Everything That Kills Me Makes Me Feel Alive: The Lessons of Dylan Farrow and Phillip Seymour Hoffman

There were two stories in this week’s news cycle that hit home for me: the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, presumably from a heroin overdose, and a letter written by Dylan Farrow about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Woody Allen when she was a child.

While there has been a lot of sympathy and empathy for both Hoffman and Farrow, there has been a fair share of scathing remarks on social media that I just cannot wrap my head around. People suggesting either that Farrow’s accusations aren’t true, or that her timing is suspicious because Allen is currently up for an Academy Award. Grumblings about Hoffman’s death being the result of a choice he made by using drugs. Childhood sexual abuse and addiction are two subjects that I know a little something about. These two recent stories have triggered me into a fury of words and chaos. I’m trying to bring together a string of disjointed thoughts, a wretched chore under the best of circumstances, which this assuredly is not.

Part I: In response to Dylan Farrow

First of all, 7-year-olds don’t lie about sexual abuse. It should never be something they’d know enough about to lie or imagine. That’s the beauty of the whole innocence of childhood thing. Is it possible that the idea was planted in young Dylan’s head by her mother during a contentious divorce? Sure, I suppose it’s possible. But one would hope that Mia Farrow–or any other woman–would never stoop to so low as to plant that kind of belief in the mind of a vulnerable child, knowing full well that once that seed is sown it will grow wildly inside the girl’s soul and destroy her on so many unfathomable levels. I don’t believe Mia Farrow did that. Also, there’s the matter of Woody Allen’s proclivity toward being generally, um, creepy. His predilection for having relationships with inappropriately younger women is well noted. Plus, there’s the Soon-Yi factor. Yes, I realize that Soon-Yi was not Woody’s adopted daughter, but rather Andre Previn’s. I also understand that because Woody and Mia never married, Soon-Yi wasn’t technically considered his stepdaughter. And I know that despite having been in a relationship for years with Mia, living in a state with no “common-law marriage” ruling again speaks to Soon-Yi not being considered any relation to Woody. Technically. But here’s the crux of the problem: In 1992, Mia Farrow discovered explicit nude photos that Woody Allen had taken of her adopted daughter, who was either 19 or 21 at the time (her real age is not known). Allen was 57 at the time…and in a long-term relationship with Mia, the girl’s adopted mother, making him a father figure, legal or not. Creepy. Creepy. Creepy. And let me be clear: pedophiles are creepy. Not all creepy men are pedophiles, but there is an “ick” factor pervasive in both creeps and pedophiles that Woody Allen definitely possesses.

I believe Dylan Farrow. I read the letter she wrote about Woody Allen and I believe that this woman was sexually abused by him when she was a child. I have no vested interest either way. I don’t know any of these people, but I believe it because the pain of the abuse was evident in the words she wrote to the world. I’ve never seen a Woody Allen movie. But the idea that this man continues to be embraced by the film industry is abhorrent to me. What’s even more loathsome to me is the reaction his supporters had to Dylan’s letter and accusations.

Barbara Walters defended him on The View, saying she knows him as a “sensitive and loving and caring” father to his two daughters with Soon-Yi. She suggests that the timing of Dylan’s letter is suspect because Woody Allen is up for an award. Of course, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Barbara, after all, is the same woman who during an interview with Corey Feldman promoting his book Coreyography basically called him a liar when he recounted the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of some of the most powerful people in Hollywood. Are you kidding me, lady? People like you are the very reason that victims of childhood sexual abuse remain silent, enshrouded in shame.

And then Stephen King chimed in. He tweeted: “Boy, I’m stumped on that one. I don’t like to think it’s true, and there’s an element of palpable bitchery there, but…”

An element of palpable bitchery. Just let that phrase sink in for a moment. It’s Stephen King’s fancy way of saying there’s an ulterior motive, and whether he came out and said it or not, it implies that he doubts the sincerity of what Dylan wrote.

A few hours later, after some serious backlash, he tweeted this: “Have no opinion on the accusations; hope they’re not true. Probably used the wrong word.”

You think?

Offering further explanation regarding his faux pas, he wrote [regarding his relative naiveté about Twitter]: “Still learning my way around this thing. Mercy, please.”

OK, you’re new to Twitter. But you’re not new to words, right? Or humanity? I’d never suggest to such a wonderful and prolific author as Stephen King that he should stop writing, except regarding this one subject. The publicity wasn’t good for him, but just imagine how it made Dylan feel.

While Dylan’s case (and Corey Feldman’s, for that matter) are unique in that they are drawn out in the public eye, the problem is the same for any child who was ever sexually abused: the fear that people will not believe them. That fear–along with the gut-wrenching shame–keeps them silent, and that silence destroys them from the inside out.

