I Told Him, ‘You’re Going to Die’

Mimi O’DonnellOP-EDLeave a Comment

Philip Seymour Hoffman died at 47

Third of three parts


Re “‘A Sweet, Gentle, Loving Man’”

Editor’s Note: Director/producer O’Donnell, widow of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, discusses their relationship with a www.vogue.com reporter four years after his death from an overdose.]

Phil knew that it meant something because of who he was. He was never comfortable with celebrity, but he knew how to use his fame so that something good could come of it.

Labyrinth, of course, got the bulk of his time, but he would do a benefit reading for almost anyone who asked. He became a fixture in our neighborhood, a familiar figure strolling the sidewalks, smoking a cigarette, walking the kids to school, or sitting with us eating ice cream outside our favorite coffee shop. I couldn’t have imagined a better life.

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.

Not So Unusual

Some of what Phil was going through was common to men in their 40s, such as the pangs of finding yourself middle-aged and feeling as though you’re losing your sexual currency (something many women experience at a much younger age), or seeing your friends’ marriages fall apart in the wake of infidelities.

Other things were more specific: His longtime therapist died of cancer, which was devastating.

He had a falling out with a bunch of his AA friends.

Phil had a love/hate relationship with acting. The thing he hated most was the loss of anonymity. He was making film after film—we had a big family and had bought a bigger apartment—and AA started to get short shrift.

He’d been sober for so long that nobody seemed to notice. But something was brewing.

The first tangible sign came when, out of nowhere, Phil said to me, “I’ve been thinking I want to try to have a drink again. What do you think?”

I thought it was a terrible idea, and I said so. Sobriety had been the center of Phil’s life for over 20 years. This was definitely a red flag.

He started having a drink or two without it seeming a big deal, but the moment drugs came into play, I confronted Phil.


Trouble, Trouble, Trouble

He admitted that he’d gotten ahold of some prescription opioids. He told me that it was just this one time, and that it wouldn’t happen again.

It scared him enough that, for a while, he kept his word.

Phil went into rehearsal for Mike Nichols’s production of Death of a Salesman.

He threw himself into it with his usual intensity. Willy Loman is one of the great tragic roles of 20th-century theater.

Phil gave one of the rawest and most honest performances of his career. It asked a lot of him and it exhausted him, but it had nothing to do with his relapse.

If anything, doing seven shows a week kept him from using, because it would have been impossible to do that on drugs. Though he continued to drink after evening shows, he was otherwise clean.

As the days left in the show’s limited run wound down, I began to dread what would happen when it was over.

After the show closed, Phil didn’t have any work lined up for awhile.

So he had a lot of time on his own, and he very quickly started using again.

It was all prescription stuff, though I don’t know where he was getting it. Again, I realized instantly, or at least I suspected.

“Are you taking pills?”

“No, I don’t do that.”

“Well, you’re dozing off.”

“I’m tired. I’m not sleeping well.”

The End Is Inevitable

As soon as Phil started using heroin again, I sensed it, terrified. I told him, “You’re going to die. That’s what happens with heroin.” Every day was filled with worry. Every night, when he went out, I wondered: Will I see him again?

I was getting all kinds of advice.

Everybody was fumbling in the dark. Some people told me to get the kids away from him.

The urban historian Lewis Mumford once said, “In the city, time becomes visible.”

When Phil started using, Freedom Tower was almost finished, a new building in the footprint of the World Trade Center.

I remember walking along the Hudson, looking at it, realizing that our whole relationship spanned the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11 to the rise of the new tower in its place.

I thought, I’ll make a decision once the building is finished. I felt like I was drowning. It gave me something to hold on to.

Phil tried to stop on his own, but detoxing caused him agonizing physical pain.

I took him to rehab. In some conversations that we had while he was there, Phil was so open and vulnerable that they remain among the most intimate moments of our time together.

Within a day or two of returning, he started using again. At home, he was behaving differently. It was making the kids anxious.

We both felt that some boundaries would be helpful.

