, and greatest challenge in life, to be honest with ourselves about the healing work we ALL of us need to do to unlearn destructive patterns given us along the way by individuals — mostly well-meaning, loving or not, but most definitely human beings. The coping strategies my parents are probably not going to work in my life. Period.

I just need to learn to trust that part of me that KNOWS something needs working out. To not judge myself for recognizing it, but to embrace the discovery. And to take the steps toward healing. Making the call. Asking the questions. DOING THE WORK.

The very very best artist, though not without his or her very unique humanness, is able to create from a blank slate, drawing from all the colors of his or her past, wholeheartedly diving into all them, coming back, when it’s done, to a delicious equanimity.

Another asked himself in his post if he was angry that he died of an overdose, then answered, “Yes, I wish it weren’t so but he was a fallible human.” He was also a human being we didn’t know. At all. Aside from his forceful body of work. But those who were close to him, and that worked with him, knew his fallibility. 


Todd Leopold, CNN, in “The Philip Seymour Hoffman we didn’t know,” wrote:

In an appreciation, New York magazine film critic David Edelstein recalled how Hoffman seemed to revel in the unpleasant aspects of his characters, something Edelstein noticed in 2005’s “Capote.” Hoffman apparently fought director Miller — a friend, mind you — to make Truman Capote more difficult, not less.

“Ever since then, I’ve been conscious of how much he went out of his way to make his characters unbenign,” wrote Edelstein. “It was central to his power as an actor, though I wonder if at times he didn’t confuse self-hatred for integrity.”

Addiction increasingly adds an element of dramatic tension to every interaction in an addict’s life. The addict slowly burns the bridges between themselves and every other human being who sees their potential, maintaining only the bridge between themselves and their beloved fix.

Another poster wrote, “The majority of us can go through a partying phase and then grow up, settle down, and put down the sauce.”

The complexity of addiction, and the way it changes the brain, is something those outside of addiction forget and everyone slowly exiting the addict’s life remember all too well and fight futilely against. 

The Addicted Brain, July 2004 Harvard Mental Health Letter

In nature, rewards usually come only with effort and after a delay. Addictive drugs provide a shortcut. Each in its own way sets in motion a biological process that results in flooding the nucleus accumbens with dopamine. The pleasure is not serving survival or reproduction, and evolution has not provided our brains with an easy way to withstand the onslaught. In a person who becomes addicted through repeated use of a drug, overwhelmed receptor cells call for a shutdown. The natural capacity to produce dopamine in the reward system is reduced, while the need persists and the drug seems to be the only way to fulfill it. The brain is losing its access to other, less immediate and powerful sources of reward. Addicts may require constantly higher doses and a quicker passage into the brain. It’s as though the normal machinery of motivation is no longer functioning; they want the drug even when it no longer gives pleasure.

Addiction takes the spotlight. Once again.


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Last of Eleven: Christmas — A Rite of Passage (SPOILER ALERT/NOT FOR CHILDREN)

I am from a giant family.

Christmas was THE BEST.

Santa would make an extra visit to our house on the night of Christmas Day and give everyone another present before making the journey back to the North Pole. I know what you’re thinking. But this was the REAL Santa. It never occurred to me to ask why he’d always make a special stop at our place, except that I knew he was magical and could pretty much do anything he damn well pleased — including visit EVERY house again if he felt so compelled. It was always part of our Christmas and I knew, plain and simply, that our family was SPECIAL.

Everyone would arrive at the house around 3 or so. I’d show my nieces and nephews (they were my age — think cousins in most normal-sized families) what I found under the tree earlier that morning, and we’d play with my new toys and theirs in my room, or in the basement. Meanwhile, all the adults would hang out in the kitchen and living room eating, drinking, catching up. We’d have Christmas carols playing on the stereo and we’d all be dressed up in our holiday clothes. I remember getting a little nervous before everyone would come over — to this day, I can’t figure out why — but rocking around my Christmas head were questions about whether I looked cute/holidayish/fashionable enough for them? Was my hair doing the right thing? Jewelry and (later) makeup? The answer, of course, was always Yes. They were my family. My awesome giant family.

