Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Just Calling It Like I See It

I have resisted jumping into the fray about Michael Jackson, but I can't help myself. There are things about him that are irrefutable: he was an iconic artist who changed pop culture forever, he was a talented singer and songwriter, and he lived his life in the glare of the public spotlight.

I'm not here to write about the child molestation allegations against him - in my opinion the best case scenario is that his behavior with children was incomprehensibly inappropriate, and the worst case scenario is that he was a pedophile and a criminal. Neither option is okay with me.

What strikes me most about the whole thing is this: Michael Jackson was an addict. He died a junkie. He was taking a lethal cocktail of painkillers and intravenous drugs used by the medical community as anesthesia. He had been doing this for a long time.

I have looked long and hard at the media hype surrounding his death, searching for references to his addictions. What amazes me is how, on a global scale, we see what we want to see. There are countless references to his work as an artist - the party line seems to be: yes, he had personal trials and tribulations and increasingly bizarre behavior over the years, but lets celebrate his life and work for the artist he truly was.

We collectively enabled him - we treated him like the town kook, or the off-beat artist who led a strange life and justified it by saying: who wouldn't under his circumstances? I hear talk about how hard it must be to grow up in the public eye. How he had domineering parents who pressured him to be perfect. How isolating his level of celebrity can be. I even read reports that bordered on sympathetic about how the stresses of the child molestation trials drove him - drove him - to use painkillers to hide from the emotional pain. Excuses - all of them - to avoid the truth: he was an addict. I hear it all the time - if you had my life, you'd drink, too.

The arc of his life - for all his celebrity - follows a pattern that is all too familiar for addicts. A star that burned bright, full of promise and talent. An introduction to drugs, and a slow spiral of addiction, denial and isolation that eventually killed him.

By most accounts, his first introduction to pain medication came in 1984 after the Pepsi Commercial Incident. For those of us of a certain age, the imagery of this is etched into our minds - they played the footage of his hair catching on fire while shooting that commercial over and over and over. He took pain medication during his recovery from this injury, and the subsequent surgery on his face and scalp to repair burn damage. From my vantage point, this is where the addict was born. Here is a picture of Michael Jackson in 1983, at the height of his personal and creative success:

In 1988 he co-wrote "Man in the Mirror" - the irony of the lyrics is inescapable. "I'm starting with the man in the mirror, I'm asking him to change his ways. No message could have been any clearer, if you wanna make the world a better place take a look at your self and then make that change - you gotta get it right while you got the time..." In 1988 he looked like this:

By 1993, he cancels his "Dangerous" tour, stating an injury he had while on tour led to a Demerol addiction. He disappeared from the public eye for a while, and there were unconfirmed reports that he went to a "wellness center" in the United Kingdom to help with his addiction. It was at this time that the allegations of inappropriate conduct with minors began surfacing.

By 1997 his behavior is all but inexplicable, and he writes a song called "Morphine". Here is a sampling of the lyrics: "Demerol, Demerol, Oh God he's taking Demerol. He's tried hard to convince her to be over what he had. Today he wants it twice as bad."

Again, from my vantage point, this is where he "crossed the line", as they say in recovery - when his addiction consumed him. The next 10 years are spent mostly out of the public eye - with the notable exception of the child molestation hearings - with reports of ill health, missing court dates due to "spider bites", "swollen toe", "exhaustion". He is estranged from most of his family, and has a cycle of friends who come into his life for periods of time, only to have falling outs with him and disappear. It is acknowledged that his inner circle of friends and family knew of his addiction, tried to help, tried to intervene, to no avail. Several of them admit to being unsurprised at his death of a heart attack at age 50.

By 2007, he looked like this:

He was disfigured, bald (he wore a wig), frighteningly underweight, and virtually incapable of functioning in the real world. He had surrounded himself with paid help - doctors, nurses, body guards. He had the money and the means to maintain his addictions, and like any good addict, he did. There is no way to watch this evolution and say that he was anything but a very sick and broken man.

Here's the thing: I don't put the responsibility for his drug use on anyone but him. I think the doctors that supplied him with these illegal medications are reprehensible and possibly criminal, to be sure, but ultimately it was Michael Jackson's addiction - his illness. It is impossible to get someone sober, and keep them sober, if they don't want recovery for themselves. Throughout his life, his behavior demonstrates a kind of self-rejection ... self-repulsion, even - one of the four horsemen of addiction.

But he is no different than any other addict or alcoholic I meet every day. He had the added difficulty of living in the public eye - I do have sympathy for how that complicates things. But it irks me to have his obvious addictions explained away -- this is enabling. It isn't any different than a family member who loves someone struggling with addiction - it is very hard to see how bad things really are. It is part and parcel of the illness - the addict is in denial, and will do anything to maintain their addiction. They will isolate and vehemently maintain that everything is fine. They will do this until it kills them if they don't get - and accept - help. His death was a virtual certainty. We all watched it unfold over the course of nearly three decades. We have a strange level of intimacy with our celebrities. We love to idolize and vilify them. But they are human, and subject to the same pitfalls as the rest of us. There is a very straightforward answer to all of his odd behavior, his isolation, his steadfast denial that his behavior was odd or inappropriate: he was an addict. He created impenetrable walls of denial around himself - he had the means to build them stronger than most - and he shut out the people in his life who tried to help him.

So now he is gone. His talent at the pinnacle of his career is undeniable. We lost an iconic artist, and that is always jolting - like Elvis or Marilyn Monroe before him. I heard some say his death is like a loss of innocence. But Michael Jackson the talented and promising artist, the singer/songwriter, the creative talent, the man himself - he has been gone from us for a long time, it is just that few people really want to admit it. But I do. One of the real tragedies here is the lost potential. Thriller - even for people who aren't particularly fans of his kind of music -was an amazing piece of artistry. It changed pop culture forever. Can you imagine what else he could have done, what other barriers he could have busted down, what kind of cutting edge music he could have created if he hadn't been taken down by drugs?