I know this because I was abused, raped and tormented, by a neighbor starting at age 8 and continuing for years. At some point my abuser infected me with HIV. The gift that keeps on giving. I know all too well the shame, the fear, the anger that sexual abuse brings with it. My rapist is not up for an Academy Award. He’s not a rainmaker in Hollyweird. He’s just a guy, living in suburbia, working, paying his bills. But abusing little kids is something my rapist and Woody Allen apparently have in common. A prince of the film industry and a blue-collar commoner. Worlds apart, yet they share a twisted, depraved penchant for abusing little girls.

I read Dylan’s letter and shivered with disgust and rage. Her words were so relatable. She wrote of triggers that awake in her the awful memories of her childhood. She explained that Allen made her lie on her stomach and watch her brother’s toy train circle around its track and he molested her. To this day she has trouble looking at toy trains. For me it’s motorcycles. My abuser had a massive, obnoxiously loud motorcycle and every time I would hear it come up the street a sea of nausea would stir from deep within me. Thirty years later, motorcycles can be a trigger for me still. I tense up and flash back to the fear I felt, knowing what was going to happen to me.

There are other triggers as well. Everyday things that can stir up the terror and the rage. Things that can make the world around me go silent, so still that all I hear is the beating of my own heart and the breath from my lungs coming harder and faster as I struggle to breathe under the weight of my own fear.

My reality was altered so early by abuse and terror that as I shuffled uneasily into adulthood I became a shape shifter, trying desperately to fit into a world I had no business being in. There are times still when I believe I am simply too broken for this life.

So reading Dylan Farrow’s open letter evoked some powerful emotions for me. Her words were painful to read. But reading her words also left me with a sense of awe for this amazingly strong woman. I envy her strength, and I thank her for speaking out when so many of us cannot.

Part II: In response to Philip Seymour Hoffman

I awoke a couple of days ago to a text from a friend telling me about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. She followed that text up with one that read simply: “Are you next?”

It was a fair question. After managing to stay clean and sober for 7 years I relapsed a couple of years ago and have struggled since then to battle those demons.

Hearing the news of Hoffman’s death shook me. I took to the Internet, as one does, and searched for information. He was found in his bathroom, alone, with a needle in his arm. I had only to look down at my own scarred arms to feel his desperation. I swallowed hard with the knowledge that if you are an addict, any high can be your last.

I was a great fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman. One of my favorite movies is Capote, in which he captured the eccentric writer’s character perfectly. I had most recently seen him in The Master. His co-star in that movie was Joaquin Phoenix, the brother of another who’d fallen prey to addiction: River Phoenix. River was my childhood crush, and I remember well coming home from a Halloween party back in 1993 and hearing about his death. I was pretty loaded myself when I heard the news, already years into my own battle with addiction, but I remember being gutted by the news.

Two amazing actors. Both wildly successful, with endless potential and possibilities. Addiction does not discriminate. It doesn’t take into account race or religion or occupation or economic status. Philip Seymour Hoffman had 23 years of sobriety before he relapsed last year. I had 7 before I succumbed to it again. This is a disease that is not cured. It may go into remission, but is always there and it aches to destroy us.

We’re all well aware of the names of celebrities who’ve succumbed to addiction. John Belushi, Chris Farley, Dana Plato, Heath Ledger, Whitney Houston, Corey Monteith. The list goes on and on. We shake our heads and mourn for these people because it’s a sad situation all the way around, and also because  we feel we’ve lost out in some way. These are people who entertained us, made us laugh, made us cry, made us think. Their loss affects us. Just imagine how their friends and families feel? Now imagine how they feel when they read the atrocious comments from ignorant people who suggest that their loved one died because they were weak junkies who brought this on themselves.

People don’t understand addiction. I get it. It’s a difficult concept to understand when you’re not in the throes of it. But let me be clear: addiction is not a choice. Do you think people choose to destroy their lives, lose their livelihoods, their loved ones, their reputations?

Anyone can be affected by addiction. We know the names of the celebrities. They are written about and mourned and remembered. But there are so many people out there who are hurting, who are dying. Addiction is real and it is a plague among us.

No matter why you pick up that first time, you never think that you will lose control of your life. Taking that first drug may be a choice, but after that it’s out of the hands of the addict. Perhaps experimentation or peer-pressure or sheer boredom is the catalyst. But no matter what, no matter whether you think you have everything under control there is one truth that cannot be denied: There needs not be a catalyst to bring the monster out of his tenuous slumber. If you are an addict you are at risk for relapse. Always.

