Bringing it Home: Hoffman overdose a reminder for recovering addicts |

Bringing it Home: Hoffman overdose a reminder for recovering addicts

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times

For more than two decades, Philip Seymour Hoffman struggled with drug addiction. On Feb. 2, the 46-year-old actor was found dead in a Greenwich Village, N.Y., apartment with a needle in his arm. Although toxicology results have been inconclusive, an envelope containing heroin was found near his body.

Bobby Ferguson, who has been sober for 23 years, said that if there’s one good thing to come from Hoffman’s death, it’s that many struggling addicts finally will seek help.

“Sometimes when you’re in your own active addiction, even major personal consequences won’t motivate you to take action to get sober. But something like this, in a weird way, does,” said Ferguson, the founder of Jaywalker Lodge, a 12-step program in Carbondale started in 2005.

With a high-profile overdose like Hoffman’s, Ferguson said there usually is an uptick in admissions, or at least an increase in conversations about recovery. He estimates that one-third of his clients are heroin users, while the rest struggle with alcohol, painkillers or amphetamines — a ratio that is consistent with other recovery facilities, Ferguson said.

According to the Washington Post, heroin is now cheaper and more accessible than prescription painkillers, which has contributed to a dramatic increase in heroin use. In New York, a bag of heroin sells for about $10, while the equivalent amount of Vicodin costs $30. From 2007 to 2012, heroin use increased 79 percent across the U.S., with 669,000 people reporting they used the drug, according to the Post.

One of those who has struggled with heroin — as well as alcohol and cocaine — is John Schneider, 30, of Texas, who has been sober for five years and works as the outreach director at Jaywalker. He said heroin use is rising slightly among younger Americans because of the popularity of synthetic opiates like Percocet. Schneider said it’s the same story in the Roaring Fork Valley, an area where the number of 12-step programs has surged in the past decade.

Before moving to the valley with his wife and kids, Ferguson worked at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads, in the Caribbean, and the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center, in Minnesota. He said there is more heroin in Aspen than there was in the 1980s, but addiction support has doubled in the past five years. While the Vail Valley has fewer than 30 support groups that meet regularly, the Roaring Fork Valley has more than 100, he said.

“It’s interesting to me that we have such a reputation for being a real party culture — and we do have plenty of addiction and high suicide rates in our valley — but as a result of that, we have an inordinately robust and energetic recovery community and local resources,” Ferguson said.

When Schneider was using, he ended up in jail, in detox centers and in psych wards. He said that with such an extensive support group here, he’s learned how to “live life sober,” even while encountering failed relationships, death in the family and stresses at work.

“I was able to walk through all of that in sobriety,” Schneider said. “The whole miracle of sobriety is to be free from the obsession to use drugs and alcohol.”

At the Jaywalker Lodge, which serves as a midway point between primary rehabilitation and everyday life, the majority of patients come from outside the valley. Some might call it a halfway house, but Ferguson cautions against that term because of its criminal connotations.

In order to ensure that participants are committed to sobriety, Jaywalker requires a minimum 90-day stay. For Ferguson, Schneider and millions of others, drug addiction is a chronic, incurable disorder.

“In addition to be being a cunning, baffling and powerful disorder, it’s also a very patient disease,” Ferguson said. “And if we don’t do the things to take care of our own recovery on a daily basis, we’re vulnerable the way (Hoffman) was.”

Schneider said sobriety is contingent on his own vigilance and attendance at 12-step meetings. Many times, he said, addicts will develop the idea that they are invincible, or they will lose sight of their own struggle.

“As unfortunate as it is, what happened with Philip Seymour Hoffman, it’s a clear reminder of where this disease takes us,” Schneider said.