More Than Our Vices: About Prince's Overdose (2016)

So let's talk. 

Even before the official cause of death was revealed, the media had been swirling with allegations of Prince's alleged addiction and all the related drama. 

Y'all know how opinionated I am. So here's my two cents on the topic. And for the sake of clarity, as a lifelong Prince fan and a Minneapolis-born (though Texas raised) Black woman, before anyone feels the need to point it out to me, I am aware that I am biased. However...

I need to say that it bothers me just as much that people are saying some of the cruel things they are saying about Prince's alleged addiction as it did when people were making snide comments about Prince's suspected HIV status. Okay. I get it. It has been confirmed that the cause of death was an overdose. Point noted. That, however, is not enough to shut me up. 

First of all, addiction is a disease. It is not a character flaw. It is not a personal failure. It is an illness - one that is not well understood and often inadequately treated. Slandering individuals who are in active substance use helps no one, and certainly doesn't lead to higher rates of sobriety. Slandering those who are no longer living who struggled with substance use is equally disconcerting. I'm not saying don't discuss it at all. It shouldn't be a forbidden, untouchable topic (such mentalities only fuel addiction). I'm saying there is a way to discuss the issue and the people affected by it without being dehumanizing, holier-than-thou, and disrespectful.

Aside from that, though, I am bothered that there is a lot of generalization going on too. I don't know the intricate details of Prince's opioid use. But I do know that some of the greatest casualties of America's "war on drugs" have been people of color, people with unaddressed mental health issues, and people with chronic pain. 

I want to be clear that I don't believe in "ranking" substance use. I don't think the person who snorts cocaine is "better" than the person who smokes meth, smokes crack, or shoots heroin. Or better than the person with an alcohol problem. Addiction is addiction is addiction; there shouldn't be some type of hierarchy. One only need look at the differences in sentencing penalties for different drugs frequently used by certain ethnic groups to have an understanding of the underlying racial and other issues that are intertwined with having unfair levels associated with different drug offenses.

But despite that, I feel that I need to speak up. And huge disclaimer: I am no LCDC nor do I have professional nor personal expertise with regard to substance use. I can only share my opinion - and I welcome feedback from those who know more than I. But in the interim, here's my opinion:

It is irresponsible and misguided to merely "write" Prince off as just another celebrity "addict" without exploring the issues that exist in this country with regard to chronic illness and pain management.

My daughter lives with chronic pain and fatigue. She can predict if it's a cold or a rainy day by the swelling of her joints, much like many senior citizens. She falls asleep in the middle of the day. She has had to drop out of nearly every physical activity she once enjoyed: dance, creative movement, karate, as she could no longer keep us with the physical demands. She was almost retained by her school a few years ago because of excessive absences. I sometimes hear her trying to mask her crying at night as she tries to endure the pain she faces daily. She puts on a brave front around most people the majority of the day because no one wants to hear anyone mentioning day after day how much pain they are in, even if it is true. But it's hard to wear that mask 24/7. It takes a toll. When all you want to do is just. Stop. Hurting.

For the person with chronic pain, many of the typical pain remedies that work for the rest of us are utterly useless. Sadly, some, perhaps many, people, including providers, find this hard to believe.  People with chronic pain find themselves being suspected of "drug seeking behavior" when they report that a certain medication isn't effective for them, or that they need higher and/or more frequent doses of certain medication in order to obtain just a little relief. I'm not belittling the fact that prescription abuse is a very real phenomenon and that there are people out there who exaggerate or even completely falsify symptoms in an attempt to obtain medication they might not actually need. Yes, this happens. But there are also people who are in actual pain whose needs aren't met because the worst is so often assumed of everyone.

And there can sometimes be a fine line between wanting relief and finding oneself growing increasingly dependent. No one strives to become addicted. It can often happen very subtly and gradually, and a person may already be deeply in the throes of addiction before they are truly cognizant that there is a problem. 

I have a naturally compulsive personality. When I'm into something, I'm all in. I believe strongly that had circumstances in my life been different, I could have easily developed an addiction as a result of this - the way that I am. I am the last person who should ever pass judgment on someone for their addiction. However, there is no one picture of addiction. People use for different reasons and everyone has a different story. It isn't respectful to make assumptions about "those people." Whether "those people" are celebrities or every day people, they are still people. You don't know what truly motivated them to do whatever it is that they do. To assume that they are "just like all the rest" is unfair. Who are "the rest" anyway, and who are any of us to categorize whole groups rather than seeing them as individuals?

What we should be doing is having frank, open conversations about all of these things. About substance use. About addiction. About pain. About a system that punishes instead of rehabilitates. About many things. And we should be listening to people who know something about this topic and can share much-needed wisdom with the rest of us. People in recovery. People who live with chronic pain. People who have a broad view of this topic and can contribute more to this topic than gossip. That's what I would like to see happen. I don't know if it's what I will see, but I hope it comes. 

Addicts are people. They are someone's child; someone's sibling; someone's friend; someone's significant other; someone's parent; someone's boss; someone's neighbor. They are more than just a list of shortcomings; more than the mistakes they've made; more than the substances they ingest. In people's rush to condemn Prince for his actions, I hope that they remember he was human. Human - and therefore imperfect, like all the rest of us. And one of this country's most talented musicians with a career that spanned decades. I hope he will be afforded the same courtesy afforded to many deceased artists and will not be solely remembered for how he died, but will instead be celebrated for how he lived.

Image result for prince
Image is a photo of the late Prince Rogers Nelson, 1958-2106.