Minimization of George Michael’s addiction dishonors his stigma-breaking efforts
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I was saddened to hear Christmas Day news about the youthful death of the uniquely talented George Michael. He will be greatly missed. In my opinion, he is under-credited for some of his most meaningful deeds and sadly, in death, he was sold short. Michael was courageous and dedicated to breaking stigmas. He greatly influenced multiple generations not only through his music, fashion and performances, all while living a double life. 

Then tragedy struck; he was caught under the influence of cocaine being sexually promiscuous in a L.A. public park restroom by an undercover LAPD cop. This incident thrust him into a new spotlight revolving surrounding not one, not two, but three major stigmas. Think about it, Michael hid his homosexuality, addiction to cocaine and was a global superstar caught engaging in hyper-promiscuous sexual conduct.

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With several PR options on the table, he chose the right course of action; the bravest thing choice. Michael admitted to his crimes of public indecency, cocaine possession and paid his debt to society. He came out of the closet and admitted to both the process addiction of sex and cocaine with all of the concomitant risks to his career and even his life. So what happened? Was he was rejected, never to sell another record or did his did actions help make a positive on breaking the stigma wall?

We all know the answer. Michael went on to inspired millions more to speak freely about their own sexual orientation. He also used his position and his voice to tear down stigmas about substance-use disorders and sex addictions. His brave choice was clear. He owned up to his mistakes and used his voice to fight when most would crawl into the darkness.

Having said all that, the reports after his death are the primary reasons why I am so angry. I find it to be a sheer travesty, a victimization of sorts, that his legacy and all stigmas he fought for could be so minimized by the account of his peaceful death. It wasn’t peaceful, and the narrative is confusing and even dangerous.

I don’t care if Michael was sober years or if he shot-up cocaine Christmas morning, he struggled with addiction. While I haven’t treated him or maintain first-hand knowledge of his case, I can guarantee that his heart failure, at the mere age of 53, was correlative if not directly caused by years of chronic cocaine and stimulant addiction. But those crafting the narrative about his death refuse to say that because they believe it will stain his legacy. 

I am sure his team thinks it is ok to try to sweep his past under the rug thinking that his music is more important than him being remembered as an addict who struggled with a complex brain disease making it difficult for him to mediate choice over his use of substances. What they don’t understand is that it is so important to for Michael to own his death as he did with life. By shunning his addiction, it is further driving a stigma. And, this stigma kills. The truth can and will save lives. 

The human body was not designed to handle years of chronic cocaine use. Every time a person uses cocaine, from the chronic addict to even just a recreational user, the heart is likely scared. Cocaine causes vascular constriction, which in turn leads to dramatic damage within the body as well as serious changes in neurochemistry, particularly the mesolimbic region. Unfortunately, this outcome is all too common and Michael deserves better.

Addicts deserve better and shame on those who minimize this. To the people who created the narrative about his death, I don’t believe he would have been happy with it. I think, given Michael’s desire to tear down stigmas and barriers, he would have wanted the world to know his body succumbed to addiction. While the cause of death may be labeled heart failure, and yes it is, it was caused by complications from chronic un-arrested substance use disorder.

The facts are overwhelming; if each drug-related death, not just an overdose, was actually calculated, the data would prove the global epidemic we are experiencing is far greater than the public ever imagined.

 As I was concluding this piece the news reported the untimely death of Carrie Fisher. Sadly, I believe that her addiction also played a major role her heart attack.

The bottom line is simple, the human body is just not designed for years of alcohol and drug abuse, and it doesn’t matter if it is cocaine, heroin or prescription drugs. In the end, the heart ceases to beat but the band will play on because there are so many others to treat.

A recovered addict, Ben Levenson is one of the leading voices in addiction and treatment. He is founder of the world-renowned Origins Behavioral Healthcare, an advisor to several nations, and serves as the Chairman and founder of The Levenson Foundation a privately-funded philanthropic organization chartered, structured and managed to provide stabilizing financial, operational, clinical and geopolitical support to mental health and recovery-focused humanitarian activities around the world.


 

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