Eventually, we’d all make our way to the living room and sit down in front of a chair that was put there for Santa to sit in when at last he’d arrive. Somebody would lead us in Christmas carols — all the standards, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, Deck the Halls, and Silent Night, Away in a Manger, and my mother’s favorite, Silver Bells. Then someone would start Santa Claus is Coming to Town and somewhere in the middle of it, there’d come a heavy knock on the door. All of us kids would freak out — the little ones had to be restrained to keep them from running to the door. Some would break through. Occasionally, a kid or two would cry for no reason. Santa would come in with a big-ass bag full of presents. He’d sit in the chair and ho-ho-ho a lot. He’d always make us sing a couple of more songs — he seemed to love Jingle Bells.

And then he’d call us. One by one. To come up and sit on his lap and get a present.

You shoulda seen Santa. He looked great. He was always dressed in his olden-days deep red velvet dress jacket and pants, with real soft fur at the collar and cuffs. He had creamy silk tassels on his hat and on the front of his jacket. And his beard? Soft whiskers. Real whiskers. He wore tall black snow boots with big buckles that rang out when he walked in. There was no doubt, EVER, that this was the real Santa, not one of his mall helpers. Sitting on his lap each year only strengthened my belief in him and in the magic of Christmas. He’d wrap it up with one more song after every single person had sat on his lap and gotten a present. Then he’d go to the door. One year, I was one of the kids who broke through when he got to the door. I swear I saw the golden trail of his sled and reindeer way up in the sky.


One year, I asked my older brother Jimmy if there really was a Santa Claus. Some kids at school had made fun of me, “she still believes!” and I just wanted to know what was what. Jimmy said he had had a feeling that this was the year I’d be asking him. He was so sweet. He told me no, that Santa wasn’t real, that Mom and Dad put the presents under the tree. But he also said that he believed in the spirit of Christmas. Of love and family. He said that was what Christmas was really about. What could have been a big disappointment to me was instead a gentle transition. I knew what he was talking about. I’d always felt it, too. I never thanked Jimmy for that (thanks, Jimmy). That year, my dad wore the Santa suit. It was fitting. And I played along like a pro.

Newly in the know, I soon thereafter was recruited to be part of the elaborate scheme to keep on fooling the little kids. A few days before Christmas, my sister Sharon took me down Olive St. to downtown St. Louis where the old costume shop of Otto and Anna Grimm had been for years — since the late 1930s. The Grimms shop (yes, that was their real name) had several Santa costumes. Because we’d been patrons for so many years, we always got the best costume, made in the old country (I’m not sure what old country it was — Germany, maybe?). It sat on the top shelf and Anna (Otto had died some years earlier) had to climb a precarious little step-ladder and reach her frail arm as far as it would reach. The box itself was an elaborate gold paper, fastened closed with a beautiful snow-white ribbon and bow. I couldn’t believe how magical it all was.

At home, the costume was stashed in the basement (lest the playing kids discover it) until the family gathered in the living room to sing. Then, the top-secret team would head downstairs to dress the year’s Santa. It was a profound privilege to don the Grimms’ costume and more than one of the Santas teared up at the feel of the plush red velvet against their skin. We’d dress Santa (the costume even had leather suspenders to hold the pants up), rosy his cheeks, and then move slowly and quietly up the stairs as a unit to the basement door, just opposite the back door. We’d get Santa out the door and then we’d nonchalantly mosey into the living room to join in the song while he came around to the front. Belonging to the top-secret team brought its own rewards, not the least of which was watching the expressions on the little ones’ faces. Every year, there was a whole crop of them who were just starting to fathom the depth of Christmas magic in the Leonard household. It was an honor even greater than believing.

Jimmy was right. The spirit of Christmas — of love and of family — is the greatest gift we get in life. Each year, I dwell in gratitude for all that was ours, my family, for all that lives on in my heart.

