The death of a Prince

“It doesn’t matter what the medicine is – whether it is codeine, morphine, or fentanyl – it is all the same problem: Excessive prescribing of opioid pain medication that is killing people.

“Thing is, Prince was just a couple miles away from a top addiction and treatment center – Hazelden, he added.

“Someone should have thrown him in the car and gotten treatment, that is it,” Pinsky said of Prince. “He would have been detoxed over a week. It would have been uncomfortable, but tolerable. And then he could have been evaluated to see if he was an addict or just someone with dependency issues.”

I hate that this is talked about predominantly, almost exclusively as a drug overdose. Why is it easier, preferable for the world to tell or accept a narrative of ‘tortured genius dies of drug overdose.’
Is it simply more glamorous, do people think its more romantically tragic. Or is it that it’s just preferable to blame a successful person for their own downfall rather than engage in real compassion and understanding that may have to spill over into our ordinary everyday lives and the ordinary everyday, unglamorous suffering of people around us.

People don’t believe you can die because of chronic pain. If you kill yourself, accidentally or otherwise, in a desperate attempt to find some relief from the torture you live with, it’s because you are weak, self pitying, or if you happen to be an incredibly talented famous musician, tortured or an addict.

The drug that killed Prince ‘is probably 50 times stronger than morphine’ and it wasn’t enough to control his pain. If you want to make this about drug dependence then you haven’t experienced chronic pain – and I’m glad for you – because to be trapped inside a body racked with horrific pain without even the hope of some relief is a nightmare you can’t wake up from. To cast someone as weak … either lacking courage or fortitude, or to reduce them to ‘just’ an addict (and we all know they’re responsible for their own tragedy, right?!) is woefully and willfully short sighted. And to try and make this a discussion about how frequently pain medications are prescribed and how dangerous they are, is missing the point.

Prince may very well have been dependent on painkillers, but we don’t call diabetics insulin addicts. And if you don’t think it’s the same then you don’t know what you’re talking about.

You cannot function in extreme pain – you’re not supposed to be able to. Pain is your body’s way of screaming at you to stop what you’re doing and attend to the cause of your pain. It’s survival. Unfortunately sometimes you can’t, the problem isn’t treatable, but you can’t tell your brain that. It continues to scream at you to stop what you’re doing and to do something, anything, to alleviate the pain, to make it stop. You can’t function like that, nobody can. And there is no easy answer, I know that. Chronic pain is unbearable and in many cases untreatable. Pain medications are dangerous and more often than not don’t work or don’t work enough, or stop working. I don’t have the answer, no one does. But to make the tragedy of Prince’s suffering only about drug addiction and overdose, or prescribing guidelines, does a disservice to the years that he did bear his pain and the courage and strength that it took for him to keep living with it as long as he did. It also shields us from the tragedy of the death of a man who didn’t want to die, but was in so much pain he took a terrible risk that cost him his life.

He was asking for help with his drug addiction and he should have got it. But it wouldn’t have solved his problem. Detox is never the final answer, whatever the reason that led to the addiction. Getting off drugs can clear the way to hopefully deal with what led to addiction. When that is chronic, untreatable pain what do you do? Dealing with his dependence on one drug doesn’t magically produce better, more effective, less addictive pain management. He needed support. He needed love, understanding, compassion. He also needed pharmaceutical pain relief. Probably for the rest of his life. Possibly with the side effect of physical dependence and to deal with that he needed love and compassion and support. He needed people to stand with him, be with him as he faced unimaginable pain and no options. He needed to not be in his home all alone with nothing but his pain for company.

Obviously I don’t know what led to him being so alone in his nightmare, but I do know that it’s not uncommon. Chronic illness, chronic pain, it’s extremely isolating and the longer you are living with it the fewer people there are around. The exact cause and effect will be different for each person, but the trend is strong. That’s why I think it’s important to talk about what really led to Prince’s death, because his experience is not unusual. There are countless people out there living in a nightmare of chronic pain, it’s a nightmare you can’t wake up from and for many will last a lifetime. It’s invisible and devastating, and often belittled.

Pain is not subjective, it is both common to us all and unique to every body. And chronic pain is an entirely different beast. It’s like comparing being out of breath after a run, to being suffocated.  You will have felt pain, you may have experienced pain for a long period of time. But until you have experienced crushing pain that doesn’t respond to drugs and goes on for years, decades, then you are out of breath – and that’s horrible – but you’re not suffocating.

If someone tells you they live with chronic pain, please listen. If they’re telling you, they trust you, and they more than likely need your support and compassion. Please don’t compare it to when you broke your leg, or had a baby. By all means draw on your experience to inform empathy, but try and remember that their pain is unending and without purpose. It doesn’t produce a baby or remind you of an injury so you can rest it and let it heal. And it doesn’t end. Be patient. If they cancel plans or are distracted, don’t make it about you. If they snap at you or are grumpy, by all means expect an apology, but when they do, please try to understand and forgive.

And stick around. As days become weeks,  months, years and decades please just stick around. You may not be their best and closest friend, that’s OK. Whatever you’re friendship is let it be that, let it keep being that. This isn’t about you being their saviour, it’s about you being their friend. Or maybe their colleague, or their spouse, or their sibling, or their acquaintance. Whatever you are, just be that and keep being that so that they don’t find themselves alone in their home with no good options and only their pain for company.


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