People forget that even though Michael Jackson died abusing hospital grade sedatives, his abuse of pain killers started after he was injured in the 1980s on the set of a Pepsi commercial and suffered severe burns to his scalp. Many people get addicted to pain killers this way — simply taking the drugs they were prescribed to deal with severe pain. That’s not necessarily about sadness or weakness or coping — that’s about “they gave me this to make me feel better and now I’m addicted to it. Now I can’t sleep without it and if I can’t get sleep, I can’t perform. If I can’t perform, I can’t make music. If I can’t make music, who am I? I’m not Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson makes music.”
The problem isn’t there are too many drugs, or that people are “weak,” or that we’re all delicate creatures who take one whiff of “reefer madness” and turn into drug zombies. (Because, dirty secret, many, many people do take drugs — both pharmaceutical and street — and don’t become addicts.) The problem is America is a competitive place. People who admit to being tired or needing to spend time with their family or have “stress” are ridiculed as “weak” and not ready. We’re a whole culture of people who are encouraged to “play through the pain” and you will be handsomely rewarded. This is true if you’re a professional athlete or a singer or on the floor of the U.S. stock exchange. The first one to arrive at the office and the last one who leaves at the end of the day are celebrated. But it’s a myth that everyone who is able to make it work in a 24 hour society is doing it naturally. Some can. Many others can’t. Those who can’t, but still have the drive, use some kind of substance to help. Sometimes those substances get over-used in the pursuit of perfection, and sometimes those people become addicts.
I don’t know Whitney Houston and I don’t know what killed her. But I do know she had a high pressure job where many, many people were relying on her. If she missed a show, it wasn’t just her reputation that took a hit — the people who worked for her didn’t get paid. People didn’t eat unless Whitney Houston got up and sang. And she couldn’t just half-ass it. She had to make the magic happen every time otherwise folks would want their money back. And she never asked for anyone’s pity because this was the life she chose. She wanted to be on stage. She probably hoped she could keep that balance — of doing what you had to do to get up and perform, get to work, make the records and the money, and the world would never know she couldn’t work, relax or have a good time without a little help from her friends. After all, she’d probably seen other people do it and figured she could do it to.
Because not everyone who does it becomes an addict. Others just get to be stars. But it’s not like those people are going to come out and admit … maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Adderall.