The untimely deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher offer a stark contrast as to why we must end addiction shaming in 2017.
By Ryan Hampton
The year has still not come to a close and two more of the world’s most beloved icons have left us. George Michael – the defining British pop idol of his generation, who brought us timeless classics such as “Freedom! ‘90” and “Praying For Time” – and Carrie Fisher – who brought to life Princess Leia, and gave the world its first peek into her struggles with mental health and substance use disorders on the big screen through “Postcards From The Edge” – died within 48 hours of each other during this final week of what was a very difficult 2016. Two names that unquestionably impacted the lives of hundreds of millions and helped to shape our generation’s worldwide pop-culture.
While George Michael’s specific cause of death hasn’t yet been determined, initial reports from those closest to him reveal that he recently struggled with a tortuous addiction to heroin. His remaining isolated from the public eye and silent about his life-threatening illness offers a telling insight into a larger problem still deeply engrained within society.
How is it that someone so loved, so accepted by the world community, who’d overcome one of the most difficult stigmatizations of his time – coming out as a gay man – felt it necessary to hide in shame and silence from this illness, rather than seek help for something so deadly?
I’ll tell you what I think it is because I’ve experienced it myself. Our world, by virtue of digital means that send us instant updates to our fingertips about people’s lifestyles, can be extraordinarily cruel when it comes to issues of mental health and addiction. Both social and traditional media tend to make spectacles out of people suffering, often times in insidious ways. Compassion and understanding for those whose lives are at stake are lost between the lines of click bait and television ratings. So it should be no surprise that George Michael and, for that matter, Prince, struggled in silence, hidden from the world that idolized them. However, once in a while, someone comes along that just changes the game.
Carrie Fisher was a revolutionary, far ahead of her time. In 1990, she publicly disclosed her personal struggles with mental health and drug addiction. Through her semi-autobiographical book and later adapted screenplay, she set off on a journey to get ahead of the issue in a time when most, if not all, media laughed off her desire to no longer be silent. Plainly, she owned it. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Fisher said, “my comfort wasn’t the most important thing – my getting through to the other side of difficult feelings was.”
Fisher was unique. She was ironclad when it came to criticism of her past, and she turned that into something that can only be described as beautiful. Her unbridled authenticity and desire to help others by sharing her own truth is something we, as a world community, can draw inspiration from. As the history of her life continues to be highlighted over the next several weeks, this surely will stand out more than anything. And it should. This was a warrior who defied all odds and took a chance that could have tanked her career, at a time when most people didn’t accept the fact that mental health problems and addiction are chronic diseases of the brain – not personal failings that can simply be overcome by willpower or determination. Rather, they must be dealt with by appropriate diagnosis and medical care. The science is clear on this – and it has been for some time.
So what will it take for us to begin addressing this issue so that those still suffering in silence can finally feel unbound by the shame that continues to take lives, day after day? Well, it’s probably going to take a whole lot of Carrie Fishers. A unified movement of people who can defy the odds, removing social barriers so that people can live openly, allowing for increased opportunities for recovery. Boy, how I wish Carrie had been on hand with George not too long ago. She could’ve told him (in a way that few others could) that it’s okay to buck the system and ask for help.
Both Michael and Fisher’s memorials will be flooded with the many positive impacts they had upon society over the years. Michael for his music, contributions to the LGBTQ community, kindness, and quiet generosity to worthy, life-saving charities. Fisher for her contributions to the screen, stage, and national conversation to end shame and stigma around mental illness and addiction. All of these are well deserving of our collective gratitude. But let’s not miss an important lesson here: these two icons offered, and will always represent, a far deeper meaning for so many that are facing difficult journeys ahead of them.
There are millions of George Michaels and Carrie Fishers walking among us every day. Let’s pay an honest and worthy tribute to them, and to the lives of those who’ve left us this year, by ending the silence and shame that’s kept countless numbers from seeking the help they so deserve.
“Because of the media, the way the world is perceived is a place where resources and time are running out. We’re taught that you have to grab what you can before it’s gone. It’s almost as if there isn’t time for compassion. – George Michael