For me, using was borne from a desperate desire to escape the horror of my childhood. I was 11 when I first discovered that substances could numb the pain I was in. Booze and drugs were never fun for me. They were necessary. They made it possible for me to face each day. They numbed the pain enough for me to function. For so long fear and self-loathing were my masters; drugs wrestled those feelings and won. Drugs made me numb to the torment, and suddenly I became slave to a new master. That high was as necessary as the air in my lungs. Without it I surely would have drown in a sea of sorrow and anguish.

In her book High on Arrival, Mackenzie Phillips writes, “Every junkie’s story has this in common: there are periods of time when the drugs just win. After the seduction of that first high, after the honeymoon when drugs enhance a functioning life–after all that comes submission and demolition.”

If you’re an addict, you’re in a constant fight for your life. Addiction is strong, superhuman and relentless. It wants you dead, and a few years–or a few decades–of sobriety will not diminish its resolve to destroy you. That is its sole purpose, and on that alone it has laser focus.

There are only two possible endings for me: dying or getting clean and sober. I’m not convinced that the latter is possible any more. My body, mind, and soul are so scarred from abuse–by others as well as that I inflicted on myself. How do I live without that which makes life bearable? Then again, this isn’t life, it’s merely existence.

My vision of the world is myopic at best. I expect to be hurt. I expect pain and darkness, and no matter how much light and love I’ve managed to discover in the world, through the love  and support of some wonderful friends I’ve managed to make–despite my being, you know, bat-shit crazy–I still have trouble holding on to it.

The biggest challenge to my recovery and ability to stay sober and live well and fully is my utter inability to love myself. To believe that I deserve more than misery and torment.

The memories of my childhood, they haunt me. And they make me feel wholly inhuman. I think back to when I was 8, to the time before the first time and I wonder what I would have become, what I could have become. Addiction runs in my family. In fact, I have a genetic predisposition toward addiction and general douche-baggery. Alas, I wonder whether I could have broken free of that reality had I not lost that sense of myself at such a tender and vulnerable age. With each breath I take, I mourn the loss of the child I was and the adult I could have been. Would I be more open to love? Would I find it easier to trust? Would I be so scared of the world and everything in it?

I am an addict. Someday I too may succumb to the disease of addiction. Yes, I have AIDS, but to be honest it’s far more likely that addiction will be what takes me from this world. On some level at least. When I’m using I’m not taking care of myself. I come off my meds, I develop AIDS-related complications. That may be what kills me, but addiction will be the fuel that feeds the fire.

And what will be said of me when I draw my last breath? No great loss; one less junkie in the world. That’s true, I suppose. But there’s more to me than that. It’s buried deep and since I am who I am and not a celebrity few will ever know anything about me other than the fact that I am just a junkie and that I brought this on myself. But I am a human being, with feelings and a heart and soul. I’m a lover of words, a voracious reader and a moderately successful writer. I’m a huge fan of baseball and movies and pasta.  I love all genres of music, but my heart belongs to NKOTB. I love to dance and in my healthier days I would dance wildly around my house, music blaring as I dusted and swept and vacuumed. I’m a baseline piano player and a teller of the most juvenile of jokes. One of my favorite things to do is to take a long walk in the warm rain. Watching the sun rise makes me thankful. Watching the full moon at night gives me comfort and evokes in me a sense of wonder and curiosity. I love to laugh and wish to God I could bring myself to do it more often.

You don’t know me. I’m not famous. But I exist, and someday I will cease to. And it will probably be because of addiction. This isn’t how I wanted it. This is not the path I ever imagined myself taking in life. I wanted to live. This is not my choice.

Rest in peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Peace to you, Dylan Farrow.

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13 thoughts on “Everything That Kills Me Makes Me Feel Alive: The Lessons of Dylan Farrow and Phillip Seymour Hoffman

  1. This is devastating and I doubt I’ll ever forget you. You are a magnificent writer and that alone could be enough to give you self worth. Should be. I wish it were. I always wished I could write so please know you are gifted and sharing your story by using that gift may be the purpose of you suffering in this life. I don’t know. I hope there’s a reason for such pain.
    Thank you for sharing. All the love…..

  2. The only words that are finding their way out right now – are bless you. bless you for telling your story – through all the pain. thank you – bless you. oh, and keep talking – keep writing – the world needs to hear.

