And then there are other, less philosophical whys: Why did he die?
The answer to that may not be known for a while or maybe ever definitively, but the speculation that drugs played a part has grown. And so have the judgments. After years of extraordinary dance moves and lots of hip pain to prove it, some sources said that Prince had started taking painkillers. Article headlines calling Prince an addict because of this alleged use made the social media rounds.
Those judgments lead us to morally indict people instead of considering that someone is attempting to manage pain (physical, mental, psychological) that is difficult to manage otherwise. Pain is so personal: how it feels to each of our bodies and how we cope with it. Reading those stories about Prince’s pain made me think about my own.
In 2003, I was hospitalized for strep throat gone rogue. I had been fighting the infection for a week, feeling fatigued, my hands curling into a claw of their own will, and finally a seizure, when my body shook so violently that it moved my bed and my mother threw herself on top of me to stop the tremors. My temperature was 105 when I was admitted to the hospital.
I would over the next decade have a throat infection once or twice a year, never as bad as the first, but always bringing varying degrees of pain with them. I developed habits to to try to head off an infection, allergy medicine, a tea especially for throat health, and nasal irrigation, but that preventative care was not always enough. Or I wasn’t doing it consistently.
So, a new infection would hit. My temperature would rise, spots would develop at the back of my throat, and my body would ache. My enflamed tonsils would press against my neck also causing pain to my lower back.
Once, I got sick on a visit to see family in Houston and went to a hospital emergency room for treatment. The doctor who saw me noticed that I had been crying and offered a method to help stop the pain that had brought me to tears: painkillers, specifically Percocet.
I didn’t want to take them for fear of those judgments already in my own head about what it would mean to take prescription medication. And I didn’t take it at first, continuing to endure the back and neck pain until I couldn’t take it anymore and took one. The pill still did nothing, so I took the recommended second one. Then, relief. Not a bit of pain in my neck or my back.
I was still having to fight the infection, but now I didn’t have to also fight the pain. I also felt a bliss, an ease, as if I’d sipped on a cocktail. I felt like I could have done all of the things that I felt too wracked with pain to usually do when I was that sick. I understood for the first time why people can find themselves in a long term and unhealthy relationship with painkillers.
And it wasn’t the first time I’d dealt with pain, periods at one time so bad I’d been prescribed medication. I wanted as a teenager and as a woman to be done with the pain I felt, for the backaches to go away, for the cramps to ease, for the infection spawned neck pain to disappear. Percocet did that.
The pain I experienced was a few days a month or in the case of the throat infections a few days in a year. But if I had experienced that pain all the time? I see that I could have had a more constant relationship with Percocet and one that could have become dependent.
Painkillers can be overprescribed and often such powerful drugs can lead people directly to overuse and dependence. There are sometimes other ways to manage pain, I’ve certainly looked for them over the years. In the end though, no one wants to live in a place of anguish and if people can find a way out of it, they will. I did. Maybe Prince did too.
All of us are always just trying to find out way out of our pain.