Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop“, made an untimely exit from the stage of life after suffering a cardiac arrest Thursday, June 25, Brian Oxman, a Jackson family attorney, reports. More shockingly, Oxman told a CNN reporter that he warned the Jackson family that the star may be headed for a fate not unlike Anna Nicole Smith, who died little over two years ago following prolonged prescription painkiller dependence. Smith also lost her teenage son to a fatal drug interaction in 2006. In Jackson’s case, Oxman says the entertainer suffered chronic pain from a multitude of former stage injuries, among them a fractured vertebra and a broken leg.
Prescription drug abuse often starts legitimately enough. Life happens. We suffer injuries and accidents. And we don’t want to live like cripples before our time. But oftentimes the so-called cure comes with its own consequences.
The similarity between the average Jane or Joe and the Jacksons of the world seemingly ends in the doctor’s office. The average American who suffers a chronic pain condition, whether it is arthritis or severe back pain, is more likely to end up disabled as opposed to receiving pain management that succeeds in restoring one’s lifestyle. Celebrities, on the other hand, encounter the opposite: Eager to satisfy the demands of their high-power clients whose careers and lives must go on in a very public fashion, doctors are less likely to deny their well-known patients powerful forms of pain relief whether such medications are needed or not. The assumption on the part of the medical establishment, ostensibly, is that successful people who “have it together” are not going to throw it all away in pursuit of an addiction. Far be it from the public, all the while, to view a figure who is vibrant, charismatic and larger than life as weak, sickly or disabled. With enough drugs to combat the pain, life goes on as normal — until the consequences catch up.
The exact cause of Jackson’s fatal cardiac arrest, to be clear, is not yet known. Some suspect the superstar’s undernourished appearance, implying that the rigors of Jackson’s physical training program in preparation for a comeback tour are to blame. To that we now add the all-too-familiar specter of drug dependence. Let us not forget that Los Vegas headliner Danny Gans also died this month as a result of cardiac toxicity brought on by a legitimately prescribed painkiller. This is a story, sadly, that never ends. And that is the point. It should end, but it doesn’t.
Aside from the obvious — that drugs, even legitimately prescribed drugs — may lead to an untimely end, what does this tragedy have to teach us?
When singing sensation Susan Boyle, a contestant in the Brittish equivalent of “American Idol”, showed signs of stress and later admitted herself to a treatment facility, Simon Cowell, among others, cited her fragile mental state as the cause of her concert cancellations and erratic moods. In truth, however, the spotlight drives a lot of performers and public figures nutty. Eccentric behavior is much easier to brush off, however, when blamed on prescription tranquilizers, alcohol or illicit drugs. From Elvis Presley to Marilyn Monroe, celebrities of all generations, it seems, are pressured — if not explicitly than implicitly — to turn to drugs for answers rather than to allow anyone to see that their bodies, if not minds, cannot keep up with the frenetic pace of their lives. Were each of them, like Boyle, “unfit” and “ill prepared” for their success? Or would it be more accurate to say that this is the dark underbelly of celebrity — the reality check our celebrity-obsessed culture never confronts no matter how many famous people succumb to the inability to live up to their own or others’ expectations?
Let’s face it: We never want to accept deblitation. We never want anyone to grow old. But for a few fashionably naughty exceptions for sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, we never want anyone to seem all that human, either. As the Susan Boyle “case study” shows, cruelty is aimed at those who are too old, too overweight, too fragile, too offbeat, too ordinary. We like our stars airbrush perfect, immune from the unglamorous slowdowns associated with age and chronic medical conditions. From concert promoters to ordinary fans, we the people seem more inclined to tolerate rumors of substance abuse than to accept the news that a superstar has reached the limits of their physical and mental stamina. Drug abuse and stardom may go hand-in-hand, whereas honesty doesn’t get you very far in a world where image is the only reality that counts.
To live in the fishbowl that is celebrity you have to be a little bit crazy. And if you aren’t off kilter to begin with, living in the glare of paparazi camera flash will surely induce as much. But the blame belongs to society too. We are the ones who idolize celebrities’ lives, never willing to hear the admission that the pressures are too much and they can no longer live up to fans’ expectations. Doctors, too, are not immune. There’s a pill for that. A surgery that will fix it. And an expectation that enough is never enough.
We are the world — and the world killed Michael Jackson.
May he rest in peace.