Each time someone in the spotlight passes, it seems to be the same song and dance on social media; one group expresses heartfelt sorrow over the loss, another admonishes the first for giving a second thought to someone who most of us never knew personally, and still a third chimes in to acknowledge that it’s ridiculous to dictate what anyone else feels about any given thing, let alone the loss of human life, and to leave the mourners alone to grieve in their own way. Year after year, death after unexpected death, the cycle continues, seemingly immune to the concept of dying out, itself.
Then there’s yet another group that surfaces; a rare breed who only seems to make their presence known soon after a cause of death for the star in question has been given, and almost always when that cause of death has something to do with either addiction or mental illness. Members of this group may have come from any of the aforementioned camps, but they all have one thing in common – they believe that this information is none of our business.
And at the heart of it, they’re not at all wrong. Anyone’s personal life is absolutely no one else’s business but their own, celebrity or not. But with a few of the more recent occurrence’s of this phenomenon, I’d like to make a case as to why, particularly when it comes to the loss of life pertaining to addiction or mental health issues, it’s important to talk about.
When Carrie Fischer died, I was briefly stunned. I had always been a fair-weather fan of the Star Wars catalogue, but Fischer’s openness with discussing her own battles with Bipolar Disorder, as well as her addiction to drugs and alcohol, endeared me to her as a person above all else. Just a week prior, in the midst of one of my own brief depressive episodes, I found myself holed up in my candle lit room with a pint of ice cream at the ready, her HBO Special ‘Wishful Drinking’ lighting up the screen in front of me. The way she could carry on and laugh at her own struggles made me feel a little more at peace with what was going on in my own newly sober mind, and for that night, gave me hope that maybe tomorrow, I could laugh about this too.
And then she was gone. My heart sank, and rumors swirled about what the final cause was. Some commented that a heart condition may have been what did it, and others wondered if she had fallen victim to some of her old demons. This was all largely speculation, of course, and without confirmation, it was a rumor best left alone. When news broke months later that complications from sleep apnea and heart disease caused her death, there was some sort of collective sigh of relief, but the side note that a few precarious substances were found in her system, as well, was really what most were waiting for. For my part, I was waiting for it, too.
Even though it was painful to hear, knowing that someone so dedicated to the plight of others who suffer similar afflictions had again found themselves in the thick of it reminded me that no one is ever truly cured of either illness she so openly and intimately spoke about; at least not in 2017. The loss of this profoundly capable and compassionate woman, who fought for years to advocate for those who didn’t yet have strong enough voices to advocate for themselves, left me thinking that if she could fall back to such a painful ordeal, couldn’t I?
When Chris Cornell died, I was quite frankly beside myself. His uniquely emotive voice had gotten me through some extremely difficult times over the past 20 or so years since I started to fall in love with Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog, helping me feel a little less ashamed to be the anxious, sad, fearful, and angry person I was. His words helped me cope with my own thoughts of suicide, sometimes in a near constant barrage, and helped to tug me back a bit from the ledge I’d often find myself peering over. To hear that those very thoughts, those excruciating internal battles led him to take action – well, to say it breaks my heart is an understatement. It felt weirdly personal, that this man who I didn’t truly know, whose voice helped keep me from taking my own life on more than one occasion, ended up doing just that. I’m not ashamed to admit that it took at least a solid week, maybe two, for me to feel normal again after finding out about his death, as it forced me to look squarely on at my own internal battles. It frightened me into taking positive action for myself, to shore up the resources already available, and seek out new, healthy avenues to manage, with the hope that maybe I’d be in a better position to guard myself from meeting a similar fate. In fact, his death gave me new resolve to fight that much harder against the painfully familiar ideas that ultimately took him.
Just this past week, actor Nelsan Ellis tragically passed away, and the cause had been immediately made public by his family – complications from alcohol withdrawal. Those of us who have gone through such a detox can tell you just how painful this process is, and how dangerous. Those close to him chose to divulge the cause of death as quickly as they did so that through his passing, others out there could hopefully avoid this same fate by being made aware of how serious addiction, and fighting it on one’s own, can be. It was made clear that Nelsan was embarrassed by his own struggle and was reluctant to discuss it publicly as a result, which is an issue that prevents so many people from getting the help they so desperately need to begin with. While I personally never watched True Blood, or admittedly even knew how talented a man I’d come to discover he was, his death hit me in a rather direct way, in that I had been in nearly the same predicament time and again until I finally managed to get “it” right. The shame I felt surrounding my own drinking, compounded by the worry that maybe this time wouldn’t be any different from the countless times prior, kept me from seeking medical help through quite a few home-detoxes. Of course I’ve lived to tell the tale, but now that I’m not looking at life through blurry eyes and a clouded mind, I can see how foolish, and dangerous that was. That I’m lucky to be alive.