Merry Christmas!Image

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Lead 2

After my mother died, I moved to New York City. While there, I assumed limited guardianship of Colleen. It was in her best interest that one of us take on the role of guardian and the responsibility for decision-making regarding her health and welfare.

I continued, as I had since my mother’s death, calling Colleen weekly, trying to assuage her grief while wading through the muck of my own. She was adrift in a new life without anchors and her struggles against this unwanted liberation came out in questions she pondered alone and brought to me each week.????????????????????????????

Colleen: Do mama animals tell their baby animals not to eat lead paint?

Jaene: No, sis.

Colleen: They don’t?

Jaene: Lead paint doesn’t exist out in nature, out in the woods where animals live. It’s a chemical.

Colleen: What’s a chemical?

Jaene: It’s something made by man.

Colleen: Where?

Jaene: In a laboratory.

Colleen: What’s a laboratory?

Jaene: It’s kind of like a classroom.

Colleen: Why did that man make it?

Jaene: When they made it, they thought it was good.

Colleen: Oh. They didn’t know it would make little girls sick and blind and crippled and have seizures and everything, right?

Jaene: No, honey. They didn’t know.

During this exchange, I was acutely aware of a knot in the center of my chest moving upward with each probing question Colleen asked. Emotion, yes, but there was something else. Something foreign, yet specific. I felt into it as it continued choking higher into my throat with each answer I gave her.

Guilt. Shock. Regret. Terror. Shame.

I heard in a moment all the torturous things my mother had whispered to herself and felt for an instant the deep dread and pain she took with her to her grave. I’m thankful I was able to name it so quickly, because I was also able to identify it as not belonging to me.

“I lovingly accept the responsibility of caring for Colleen,” I whispered aloud into my silent room after we said our I Love Yous and hung up the phone. I pushed the knot back downward toward my heart.

“But the guilt is not my cross to bear…”

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The Tough and Left Behind

I sent a Facebook friend request to Antoinette Huff, the heroine who talked down Michael Brandon Hill. I don’t know the woman personally, and I sent the friend request only so I could also thank her for choosing compassion, and allowing her larger sense of non-separation beat out fear in the way that she handled the terrible situation in which she found herself . She is a true inspiration to me, and should be to anyone, because she allowed her empathy to dictate her actions. She commiserated with the gunman — who had managed to get into the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy with 500 rounds of ammo — sharing her own stories of woe and helping him him to see that the feelings he was having were a normal part of life, if exacerbated, (as he at one point mentioned to her), by his mental health condition and his Meds being off. It’s amazing what can happen when people feel seen, heard, connected to, and a sense of belonging. I made Tuffy’s photo (that’s what I call Ms. Tuff) my iPhone wallpaper to inspire me daily to connect with others as best I can. I’m not stalky. I just think she’s a bad ass.


But there’s another part of the story. That of Mr. Hill, whose fate was sealed that day, not to repeat the misery of the Newtown tragedy, but rather to serve as a symbol of a the nearly 58 million people who suffer in this country, according to the NIH, from mental health disorders. I think the coverage on Tuffy is wonderful. In fact, I think there she be more coverage of her because, had the prevented tragedy happened, the coverage would go on and on. And while she deserves every headline and gift in life she ever gets, let’s not forget the lost boy, whose family has called the police on their own son and brother more than a handful of times. Where is he now?

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Exposure to lead affects every one of the body’s organ systems, especially the nervous system, but also the bones and teeth, the kidneys, and the cardiovascular, immune, and reproductive systems.