So while I honor his artistic legacy, I say a prayer for another life and spirit extinguished by addiction.


  1. I could not agree with you more. I have twittered a bit about this. I don't like him, I don't understand it, but he was an addict and above all in his time he was unbelievable, but he was an addict that his addiction destroyed his life and most of all the life of his children.

  2. Well said. How pathetic it is to see the enablers... the folks surrounding him, adoring him without being honest about the problem. Those who tried, like Depak Chopra, were shunned, which shows just what you said: the real problem lies with the addict himself.

    But which addict will the enablers now turn to? Can we bring this problem out on the table?

  3. Thank you for this. I have been muttering similar stuff to myself for days. :)

  4. This is the best thing I've read about MJ since his death. You nailed it!

    Karin in CT

  5. He was very ill, indeed. Mentally, emotionally, physically...undeniable. Since my husband is an anesthesioligist and MJ was apparently (don't know until toxilogy reports are in) taking drugs which are typically ONLY used by anesthesiologists, we've been talking about this a lot. I do agree that the addiction was his. But I am frustrated with the deplorable actions of the doctors in this country who will do anything for money, including knowingly contribute to someone's death.

    I like how you touch upon what he could have been. I wish he could have glimpsed that for himself, but some addicts' bottoms are death. When you have inexhaustible resources by which to fund your addiction, death is predictable.

    What I find really sad, is what a friend pointed out this morning. Three children lost their father. Lost him to addiction. They have a long road ahead of them with addiction. I guarantee you, this didn't stop with dad. They'll need to fight, but right now, they're mourning for a lost father.

  6. I'm with Karin. This is dead on. The other piece that pisses me off, though, is that we are protecting him and not the children whose boundaries he violated. We don't want to face the truth that he absolutely crossed the line with kids, so we victimize the kids again. Just because the guy could sing.

  7. I deliberately stayed away from commenting on the impact all of this had on the children - his own, and many others. I just couldn't find the words, and the emotions I have around it are so strong. Read Damomma's post ( about it today - she puts it perfectly.

  8. thank you for this, you put it into words so well!

  9. Well put Ellie.
    In the past two weeks I have spent time feeling mournful on three counts:
    1. The children he was accused of abusing. It must have been difficult enough to endure his acquittal, I cannot imagine how the glorification of the past few weeks has left them feeling.
    2. His children. We have no idea what kind of father he was but it does appear that he tried to protect their anonymity and privacy. To have that overturned so hastily with his death is deplorable. I think that his family was self serving and exploitive. To use a grieving child to prey on public sympathy is abhorrent. It served no purpose other than deflection of the awful truths that threaten the "legend" also known as royalties and revenue.
    3. Him, but not HIM. More specifically his talent and positive contributions to the world, and the squandering of a life through addiction.
    He could have/should have accepted help, sought help, made amends to the best of his abilities. He could have offered so much more.

  10. Ellie,
    Very well said.When it was first reported that MJ died my husband said it best "The Michael Jackson we knew died a long time ago."

  11. First I want to thank you for not commenting on it until you were ready, it was a relief to read your blog and find no mention of MJ for several days. I don't understand how everyone is ignoring the addictions and the criminal charges brought against him. I'm disturbed how this is being completely ignored by the media.

  12. I'm going to have to inject a little bit of disagreement here. While I find Michael Jackson to have been too... something... for me to enjoy as an artist, and I think that his actions with children were reprehensible, I can name one other offense he made against the general population that also bothers me greatly: his refusal to go public with his diagnosis of Lupus and Fibromyalgia. On the most basic level, it owuld have explained a lot of the strange behaviors he started to exhibit: the umbrellas, the single glove, the hospital masks. Lupus patients are told to stay out of the sun as much as possible. He was probably one of the few who actually listened and did so. The single glove covered some of the depigmentation that fibromyalgia can cause. And the hospital masks were a response to the fact that lupus causes your immune system to malfunction.

    On a larger, more world-impacting level, had he come out about his diagnosis 15 years ago when it happened, the kind of leaps and bounds in research that have happened for Parkinson's since Michael J. Fox admitted his diagnosis could have happened for lupus. As it is, research for autoimmune diseases like lupus and fibromyalgia is limited. Nobody cares much, because no celebrities have said "support this cause".

    While I find his addiction to pain medication to be horrible, I can understand how he got there. If you have never spoken to a person with an autoimmune disorder, you have no idea how painful every day can be. Your joints ache, your muscles scream with every movement, and you find it more and more difficult to get out of bed in the morning. You know that at any point, your immune system could decide that something minor, like your liver or your lungs, is an invader and start attacking it rather than the germs and true invaders it should be attacking.

    Michael Jackson and his family seem to think that lupus is something to be ashamed of. They have been vehemently denying the fact, while doctors have been saying that he had been diagnosed years ago. Lupus is an autoimmune disorder. That means that your immune system is over-active. It attacks healthy tissue, thinking it to be a foreign invader. This is in no way similar to HIV or AIDS, in which the immune system ceases functioning. You can't catch lupus. It isn't contagious. They really don't know what causes it to develop in a person.

    But if Michael Jackson had been open about his diagnosis, more reseach might have been done to find out things like cause, or better treatment options.

    I'll say it again. I don't like Michael Jackson. I think he was a pedophile who paid off the families of the children he mistreated so that they would drop the suit. I don't think he deserved all of the media coverage he received in the time since his death. But I also think he was a horribly selfish person for not admitting to his disorder and working to find ways to help others with the same disorder.