When they said Prince had been saved by a shot of naloxone on the plane home from a show, I knew he’d been using something stronger than Percocet, and I was right.
I didn’t say this out loud, or write it here, because some people who loved Prince were screaming on social media that anyone “standing by to call him ‘addict'” were “haters.”
I don’t want to be a hater. I just want to tell the truth. I knew he was on something stronger than Percocet. He must have been, for a long time. Otherwise, the Tylenol in Percocet would have shut his liver down long ago.
“The decedent self-administered fentanyl,” the medical examiner wrote.
By all rights, I should have gone the way of Prince. For three and a half years I was prescribed fentanyl for migraine and fibromyalgia, and, as he did, I took too much (aka, “overdosed”). Many times.
Fentanyl is the strongest painkiller known. It comes in lollipops and in patches that you’re supposed to stick on your skin, but people who abuse the drug often suck on the adhesives. I did.
Mixed with heroin, fentanyl has killed dozens in the Northeast and Midwest United States.
Fentanyl is not as commonly prescribed for chronic pain as Vicodin, Percocet or OxyContin, for the simple reason that it’s much more lethal. Fentanyl is about 80 times stronger than morphine or heroin. From the variety of estimates given in the press and in professional literature, it’s clear that scientists have not even determined the precise bioequivalencies.
It’s just fucking STRONG.
Fentanyl’s particular pharmacologic qualities allow it to zip into the brain like a high-speed train, flooding receptors and stopping autonomic functions, including breathing.
Prince was apparently saved at least once by a shot of naloxone, or Narcan, a drug that kicks any painkiller off the receptors and reboots respiration. To help save lives in the opioid addiction epidemic, Narcan must be made more widely available.
But when dealing with fentanyl, the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network notes that EMS staff generally don’t have enough time to use Narcan “because this highly potent opioid can quickly cause death.”
I know how Prince would have felt when he was overdosing. He would have felt as if someone were stacking a pallet of bricks on his chest. Brick by brick, he would have exhaled, maybe closing his eyes, and it would have been a long time before his body wanted to inhale again. He might have wondered whether his body would remember to breathe.
He died alone on the floor of an elevator. Just sit and hold that image for a minute.
If he were in excruciating or intractable pain, which by many accounts he was, respiratory depression might, sadly, have come as a relief. For 30 years Prince performed acrobatic stunts in high-heeled boots, and the hip surgery he had about 10 years ago reportedly did not resolve his pain.
As a serious performer, Prince wanted above all to show up as the sequined spectacular of Paisley Park, The Purple One, The Artist. American society is competitive, and it values only what we’ve done lately, and those of us who grow up inside it—as children, being bullied by its bullies—learn to identify ourselves primarily with what we can DO. If we can’t perform, if we cannot work construction, sit for hours in front of a computer, carry our children—or sing the songs we ourselves have written and do splits with a hardwood guitar strung across our chest—without debilitating pain, we may begin to feel there’s little reason to live.
Often, our solution is to find a way to control or numb our feelings about the pain so we can do whatever the hell we want.
No: it’s up to scientists and physicians to find ways to control pain. We ought to surrender that job to them. When we play around with doctors’ tools, we risk our very lives.
My detox from fentanyl in 2008 was a hard, year-long slog, and it taught me my job is to find ways to treat my body so I don’t hurt it in the first place. We all need to live inside our mortal bodies and learn to accept their earthly limitations.
Drugs—the doctors’ and pharma corporations’ solutions to problems—give us the ability to power through pain, but at what cost?
To be sure, no one really knows what crossed Prince’s mind when he put the extra patch on his skin, plastered it inside his cheek, or sucked the extra fentanyl lollipop.
Ostensibly being a devout Jehovah’s Witness, he may have wished he could quit the drugs. His staff apparently called in an addictions specialist shortly before he died—a California doctor who was sending his son to Minneapolis to conduct an addiction intervention—so it sounds as if Prince, and/or the people who surrounded him, might have known he had a serious drug problem.
Not many people have ever taken fentanyl. Having unfortunately been there, I can say it’s beyond hard to quit. Anyone using fentanyl to feed their addiction—or even to numb chronic pain—is in dire straits and will be slowly backed against a wall. Whether quitting the drug and getting sober or continuing to take the drug to control pain—either decision requires a transformation of one’s life, an acceptance of real limitations, physical and psychological.
Prince might have been saved by Suboxone—the partial-agonist opioid drug used in detox and medication-assisted treatment, which the California doctor’s son was reportedly bringing to Prince the day he died. In fact, Suboxone helped me detox—but I’m glad I didn’t wind up taking it indefinitely.
Ironically, Suboxone or Subutex may also have controlled Prince’s pain. But never again would he have been able to leap off risers and cavort in high heels.
I remember dancing with my hazel-eyed college boyfriend to “Little Red Corvette.” (Ahhh.) That song is like a scent that forever hangs in the hallways of my brain, preserving my personal history. Little Red Corvette.
Those memories get filed away, and we move on. Right?
In order to live, Prince would have had to file those memories of landing in splits and accept his body’s demand that he transform his idea of himself—that he find a different way to be Prince. And we still would have loved him.
This blog has always been free. If you like what you read, please share.