I am the legal guardian of my sister, Colleen, 61. When she was three, she came down with a fever my mother couldn’t break. She was taken to the hospital, diagnosed with a virus, and promptly sent home. The fever persisted. My mother put Colleen in ice baths, but her temperature continued to climb. Finally, she was taken to a different hospital where she was immediately urine tested and found to have extremely elevated levels of lead in her tiny body. Colleen went into a coma, where she straddled the line between life and death for nearly a month. When she finally regained consciousness, she sustained severe brain damage, causing paralysis in the right side of her body. She was also completely blind and suffered ongoing grand mal seizures from brain-damage epilepsy. Her destiny was sealed that day — she would never reach beyond the developmental level of a nine year-old.

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The Subtle Movements of Fear

the car ride took seven minutes.

Trauma is tricky. It stores up in our bodies. Every time a car pulls out in front of us suddenly, or a loud noise startles us, or we react to keep something from falling, breaking, getting away from us. You know those moments. Those “Oh!” moments. (My “Oh!” moments are usually doused in far more colorful words than “Oh!”, but that’s probably another post altogether.)

my car had been rifled through, I discovered when I opened the car door — glove box, console, little compartments — sometime in the night.

Here’s the thing about trauma. Like misery, trauma loves company. One catalogued trauma moment seeks out others. Like attracts like. Trauma moments stored in the body all go online instantly when a new one is introduced. Trauma goes viral within the network of the nervous system. The re-connection to those stored moments can also reactivate embedded reactions to them. Ones we’ve relived over in over in our memory — the psyche’s attempt to process it out of the system. Even reinvented/reworked reactions pile on top of those. If onlys. If I would haves. If I wouldn’t haves. Whys.

why didn’t I check to make sure the car door was locked? nothing was taken. nothing important, anyway.

The sympathetic nervous system believes the flood of experiences in the mind is happening in this moment. The body is now in the game. Heart rate increases. Breathing becomes shallow. Thought-loops form. Exit plans present themselves. Fight plans.

at least, I HOPE nothing important was taken.

Then full-on fear is present.  It instantly folds me up into a self that labels and suspects everyone. It looks for, and expects, clear and present dangers in everything. And, oh, the voice of fear. Trust no one.

was it the neighbor who saw me leave my computer in the trunk the other night?

And suddenly I’m hyper-alert, ready. I’m also aware of a more subtle movement. A prickly warmth falling downward in the pit of my stomach. Not fully formed yet, but I  recognize it, even in its infancy: it could grow into futility. hopelessness. Its characteristics: heat. Its end-effects: paralyzing.

I hope they didn’t find something that will bring them back.

I remind myself it’s nothing personal. I know thieves are usually opportunists only. Most are not violent. I empathize. People are inherently good. They do a lot of things when they feel hungry, lost, stuck. Things I might also do, were I in the same position. I park the car at the café. Compassion smoothes me over.

I breathe fully. Into the belly. The parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. The body starts to cool. I sit quietly and locate the falling feeling in my body. I ask myself: Where do I feel it? What does it feel like? The prickly heat cascading in the pit of my stomach has some thoughts trying to attach to it. Old thoughts. Thoughts that don’t serve me, except to pull me back into a reactive mode. I breathe again. Into the belly.

The heart begins to slow. Each time the feeling leads to thinking, I breathe deeply, locate, and ground it as a feeling in the body.

If the prickly heat in the pit of my stomach had an opposite, where would that be in the body and what would it feel like?

A cool opening in the heart. Like a secret pond surrounded and shaded by thick woods.

I spend time with one sensation. Then the other. Back and forth. Then I experience both, simultaneously. Both feelings soften. I feel balance returning. I go into the café and plug in my computer.

I feel as thought I’ve been on a long road trip. Many sights seen. Much terrain covered.

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The Ways to Go

The Universe is clever.
It has brought to me two very distinct and inspiring job opportunities with heart-aligned companies.

One in an amazing healthy foodstuff; ground level/sky’s limit/lots of hours – basic benefits after 6; eat sleep drink work…

One in an amazing holistic health center;  company/advancement potential/40 – awesome benefits in 3; leave it at the door. With time for things like, oh, writing…

Thanks, Universe, for reflecting back to me my capabilities. What a wondrous world. I will not let you down…checkbookheart

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