Tearfully, we decided that Phil should move into an apartment around the corner. It helped us maintain a little distance but allowed us all to be together as much as possible.

He still walked the kids to school.

We still had family dinners.

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. 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. 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.

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.

The End.


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.”

I guess that was also the moment I made the decision I had deferred while looking up at Freedom Tower back when Phil had first started using.

It’s difficult to stay in a relationship with an active addict.

It feels like being boiled in oil.

But I couldn’t abandon him. I just had to figure out:

How do I live with him? How do I do it without caregiving or enabling, and in a way that protects the kids and me?


Sometime in January, Phil started isolating himself. He was in Atlanta filming The Hunger Games. I called and texted him and said, “I’m here to talk.”

At that point, we had started to shift things over to me financially.

Phil knew that when he was using he wasn’t responsible.

We began making plans to set up another rehab as soon as the movie wrapped, but I knew we had a difficult path ahead of us.

It happened so quickly. Phil came home from Atlanta, and I called a few people and said that we needed to keep an eye on him. Then he started using again, and three days later he was dead.

The circumstances of Phil’s death were so public—people around the world knew he was dead an hour after I did.

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?

A loving swarm of friends and family carried me through those early days, but even so they felt miles away. They can’t be there with you.

There were a few people I knew who had gone through something similar. We would get together, and I wanted to say, Please don’t go, because you get it.

From others, I received a lot of well-meaning advice.

“Just get out more” or—I kid you not—“Craft.”

Literally two weeks after Phil died, some fellow parents asked me to show up on a Friday morning to man the stall where they sold school paraphernalia.

After the fifth person suggested I should start running, I lost it. “I don’t want to run,” I said. “I want to jump in the river and kill myself.”

When I finally did decide to run, it was always at night by the Hudson. The darker and rainier it was, the more violent the water, the better.

I couldn’t get enough. Something about the extremity of it, the closeness to death, was weirdly comforting. If I wanted to jump, it was there.


My Heart, My Children

What got me out of bed every morning and kept me alive, of course, were my kids. I had no choice:

They needed me, and I loved them more than anything in the world.

I would hit moments when I felt, I’m done. I’m so done, but then I’d see their faces, and right away it would become, Okay. I can do this today.

They were keenly aware that I was now their only parent.

Willa, my youngest, obsessed about it, asking, “If you die, how are people going to know how to find us?” It was almost a year before I could go out at night without the kids’ going into a panic. When I forced myself to make a few tentative forays into the world, within an hour there would be a phone call ,and I’d be on my way back home.

Even as I started getting out more, I couldn’t bring myself to go to the theater.

Phil had been my favorite person to go with. He was so enthusiastic and open and generous—he was floored by actors all the time—and at the end of any play, I would look over and he’d be crying.

So, for a long time, theater was out of the question. I knew that, whoever was sitting in it, the seat next to mine would feel empty.

Looking Back

It’s been almost four years since Phil died.

The kids and I are still in a place where that fact is there every day. We talk about him constantly, only now we can talk about him without instantly crying.

That’s the small difference, the little bit of progress that we’ve made. We can talk about him in a way that feels as though there’s a remembrance of what happened to him, but that also honors him.

We talk about his bad sides and his good sides, what he did that was funny and what he did that was crazy, and what he did that was loving and tender and sweet.

We open up.

It brings us together and keeps his spirit alive.

This fall, after a long campaign by my kids, I agreed that we could get a family dog. They had their hearts set on a French bulldog, and after some research we found a breeder and picked out a puppy, a girl, whose picture was so cute it was almost insane (and I’m not a dog person).

The moment we made the decision, Cooper said, “She’s going to die. Dogs don’t live very long, so we’re going to see her die.”

In her birth and in her coming to us, we were also mourning her death.

Something about that felt right, knowing that everything you meet or love is going to die.

I was in awe of my kids that they were able to hold both things in their heads at the same time. That’s who they are now.

It hasn’t stopped them from loving this little creature (her name is Puddles) scampering around our apartment. None of them wants to hold back. They’ve given their hearts to her, without hesitation or reservation.

They’re all in.

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