As we now have concrete data that Prince died of an overdose on Fentanyl (an opioid pain medication), I am posting here a microblog post from May 11 that I had written in response to what I was seeing on my Facebook News Feed and in popular media regarding Prince and addiction.
I don't have a dog in the fight about whether or not Prince was addicted to pain medication. I didn't know the man personally, I wasn't his therapist, his confidante, or his doctor. I am grateful for the immense joy and connection he brought so many through his art - one of the people who raised me was gaga over Prince and the color purple, and his albums were threaded throughout my early childhood like so many sunrises.
What I'm surprised by and in pain about, however, is seeing this article posted over and over and over again claiming "Prince did not die from pain pills, he died from chronic pain," as a backlash against the hint of the possibility that he may have been addicted to his pain medication and this addiction may have contributed to his death. Since when do we need to feign to know and to discern the difference between addiction and opioid use for chronic pain - from a distance and with no actual data about this person's or that person's life? And, perhaps more to the point, why is it necessary to say he was unequivocally *not* an addict? Again, I don't know if he was "an addict" or not - but I do know that the need to claim he certainly wasn't one seems more to me like stigma against people with addictions than a defense of Prince's character or the realities he lived with.
Berry writes, "And yet, despite the evidence that Prince was being given Percocet for documented pain, the media narrative has shifted to a story in which Prince died of an overdose. An overdose is a self-inflicted wound. It’s a moral judgment. That’s how we react to it. 'He was such a talented actor. Why overdose?' Or, 'She had such a powerful voice. But she was a demon for drugs.' That story allows us to distance ourselves, to see it as the fault of a weak personality, an 'addictive' personality. It’s part of the mythos we create around talented folks. The idea that the truly gifted are also the ones in the worse psychological pain, and their psychological 'weaknesses' make them ripe for drug addiction."
This is where Berry veers in a direction of othering addiction and addicts that does nothing to actually defend Prince's character (a) while (b) serving to collude with the constant stigma against addiction that addicts face. In fact, she unfortunately plays right into our fears by saying, essentially, how dare you call him *an addict.*
I do have a dog in *that* fight. That desire to not have a certain word or label - addict - put upon a treasured person, as if that word were or needed to be this horrific brand singed into the skin. Surely, the label certainly can carry that off - addicts have to fight that stigma off their backs most places they turn, except typically when in the presence of other addicts, recovering addicts, or people who 'get it' about addiction. But when a New York Times article suggests a beloved person may have had an addiction (and I remain agnostic about the truth of that suggestion) - must we leap to the other extreme and claim that surely he did *not?*
What's most frustrating about seeing this article posted over and over again is that the article has real nuance and depth to it - the author deftly outlines her skepticism in the face of media claiming to know any true thing about Prince's real life and struggles, and she contextualizes these possible misconceptions as embedded in racist views of Black men and Black people in general as well as contextualizes the alarmingly misunderstood experience of chronic pain, which is in itself also stigmatized - by 'regular people' as well as by medical professionals. This is beautifully and heartbreakingly undertaken and written about.
But what is troubling is that this author also doesn't know what was truly Prince's experience. His internal one. And she does not illuminate the fact that actually people who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain *do* become addicted to these medications and *can* accidentally die from overdose on these medications. This is a shadowy, horrifying underbelly of the difficulty with treating chronic pain -- people who may otherwise not have become addicted to anything become chemically addicted to a substance that is assisting them in reducing debilitating physical pain. What is troubling to me is the presumption that Prince's - or anyone's - chronic pain could not also have been accompanied by addiction to his pain medication. Is "addict" still such a leper of a word? To Berry, it seems to be. Why not dismantle the stigma around that word rather than proclaim, "Do not call him that!?"
When I first read the New York Times article, I didn't think any less of Prince. My opinion of him was untarnished. I didn't shake my head and think bad thoughts or think "Well, now the truth is out" or "Tsk tsk." I did not cluck my tongue at the dead. I did not wag my finger or suck my teeth.
I will say, I didn't think any of those bad thoughts about Amy Winehouse either. Or Michael Jackson. Or Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Or my mother. Or her father. Or his father. Or myself.
Maybe this lack of horror, othering and shaming is because I come from a tribe of addicts myself. A legion. A score. Generations so far back, I lose count. My first addiction was food. That one started before I could talk. I found recovery for this, and I am blessed. Now I work on my work addiction, an addiction that is lovingly supported by our culture and incredibly difficult to put down. I never saw that one coming, but like I said. We are legion in my lineage. We are adult children of alcoholics and addicts. And most of us have had one addict-like struggle or another if not a full-blown chemical addiction or eating disorder (genetically proven to be related now) or have been the loved one to the addict.
This is not something I need to "come out" about, because I wear this on my life openly. I don't write much about it, but if you ask or we happen to be talking about addiction, I'm unreserved about my status. I call myself an addict, because it's like a surname to me, and to be in relation to that surname keeps me honest. I call myself recovering, because that keeps me honest, too. I call myself a recovering codependent, because that's the family cigil.
And, I have almost no shame about this - where I come from, who made me, who made them, and who made them. I say "almost," because I do live in this world, and I do have to contend with its influence on my psyche. I have worked hard to have this little shame in a world that jumps at the chance to make sure a revered and beloved person should never be called an addict. We should never jump to that conclusion. We would never want to demean someone's good name with that notion. I have learned to be grateful - for my former eating disorder, for my (diminishing!) codependency, for the dark places I have been and have felt, for the addiction running through my family tree like water from the roots. For better or worse, it has led me to being a therapist, to being available to take the hands of others who are buried in their shame and say, "You don't have to keep carrying that. Let me help you put that down."
I don't think Lorraine Berry meant it this way - to put that word "addict" in our mouths as such a dirty, shameful thing. I didn't take the New York Times article as about shaming Prince for potentially struggling with an addiction, either. But watching so many people repost this article by Berry and point out how terrible a thing it is to call someone an addict when perhaps he/she just has chronic pain, I had to start scratching my head, getting a funny tickle in my throat, a sort of annoyed feeling, like how did the word addict suddenly become the target?
I said aloud to my partner that I was confused why this needed to be an "either/or" discussion. Couldn't Prince have had chronic pain and also have happened to be addicted to his pain medication (as frequently happens for those who take opioids for chronic pain)?
My partner said to me, unassumingly and brilliantly, "But isn't all addiction about managing chronic pain?"
And that about sums it up for me.
Blog entries should not be taken as therapeutic intervention, diagnosis, assessment or advice.