Whitney and Xanax? Let's Make the Conversation Bigger

Over the next few weeks, while we watch everyone ask questions like 'What will Hollywood do about the pill epidemic?,' I hope the conversation spurs some action.

When I was a teenager my mother was a mess.  She was mixing prescription pills and alcohol before it was the hip Hollywood thing to do.  I like to say she is a trendsetter--I think my mother signed up for a Xanax drug trial before it was FDA approved and never stopped.  My mother has 19 lives and is a professional addict.  So, maybe that’s why all this Whitney Houston business is weighing heavy on my heart.

People like Bill O’Reilly on Fox News will say things like “she was self destructive” and basically she chose to die.  People on shows like Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight will analyze how it all went down and how prescription drugs are an epidemic in Hollywood.

But here’s the thing...Hollywood is late to the game on this one.  This whole prescription drug problem is so much more than celebrities.  One in 20 people will misuse or become addicted to medicine prescribed by a doctor.

I get all kinds of fired up when a celebrity dies from an overdose of prescription pills.  The media coverage is nuts for a couple weeks.  Then it goes dark.  Until the next celebrity dies.  

But here’s the thing, addiction is the great equalizer.  Rich, poor.  Fat, thin.  Good looking, not so good looking.  A celebrity, a nobody.  Everyone can be an addict.

We throw it around pretty loosely in our society.  “I’m addicted to shopping.”  “I’m so addicted to chocolate.”  “Crackberry, I mean Blackberry.”  

Addiction is funny, until it’s not.

Here's how it gets personal

My mother kicked her addiction to alcohol 20 years ago.  Yay, right?  Well she still refuses to acknowledge her addiction to prescribed opiates, the Home Shopping Network and nicotine.    

Last year, as I was trying to get my own mother to go to rehab for her 25+ year addiction to prescription drugs, the whole Charlie Sheen fiasco was playing out.  Everyone was looking to Martin Sheen for an interview to explain it all and tell the world he was going to go get his son and take care of it.  But he didn’t.  He said “I’m praying for him.”  

Sitting in my hotel room after a very long day helping my defiant and angry mother go through a forced hospital withdrawal from some of her pills, I watched Martin Sheen say those words and I cried. I cried because I finally got it.  As much as you want to explain it and take care of it, you can’t.

Many of these addicts also suffer from mental issues such as anxiety and depression. Others like my mother also suffer from more extreme mood and personality disorders which complicate things. A lot.

Over the next few weeks, while we watch everyone ask questions like “who were Whitney’s enablers?” and “What will Hollywood do about the pill epidemic?, “ I hope the conversation gets bigger.

Take the blame off the “enabling family” and the addict themselves.  After so many years of watching my mother doctor shop and letting her addiction win, I hope the conversation changes.  I hope for compassion for the addict themselves--sorrow and empathy for the lives they give up to the disease that is addiction---and the family and friends who feel so powerless.  I hope for anger directed at doctors who overprescribe and prescribe without a full medical history (and you better believe there are so very many out there).  

I also hope for activism--do something--you see a friend taking too many Ambien or Xanax and then god forbid drinking, tell them to stop.  Or stop yourself.  Read labels.  Don’t mix drugs. And don’t be in denial. 

Whitney may or may not have died from a prescription drug overdose.  But let’s make the conversation bigger.

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Richard Strain February 18, 2012 at 04:13 AM
good article...just not sure why several comments are blaming the "physicians"....and why not blame the "addict" or the "enablers"....this is much deeper than blaming the source of the pill... do you think a patient would go to a doctor if doctor told them they could only have half as many pills? are we blaming the gun store for death? are we blaming budweiser for the fatal car crash...everybody is sympethetic for the poor addicted person...fact is they are the cause of the addiction...some outside factors contribute to their addiction, but they ultimately are at fault.....and enablers could go back to their childhood...parents? tramatic events? also the part in the article about telling them to stop?? that obviously does not work....the person themselves has to hit rock bottom to make a decision..life or death...
Stacia Ford February 18, 2012 at 08:25 PM
Part of the definition of addiction is acting contrary to one's own moral code. If it were just about WILLPOWER to stop using substances to change one's mood, all of us would stop overeating and abusing any substance! Ultimately, the addict betrays his own moral code to his own confusion and dismay. Why some addicts can stop using is a mystery, even to themselves at times. It takes what it takes, but judging addicts as weak compounds the problem and their shame, which in turn creates more reason to use to change the feelings of shame, worthlessness and failure. There is a physiological component to addiction that must always be factored in, not to give an excuse for an addict to continue using, but to provide compassion to the addict who is ready to seek help and create new neural pathways. Change can be hard no matter what, but it makes it a bit more understandable to non-addicts when they learn more about the neurological science of addiction. I do not envy the position that doctors are in as they get caught up in the addicts' web of self-deceit. The inner war waged within an addict propels them to seek the complicity of others to fulfill their misguided missions of securing substances. Doctors are constantly pulled from every direction: patient, patient's family members, and pharmaceutical companies among others. Addicts must ultimately help themselves when they are ready but need compassion and love (sometimes from a distance!) until they do help themselves!
Amanda Crowell Itliong February 19, 2012 at 03:27 AM
Forget Hollywood. What is Rochester going to do about prescription drug abuse? We really need to bring these issues into the light so I appreciate everyone's comments! Parents here still don't get it. Young people in our community are getting pills from your unlocked medicine cabinets and from other people's houses too. Often here in our own community opiate pills like Oxy lead directly to heroin addition because it is cheaper and still easy to get. We've have way too many young people and families suffering in silence because of addiction and deaths from overdose. It should matter to all of us and we need to keep the conversation going. Sending love and encouragement to all the families in crisis! Some related links for families... http://rahcc.org/Links.html
Ron Harman March 09, 2012 at 06:26 AM
Good info and advice Pat. THANKS.
Ivor Goodbody March 23, 2012 at 12:00 PM
I owe Tony Bennett an apology. Back on Feb 15, three days after the sad news of Whitney Houston’s death, I blogged that the veteran jazz performer and painter “seemed to have mounted entirely the wrong hobby horse” by calling for drugs to be legalized, since the evidence at the time suggested legal prescription drugs may have been the cause or causes. One specific culprit appeared to be Xanax. In my defence, I did stress the toxicology report might not bear out that conclusion. Now we know it won’t. Last night we had the coroner’s initial news release, and it turns out cocaine was the only drug directly implicated. Here’s what it said: "The final cause of death has been determined to be: DROWNING EFFECTS OF ATHEROSCLEROTIC HEART DISEASE AND COCAINE USE HOW INJURY OCCURRED: FOUND SUBMERGED IN BATHTUB FILLED WITH WATER; COCAINE INTAKE OTHER SIGNIFICANT CONDITIONS: NONE MANNER OF DEATH: ACCIDENT TOXICOLOGY: COCAINE AND METABOLITES WERE IDENTIFIED AND WERE CONTRIBUTORY TO THE DEATH. MARIJUANA, ALPRAZOLAM (XANAX), CYCLOBENZAPRINE (FLEXERIL) AND DIPHENHYDRAMINE (BENADRYL) WERE IDENTIFIED BUT DID NOT CONTRIBUTE TO THE DEATH." My words of warning on the dangers of legal prescription drugs in general, and especially when taken in combination with alcohol, still stand. But they have no bearing on Whitney’s own case. Sorry Tony. You were wiser than I understood. Wishing you lifelong health Ivor


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