Back in 2008, the tragic passing of Heath Ledger rocked the world. At 28 years old, not only was his death totally unexpected but it was made all the more shocking by two factors: he was at the peak of his career, and he was a recent father to a 2-year-old daughter who would never know him. And, while much of the blame was placed upon the actor's deep involvement in his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight, ultimately it was a lethal concoction of prescription painkillers that killed him.
Eight years on from his untimely death and society seems to still be reeling, undoubtably mostly because Ledger was such a beloved talent, but also because his demise highlights a harrowing problem: Celebrities turning to prescription painkillers to cope with the pressures of Hollywood.
While the issue is not new, it remains relatively undiscussed, something Ledger's dad, Kim, is now working to address. In an interview with Daily Mail Australia earlier this week, the 66-year-old recounted a devastating conversation his daughter, Katie, had with Heath the night before he was found, face-down in his NYC apartment, with a cocktail of oxycodone, diazepam, hydrocodone and doxylamine in his system:
"It was totally his fault. It was no one else's - he reached for them. He put them in his system. You can't blame anyone else in that situation.
That's hard to accept because I loved him so much and was so proud of him.
His sister was on the phone to him the night before telling him not to take the prescription medications with the sleeping tablets.
He said: 'Katie, Katie, I'm fine. I know what I'm doing.' He would have had no idea."
One would imagine that the weight of that conversation is still nauseatingly heavy, but when dealing with something as addictive as prescription painkillers — a.k.a opioids — it can be almost impossible to rewire a person's mind. After all, these pills are derived from the same poppy plant used to make opium and heroin and thus, though they give a feeling of temporary euphoria, they can be extremely damaging. In the year before Heath's death, for example, the prescription painkiller Fetanyl killed over 1,000 people and was found to be 30–50 times stronger than heroin.
It's facts such as these that Kim Ledger warns us of, and particularly stresses the danger for celebrities — or anyone working with a grueling schedule — relying on the pills to alleviate the demands of their jobs:
"There's so much pressure on them to perform so even though your body is telling you that it's not good and needs time, it's like "just take these painkillers and keep going". That was the case with Heath. He had to be back on set to finish (the next day). They were doing night shoots in the freezing cold and he had a weak chest anyway. He'd caught this (cough) and just couldn't shake it but he thought he had to because he wanted to get the movie done."
Of course anyone can become dependent on drugs containing such high-euphoric effects, but according to the director of the Pain Center at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass., Dr. Andrew Kowal, celebrities are perhaps more prone to dependency because of their emotional isolation. He told ABC News:
"That's why you see a lot of the Hollywood stars with [painkiller prescription dependency]. Even though they're popular and famous and surrounded by lots of people they're ultimately lonely."
Add that isolation to the apparent ease of prescription for high profile cases — as Kim Ledger talks of below — and it almost seems as if dependency and self-treatment with no real knowledge is not only expected but excused.
"He was traveling a lot, he would pop in to a doctor. In the case of someone with a higher profile it's often a case of "what do you want" instead of 'what do you need.'"
Since the use of opioids skyrocketed in the late '90s after pain management specialists missioned to treat chronic pain, countless celebrities have reported numerous ways in which the painkiller boom affected them, a few of which are listed below.
For example, star of the Netflix series Stranger Things Winona Ryder was arrested back in 2001 for shoplifting a bunch of designer goods from Saks Fifth Avenue. While the CCTV footage was smacked across every newspaper around the globe, so were the reports of authorities finding eight variations of painkillers in her purse. Ryder recalled the moment in a 2007 interview with Vogue:
"Two months prior to that, I broke my arm in two places, and the doctor … was giving me a lot of stuff and I was taking it at first to get through the pain. And then there was this weird point when you don't know if you are in pain but you're taking it. Have you ever taken painkillers? It isn't a reckless [state], like you're out of your head. It's just confusion."
After funnyman Matthew Perry catapulted into the spotlight as Chandler Bing in Friends, he found solace in addiction. A case of replacing one neuron numbing substance with another, it took a while before he realized that living life in the fast-lane was not all it's cracked up to be. He told Larry King in August 2002:
"I got into a serious problem with painkillers, a painkiller called Vicodin. And that was mostly just to not drink as much as I was. I was getting too hung over, so I tried other things that would try to balance me out."
Even the iconic queen of the horror screen, Jamie Lee Curtis, has spoken out to Reader's Digest about her self-anesthetizing, first becoming addicted after undergoing a cosmetic procedure.
"I would anesthetize myself on a daily basis, and I found painkillers were very helpful because they did the job without the messiness of alcohol. When my mother was so ill, there was a lot of pain medicine around. The bottle of liquid codeine that sat on her bathroom cabinet — don't think I didn't see it."
Thankfully all three of these famous faces have battled and overcome their addictions — and are not alone in doing so — yet with so many deaths caused by painkiller prescription, and the apparent ease of acquisition, shouldn't this addiction be part of a bigger conversation — especially considering that celebrities unwittingly act as role models for so many? What do you think?