  3. I’ve waited for a week to reply to this. BTW, you may only consider yourself a moderately successful writer, but if you help one person with your words, or your smile, or your breath, your next one is so very important. I feel as though I know you from your sharing here. I admit I’m fascinated by those aspects of your life that i know absolutely nothing about, but even more is that i feel so compelled to communicate back. We’re both alive today for a reason. Just learning from you makes me a better person; perhaps i have something that could benefit you. I know you’ve read some of my stuff, and I’m a bit embarrassed that, in comparison, I’m such a poor word-crafter. However, I feel that you know lots about me also from my sharing. Here’s the deal. I have no idea whether or not everything happens for a reason, that seems a bit cruel. However I have becomes a strong believer in Providence. I truly believe that our God does put people, choices, and events into our lives to help us through our days. Much of our journey is on our knees, and we do look up so bruised and bloodied, but the point is that we look up. Indeed, we are give choices and opportunities to do what is right and to make things so much better when events occur that were out of our hands. He is the potter, and as he shapes us, others may/WILL smash the artwork, but the wheel keeps turning, and if we keep malleable, stay soft and willing to be formed, I am POSITIVE that He will give us the choices to make to result in that beautiful work of art that He envisions. Why does He allow F’d up shit to happen to us? I firmly believe that we can use this to be better. Better? WTD is better about an addict, or a father who had lost his beautiful teenage son? What is better is that because of our journey, our bruises, the blood dripping from our body, we can now better relate, understand, and love others that we previously felt disconnected from. Please know how much you are loved, and how much the world needs you. We are co-creators with our Lord of this world. We are constantly given the opportunity to participate in His love by giving selflessly of ourselves. We can only know of the pain others feel by having felt it ourselves. Then we can minister to them. Where was God when we were being destroyed? Where was Jesus when we needed Him so desperately? That’s the chorus of one of my favorite songs by Matt Maher. “He was on the cross.” One night, forever ago, my son Cullen asked me why Christ had to be crucified, what was the point? “Couldn’t He just have saved us all, and put us into heaven?” “Of course he could, but would it the BE heaven? Have you ever loved anyone? Would it have been love if you had to? If you were told you had to love someone. Would sunny days be beautiful if we had never seen dark, clod, gloomy days? Often the explanation as to why Jesus was crucified was because culturally, that was a time when only sacrifices were seen as redemptive. Perhaps, but when I look at that cross and know that He endured that kind of pain and suffering to SHOW US that He understands that kind of pain and suffering, is the real message. Yes, that He loved us so much that He was willing to show us that He understands how much pain hurts. But then He gives us the ability to get back up and help each other, BECAUSE we actually understand suffering. We’ve been there, just like Him. Please know how loved and valuable, and needed you are, by your friends, and your family, and so many people who haven’t even met you. Much Love.

  4. I’m so sorry for what you’re going through. There are no words of consolation, no prophecy of assumed better days to come. I can only wish you strength and hope in what too often seems to be an endless battle.

  5. OMG! Your story overwhelms me with compassion for you and horror for all you have been through. I wonder too, what you could have, would have been if not for the brute that lived next door when you were 8 years old. I wonder how many people have lived through this horror and never tell anyone? Are our children so attuned to adult authority “rights” that they think they have to follow adult’s orders? Prayers and hopes for you to have a happy future…”Never stop believing in miracles. Sometimes the moment before you stop believing is the moment before a miracle occurs.”

  6. despite the many ‘praise-worthy’ films Woody Allen has directed/produced/ etc., from the time of his involvement with Soon-yi became public, I have refused to watch anything to do with him. I am only 1, but if not me, who etc.,

  7. I pray that you are still trying to fight. your comments about addiction not being a choice is one of the truest statements I have read. I have lost 3 brothers to addiction. I don’t. know you but I am praying for you. While you have breath there is hope . God does love us even if we feel that we do not deserve it.

    • Your story has touched me and angered me. It touched my ‘mother’s’ heart strings and made me love you. It angers me that a grown man took advantage of you at age 8 in a way that a child that age will never fully recover, I wonder if you know how worthy you are? From the pain of your written experiences, I discern a strong and loving person who deserves the kind of love and companionship that you must strongly desire and deserve. My wish for you is that you find someone who is pure of heart and soul, a loving person who can talk to you and make you feel warmth, sunshine and love that you never had.

      My heart goes out to you in your fight with addiction. It would be easy for someone like me to say “Overcome the addiction” because I have never been addicted and some of us who have been lucky that way, tend to be sanctimonious about that subject. I cannot advise you or discuss addiction because I know so little about it. I’ll just wish you the best of luck and the best of everything that you so richly deserve.

      Ganana21

  8. Your writing gives me hope and comfort. Thank you for sharing your story. I found your blog by accident, but I will now read each post you make.

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