At Vogue, Mimi O’Donnell reflects on her late husband Phillip Seymour Hoffman, his very public death via overdose, and overcoming loss as a family of four.
Twelve-step literature describes addiction as “cunning, baffling, and powerful.” It is all three. I hesitate to ascribe Phil’s relapse after two decades to any one thing, or even to a series of things, because the stressors—or, in the parlance, triggers—that preceded it didn’t cause him to start using again, any more than being a child of divorce did. Lots of people go through difficult life events. Only addicts start taking drugs to blunt the pain of them. And Phil was an addict, though at the time I didn’t fully understand that addiction is always lurking just below the surface, looking for a moment of weakness to come roaring back to life.
In the fall, Phil finally said, “I can’t do this anymore,” and he went back to rehab. We decided I would bring the kids, then five, seven, and ten, to see him for a family visit. We sat in a common room, and they asked him questions, which he answered with his usual honesty. He never came out and said, “I’m shooting up heroin,” but he told them enough so that they could get it, and they were just so happy to see him. It was hard when we left, because they all wanted to know why he couldn’t come home with us. But it felt healthy for us to deal with it together, as a family.
When Phil came back in November, he wanted so badly to stay sober, and for the next three months he did. But it was a struggle, heartbreaking to watch. For the first time I realized that his addiction was bigger than either of us. I bowed my head and thought, I can’t fix this. It was the moment that I let go. I told him, “I can’t monitor you all the time. I love you, I’m here for you, and I’ll always be here for you. But I can’t save you.”
The circumstances of Phil’s death were so public—people around the world knew he was dead an hour after I did—and every detail, from the days leading up to his overdose to his funeral, were, and remain, all over the Internet. And so I need to keep the rest of that awful time private. I had been expecting him to die since the day he started using again, but when it finally happened it hit me with brutal force. I wasn’t prepared. There was no sense of peace or relief, just ferocious pain and overwhelming loss. The most difficult—the impossible—thing was thinking, How do I tell my kids that their dad just died? What are the words?