Prince and the (Addiction) Revolution


The night Whitney Houston died, I received a frantic call from a FoX News producer to come on and comment. I was pulled from my usual glamorous Saturday of Yankee games and pizza but was happy to oblige. When I arrived the producer said “just don’t say it was drugs”. “Well, what else could it have been?” I said. “Well, they don’t know but people are getting upset when it’s mentioned the cause of death was drugs, so we want to wait for an official statement” she said. This is the cultural denial of America. For years we watched Whitney Houston unravel before our eyes and yet being honest about what happened to her was off limits, offensive, and taboo. I was prepared to comment as if I were an oncologist and Houston had passed away after a drawn out battle with a horrible cancer that we don’t fully understand.  “Treatment for addiction isn’t always effective and I have much sympathy for Whitney Houston and her family after her long fight had this tragic outcome” was what I had scripted in my head. Sadly, the comments didn’t include anyone who had any extensive knowledge about addiction. It was like a verbal “in touch” magazine article rife with gossip and dancing around the word “addiction” as some kind of reverence for the dead. I was clear with the producer “I wouldn’t have anything else to say, having an addictive illness isn’t a crime nor is it different than any other chronic illness in my world, so I’ll have to say that’s what killed her, at least that’s my take”. I’m guessing that scared the young producer because they never put me on, a metaphorical sweeping under the rug, like one giant dysfunctional family.

I happened to be in London when legendary UK party girl Peaches Geldof died and it was the same story. “We would love to have you comment but don’t say it was drugs, we don’t know that”. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died, they wanted me to comment on reports of “bad heroin”. “Well, I can do that but it needs to be said that there isn’t good heroin”‘was my reply. And so it continues, the hole of denial rivaled only by the hole of shame that keeps America in the mire of illness with addiction. Of course there is always the “wake up call” and “cautionary tale” for Hollywood rhetoric when a celebrity dies. There is the obligatory “why do actors have this problem?” question. Why do accountants and sanitation workers? On the day Philip Seymour Hoffman died, 115 other people died who weren’t famous.  That was the same on the day Whitney Houston, Heath Ledger, Peaches Geldof, and many, many others. The day Prince died, there were also 115 other overdose deaths. Again, only one celebrity among the body count, the rest were mothers and fathers, lawyers, law enforcement officials, college kids, and whoever else from the the bouquet of humanity that died that day.

Initial reports on Prince are murky. At the moment, TMZ is reporting a few things that would add up to “accidental overdose”. Seems as if Prince had an issue with chronic pain and that would make perfect sense. His stage performances were very athletic and at 57 who knows was ailment facilitated the misery of endless pain. Price was a brilliant iconoclast, oddly craving and shunning attention. He lived not in Los Angeles or New York but in Minneapolis a city that quietly goes about its progressive politics business without much need to draw attention to itself.  It’s the kind of place where you can pull over and help someone get their car out of the snow and be sure that someone else is doing the same for your mother or sister. Minneapolis also has a legendary music scene more toward indie bands like the Replacements and Husker DU but Prince was by far the most prolific, talented, and famous of the lot. His worked is scratched into the soul of the city as well as American popular culture. This much is certain, Prince is beloved and for good reason and yet, he remained quiet about much of his life. Is it possible that Prince was severely addicted to opiate medication? Absolutely. Part of the chess match with keeping an addiction going is secrecy. It is inconsistent that we didn’t watch Prince descend they way we have seen so many others. Prince never was tabloid fodder, he went about his life putting his brilliant ball into play. Perhaps this was the result of chronic pain management gone awry with a million handlers not wanting to give up their paychecks and deferring to someone else to do something.

Initial comments from the media are typical and without evolution. Addiction is still trapped where HIV was in the 80s, cloaked in mystery, fear, shame and worst of all, silence. “Prince had it all, how could he?” Is the general theme of media comments. Did he have it all? He certainly had the American ideal of being able to be a massive consumer. The commentary is the same rote refrain that the individual who died did it to themselves, letting us all down. It is true, addiction has a giant swath of behavior, as does diabetes, hypertension, and obesity but that’s not the whole picture. Like any other disease, addiction hits at different points during the life course, it’s paced differently among different people. Not unlike a slower cancer or a very aggressive cancer.

America is on the cusp of change with addiction. The rhetoric is starting to match science and medicine. The actions are lagging, limping along in an old and stale culture and belief that addiction is a character flaw. Maybe TMZ is way off and Prince didn’t die of an overdose but what if he did? Does that diminish his talent and contribution? Are we to apply logic and try to make sense of losing an American icon? There are very few absolutes when dealing with addiction but one of them is certainly, logic doesn’t apply, not ever.That’s a setup of for anger and resentment. America a 300 million person dysfunctional family looking for answers where there aren’t any. In the words of Prince, “let’s go crazy” and learn that unless we as a culture have a massive overhaul of attitude and behavior, the addiction problem won’t improve. 

Written a year ago, we know more now. We know Prince died of an overdose.  Would harm reduction have saved him? Could Prince have been one of the many who can eliminate opiate medications with cannabis as one of the tools? We will never know but it’s entirely possible. Harm reduction saves lives, it’s that simple. Safety first!

Author: Joe Schrank