I first paid attention to drug addiction when Elvis died at age 42.
I had seen him in the months before he died, and he looked terrible – puffy and sluggish. Worse, his beautiful voice wasn’t solid, wasn’t as powerful, and he wasn’t old enough to have suffered serious vocal decline. I knew something was up, but didn’t know what. When he died and the truth came out, I was devastated and angry. What a waste! He had begun innocently enough, taking pills so he could sleep and then taking pills to wake up the next day. Eventually, though, he became hooked, and took more and more until he took too many.
Michael Jackson was another example of a talented entertainer’s deadly involvement in drugs. He seemed to be a troubled soul, often looking more freakish in the public eye than he might have been. He died during rehearsals for a highly anticipated new world tour and his death at age 50 was a tragedy.
I am now dismayed to hear that Prince, an exceptional musician, may have died because of an overdose of opioids. I was always awed by Prince’s musical ability; he played every instrument on his first album, track over track – every instrument! I always had the idea that Prince was one of the good guys, remaining quiet, giving money to worthy causes, and avoiding drug use. It now appears that I was probably wrong.
These three are not the only ones whose lives have ended early because of drugs. The entry at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pop_musicians_who_died_of_drug_overdose gives a long list of musicians who have died because of substance abuse or overdose, beginning with Dinah Washington in 1963 and ending with Prince Rogers Nelson at age 57 a couple of weeks ago.
I have often wondered why these exceptionally talented people have to rely on drugs. Aren’t fame, success and money enough? Actually, though, I can see how easily it might start. I used to sing in a light jazz combo, and I have experienced nothing as heady as making music while an audience listens and applauds. We would begin our “sets” around 8 p.m. and then play until midnight or later. We were never ready to quit, and we often sat down and had a beer together, laughing and talking about the performance, all feeling a sort of euphoria. It’s understandable that a professional performer might eventually want to feel that euphoria all the time.
I can see how a good musician might come to rely on alcohol to calm down after a good performance; maybe after a while, that wouldn’t be enough. Maybe it would be easy to make the transition to some kind of pills or powder. And as we have found out here in our little town, addiction is more powerful than anyone can imagine.
I often see people in court who have all the signs of constant meth use. They jerk and twitch, talk fast, have dental problems, and often have scars and small wounds on their faces and arms. And the parents of the young woman who died of a heroin overdose in February have come forward with their sad and terrifying story of trying to help their daughter overcome her addiction. Once they get hooks in a person, though, drugs are simply in control, and they find their victims from all walks of life, from all socioeconomic levels – those who have little money, those in the middle, and those at the very top.
I don’t know what the answer is. I do, however, recognize the truth of what Mr. Shipley, the Tuskegee Airman, said a couple of weeks ago: “Stay away from drugs. You might think, ‘Oh, well, one time won’t hurt,’ but it’s easy for one time to turn into two, and then into three, and then you’re hooked.”
I think it’s more complicated than “Just Say No,” and Jessica Williams’ parents would probably agree with me. I do know that whatever we are doing as a society isn’t working. We need to do more. I don’t want to read about one more person who has succumbed to addiction, whether a pop star or one of my neighbors. Let’s start talking.
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.