But of course, they came out of the woodwork; all those who would say it’s “none of our business” what was in her system when she passed away, what he died from, please let the dead rest, and how dare you?
Still, Carrie Fischer made it known, loud and often, that she had struggled with addiction and mental illness all her life. She brought this up not for more attention, or validation, but to help others in similar situations find solace in their own struggles, and to get the help that they need to better their lives. Her own daughter even confirmed that through her death, and the details that would come out, that she would have wanted people to know that this is a lifelong struggle. Chris Cornell had actually talked about his battles with depression and addiction through the years, not to mention penning song after mournful song eluding to such moments of desperation throughout his career. And while Nelsan Ellis himself may have felt ashamed of his own struggle with addiction in life, his family’s choice to make known the facts surrounding how he ultimately passed has likely given pause to many out there suffering in silence, shedding more light on how dangerous even getting sober alone can be for an addict, never mind what it’s like to be trapped in that hellish cycle of detoxing and relapse.
These three people, who died in entirely different circumstances, each with a different cause, all have one outstandingly important thing in common – someone out there needed to hear about it in order to get help.
When people say that “it’s none of our business”, they say it with a very narrow view as to what is and isn’t appropriate to talk about. The stigma surrounding both addiction and mental illness, the same issues people are reluctant discuss when it comes to their idols or loved ones, is precisely what’s keeping more idols, more loved ones, more friends, enemies, co-workers, and total strangers alike struggling, suffering and yes, dying alone, shrouded in shame. To treat these human flaws, these fairly common issues as taboo is only propagating the already rampant ignorance surrounding them.
What we should be doing is talking more about these deaths, these causes, and the issues that ultimately lead to them. There needs to be more discussion and more dialogue, so that people out there will feel empowered enough to speak up when they feel they can’t do it alone. Admitting defeat is not ultimate failure – it’s a means to come back swinging, possibly stronger and harder than before, with an even greater story to tell in the end. I am in no way saying I’m glad that any of these brave, dynamic, and thoughtful people are gone. I’m not saying that if only they’d done something differently, they’d still be here. What I am saying, is now that their curtains have fallen, we can look to them not with pity, but with thanks, for showing their audience that no one, not one of us alive, is infallible. No one among us becomes immune to the effects of any of these ailments over time, no matter how many times we say to ourselves we’ve “got this”. Staying diligent, staying aware, informed, open minded, and even humble are the only defenses we have today to guard ourselves and the people we care about from succumbing to similar fates. There is no room for ignorance or pride.
I’ll end with this: when I was in my darkest place, when I not only felt that I could never beat my own addiction, but that I didn’t deserve to, the only thing that kept me going some days was being able to read about celebrities who battled their own illness, and either lived to tell about it, or ultimately succumbed to it. I needed to read about how Robert Downy Jr. made license plates in jail and came out with nothing to his name, and then of course went on to become one of the most successful people in Hollywood. Or how Craig Ferguson pissed himself alone in a hotel room and decided that that was the day he was going to kill himself, only to get sidetracked, get sober not long after, and carved out for himself a rather successful career. Or about Lisa Robin Kelly, who struggled publicly and privately for years with alcoholism, and died in a treatment center, of all places, from complications related to alcohol withdrawal. Or Amy Winehouse, whom after a period of sobriety, seemingly on the up and up, was found alone in a room surrounded by empty vodka bottles, dead from alcohol poisoning. Or Whitney Houston, or her daughter Bobbi Christina not too long after; a heartbreaking domino effect of familial struggle, ending in tragedy. These stories, the success stories and the heartbreaking losses, need to be told – completely and honestly – because there will always be someone out there who needs to hear how someone who reached rock bottom and managed to climb out from it. How someone faltered after years of shooting straight, and got back up, better and stronger than ever. They need to hear about the longtime advocates for the sick and suffering, who found themselves caught in the same cycle they had fought for so long to combat, because these battles don’t ever truly let up for anyone. If no one talked publicly about how they’ve overcome an addiction and thrived, or how someone else died from one after a years-long fight, I sincerely don’t know that I’d be here today to write these words. Staying silent about what happened, for good or ill, doesn’t change the ultimate outcome – it only perpetuates the stigma of addiction and mental illness by keeping it in the shadows. If we can’t talk about it, we can’t do anything to beat it, and I’m making it my business to change that.