The death of yet another celebrity from a drug overdose illuminates the mixed messages that our culture sends about alcohol and illegal drugs.
I’ve been sad ever since I heard about the death of Glee star Cory Monteith. It isn’t that I knew him, nor will his passing affect my life in any significant way. But I have not been able to shake the cloud of this tragedy because of what the world has lost and because, yet again, our failure to deal appropriately with drugs has taken away someone talented who never should have died so young. Cory was only 31 when he overdosed on a toxic mix of alcohol and heroin.
As heartbreaking as any unnecessary death is, this one feels even more so because of his youth and the bright future he had in front of him, and because his loss was preventable. After his stated struggle to find himself and fit in, Cory seemed to have figured it out, with his role on Glee, two upcoming movies, and being happily in love with costar Lea Michele. But his loss cuts even deeper because of who he was and where he came from.
Cory had a troubled childhood. He attended over 16 different schools and eventually dropped out of high school. He got into drugs early (as young as 12!) and didn’t seek help for his addictions until his family and friends staged an intervention when he was 19. He finally got clean, changed his focus to acting, and eventually turned his life around so that he was able to land a starring role on Glee. But, unlike many other successful people, Cory appeared to never forget where he came from and what he owed. From all reports, he was sober whenever he was at work and was consistently upbeat and generous with fans and friends alike. Costar Jane Lynch mentioned how he once flew across the country at his own expense to talk to a critically ill child who wanted to meet him. Cory also did a lot of charity work, paying special attention to youth homelessness, and helping start Project Limelight, a nonprofit organization that offers free performing arts programs for children from Vancouver’s Eastside, where he grew up.
Cory’s public persona was one of a cheerful and loving person. He came across as down-to-earth, a bit shy, fun and romantic. Watching him interact with Lea Michele made me feel warm about young love (and I tend to be cynical). He was the guy who had it all — good looks, money, fame, love, success, talent — yet none of it was enough to prevent him from using; from not being able to escape the clutch of his demons. Here was a guy who was lovingly sent by his boss (Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee) and girlfriend to rehab several months before his death. He completed a month there and claimed he was clean. Obviously, tragically, he wasn’t. How could drugs still have such a hold on someone who had so many resources, who was so successful and beloved, and someone who knew the downside to addiction and wanted badly to end the cycle?
The terrible answer is that we do not deal well with drugs in our culture. After Whitney Houston died an also preventable death, I talked about the need to develop more affordable and effective models of treatment, and about how we must focus on prevention (see “Same Script, Different Cast: Whitney’s Death is a Wake-Up Call”). Both issues are relevant to Cory’s situation, but there is another factor at work here. Our tendency as a society is to send mixed messages about drug use. The night Cory died, he had been drinking and then, at some point, used heroin. Most likely, it was the combination — not one or the other — that killed him. And therein lies the problem. Alcohol is fine but illegal drugs are not. We treat the two substances very differently and this disparity often puts people at risk.
The United States practically has a love affair with alcohol. We encourage alcohol consumption in a major way. Just look at all the advertisements for hard alcohol in magazines, and don’t even get me started on beer commercials. Super Bowl Sunday — one of the most watched television programs — is practically a paean to beer! Alcohol is sold in so many different venues, from concerts and sporting events to restaurants, museums, and even movie theatres. There are whole stores dedicated to alcohol; even run-of-the-mill grocery stores have several aisles of liquor. Everyone seems to have a story about the time when they drank too much, and intoxication is not only encouraged but admired. In many parts of the country, people who don’t drink are the weird ones. Yet the same cannot be said for illegal drug use, even though alcohol is the substance that kills more people.
Prescription drugs are also okay. No one thinks twice about watching someone down a handful of pills, as long as they’re explained away as aids for conditions like high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, Attention Deficit Disorder, insomnia or even pain. Of course we should prescribe pills that help people live healthier and happier lives, but there is a major incongruence in our attitude between legal and illegal drugs. Even though prescription drugs are much more likely to be abused, and the combination of some of them with alcohol is quite dangerous, people don’t view them as bad or shameful. As a result, prescription drugs go through rigorous testing, quality control, regulations and rules for dispensing, because we want them to be as safe they possibly can be. The same is not true for illegal drugs.
People tend to be understanding about alcohol and prescription drugs but when it comes to illegal drugs like heroin, crack and cocaine, acceptance goes way down. People who use illegal drugs are often thought to be stupid and selfish criminals who deserve the bad things that happen to them; compassion for them is frequently in short supply. So, instead of understanding why and how people use illegal drugs, we declare war and jail those who distribute and use them. Because of this harsh stance, the trade in illegal drugs goes underground. It becomes cheaper, widely available, and quality suffers, as there are no regulations or rules for it. Thus, when you buy illegal drugs, you often don’t know the strength or the purity of what you’re getting, and this puts users at risk.
Although we’ll never know for sure what transpired, this could have been what happened to Cory. He could have had a bad batch. Or he could have gone out drinking with friends but, because of its illicit nature, used the heroin alone and there was no one to help him when he took too much. Or, the more likely scenario (because 80% of heroin overdoses are witnessed) is that his friends stayed, but once something went wrong they didn’t know what to do, and were too scared of the legal repercussions to call for help. Because we don’t talk much about illegal drug use, it is likely that none of them knew of or were equipped with Naloxone (aka Narcan), a drug that essentially reverses the effects of a heroin overdose. If his friends were there and had that information, Cory might still be alive.
It’s quite possible that Cory didn’t realize the danger of mixing alcohol with heroin because rehab is often about abstinence and not harm reduction. Perhaps he didn’t know that he was at a dangerous stage because his tolerance was way below what it used to be before he entered rehab. Possibly he wasn’t informed about the medications, legal ones, that he could take to help him get through his cravings. In short, Cory probably didn’t have the information he needed to keep himself safe, because we don’t provide pamphlets about the testing, side effects and interactions with illegal drugs the way we do with prescription drugs. And we don’t have the same rules in place — both legal and moral — like we do with alcohol. So he died a preventable death.
Whatever happened to Cory Monteith that night, he is gone and the world has, once again, allowed drugs to snuff out a bright light and loving soul. Just like Whitney Houston. And River Phoenix. And Janis Joplin. And John Belushi, and the millions of others who have died from illegal drugs. In fact, the CDC reports that deaths from drug overdose have been rising steadily over the past two decades and have become the leading cause of injury death in the United States. As such, it’s way past time that we reviewed our drug policy, our treatment protocols, and the way in which we treat drug users. It’s time for a change, so that no one else has to die.
I will miss seeing Cory on my television screen; Glee will not be the same without him. But I sincerely hope he has found the peace that eluded him in life. Now it’s up to the rest of us to ensure that no one else has to find it in the same way that he did.
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