He died from chronic pain. I read this article a few days ago and I’m still reeling. It’s hard to express how important and heartbreaking and overwhelming it is to finally see someone else articulate feelings I’ve had for so long. (TW for death, suicide).
There’s a narrative around this sort of death – from overdose – that utterly fails to take into account the factors that lead to it.
I remember reading a similar headline when Robin Williams died – “Robin Williams didn’t kill himself – depression did.” The same with Heath Ledger, whose death was reportedly caused by a mixture of benzodiazepines, pain medication, and sleeping pills. Corey Monteith. Amy Winehouse. Michael Jackson. And people whose names you will not know, who I have loved and lost. The list goes on.
Death is, bizarrely, the symptom, not the problem.
It’s impossible to read all this without my own lens of pain. I’m currently propped awkwardly on the couch so I can rest a hot water bottle on the base of my spine. My neck, shoulders and the tops of my arms are quietly and constantly screaming. My wrists and knuckles ache. I do everything I can not to take pain medication during the day, because the side effects of somnolence only compound the fatigue and brain fog I already have to fight to get anything done. The mixture of medication I take at night in order to get any respite and rest is the same mixture Heath Ledger took.
Mental health and physical health are inextricably linked. I have yet to talk to anyone who suffers from chronic pain, who does not also suffer from mental illness. It shouldn’t be surprising. Being in constant pain makes you fucking depressed.
And beyond the pain itself, is the experience of trying to get help.
Pain is still the condition that we treat by telling its sufferers to just “suck it up,” or “maintain a stiff upper lip,” or to stop acting like a “wuss.” And yet, when someone dies from complications of the disease — for that is what chronic pain is — we react with shock and pity and anger that the person died from a drug overdose.
This makes me so hopelessly furious. It’s so easy to blame people for the ways they deal with pain, to portray them as weak and self-serving – and selfish, if they do lose the battle in the end. These people aren’t weak. They’re fucking strong to make it as far as they did. And yet we vilify for them for every decision they make in order to cope.
Chronic pain management requires, in most cases, the taking of strong, often-opiate based medications. ANY patient who takes these drugs on a daily basis will become “physically dependent” in a short time. Physical dependence is not addiction. Diabetics are physically dependent on insulin, and yet we do not call insulin an addictive drug.
The writer goes on to talk about their own experience with chronic pain, how it took months to get any help, how opiates are the option supported by their insurance company because they’re cheaper than other medication.
How medical support for chronic pain conditions is deeply affected by sexism, ableism and racism which is something that is a MASSIVE PROBLEM in New Zealand and we never fucking talk about it. I, and so many people I know, have been denied treatment or treated like addicts or idiots because of our gender, mental health, or race, or a combination of all three.
It is disgusting. It is wrong. It is causing people to die.
Before the media narrative of the tortured genius who abused drugs takes over the story, there needs to be a pushback. Chronic pain patients should step forward and speak of their own experiences of living with the condition, and the constant barriers that are being thrown up to treatment. The latest obsession with white kids using heroin is stigmatizing those with chronic pain.
Chronic pain kills. It killed Prince. It’s time to talk about it.
Whenever I can, I talk about my experience. Whenever I am able, I share and educate and just try to get people to understand what it’s actually like, living like this. How hard it has been to make progress. The barriers I’ve dealt with because of disbelief, ableism, gender, and even just plain old bureaucracy.
I will do everything I can to be part of this conversation. I’ll be damned if lose any more friends to this.
Stand up. Talk. Make demands. Throw it all into relief. This is the reality.
We need to be heard.