If, before she was committed, Britney Spears had been found dead with “oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine” (better known as OxyContin, Vicodin, Valium, Xanax, Restoril and Unisom) in her system, the media would be full of talk about a druggie ODing. When Heath Ledger’s toxicology report turns up the same drugs, it’s a tragic accident, and everybody makes sure to mention that he was prescribed these drugs. But what’s the difference, really? None, as far as I can see.
What’s funny is that I may be one of the few people who see the Britney Spears case as a tragedy and the Ledger situation as yet another show biz OD. Spears, who is so mentally ill that she has been ruled incapable of taking care of herself, is suffering in a very real way. While her mental problems are certainly exacerbated by drug use and her lifestyle (which includes the sheerly evil way the media has taken to stalking her in the last year), it’s obvious that there’s real sickness at the base of it all. If Britney Spears had never become famous, had just stayed Florida trailer trash, it’s likely that she would still be quite crazy today. She’s fucked up in the head, in a very real way. Yet there’s a glee at her situation, based partially on the fact that her ‘art’ is considered disposable trash, her riches are considered unfairly gained and her lifestyle is considered unsavory.
Here’s the headline you would read if Britney had died with that same drug cocktail in her blood: “Hillbilly Heroin Kills Brit Brit.” Oxycodone is a serious opioid, a major league pain killer that is prescribed to people dying of cancer. It’s the kind of meds you’re on when you’re in so much pain that you cannot continue your daily activities. And it’s a drug that became very popular first with rural types, and has now spread to the big city party scene. I’ve been offered Oxy recreationally, and I have to say that I was taken aback – besides the drug’s previously hickish context, it’s heavily addictive and very easy to OD on. It’s a recreational drug for morons, as far as I’m concerned, for people who have no common sense. And that’s coming from someone who has done quite a number of recreational drugs, some of which were incredibly stupid to even try. There’s a limit, though, one that anyone with sense will see and understand.
I’m not Heath’s doctor; it’s possible that he was dealing with so much pain that he needed to be on OxyContin AND Vicodin, although I tend to really, really doubt it. It seems evident that he was on these drugs recreationally, and the reality is that he just plain fucked up and ODed on them (although we don’t know the amount of the drugs in his system – it’s still possible that his overdose wasn’t accidental). There’s a tragedy in that, in that he leaves behind a family and a promising career, but the difference between his OD and that of a junkie on the streets is one of perception only. The Hollywood spin machine kicks into gear and, because Ledger was seen as someone with value, someone whose story sells more when presented as a tragic accident as opposed to the vengeance of God that Britney’s seemingly inevitable demise will be, we get a watered down version of the truth.
People who would otherwise spit venom at a ‘lesser’ artist who died in the same way will pontificate on how sad it is that Heath’s prescription meds interacted like that (and make no mistake – any celeb who ODs on pharms got them in a prescription. They don’t buy them on the streets). People are very happy to let the spin machine do its work, to cloud the truth behind the chemicals in Heath Ledger’s blood.
Why? A big part of it is the relationship that this country has with drugs. We love them and we hate them. A number of you reading this are now, or have been, on drugs like Xanax (in Ledger’s system) or Prozac. We go for better living through chemistry, to a point. If Ledger had coke in his system, there’d be no spinning it – that drug is bad, but a ‘prescription’ drug is okay. I have to admit that I don’t understand this mindset – I’d rather be on cocaine than Prozac any single day of the week. And I find the idea that it’s okay to use some substances to get fucked up but not others baffling – except, again, in the case of truly stupid drugs, like heroin or OxyContin, drugs that will win the battle against you every single time. I’m all for smart recreational drug use, and what Ledger did was not smart.
So we’re all going to pretend that Ledger’s death was an accident, some freak occurrence that no one could have seen coming. But when Lindsey Lohan takes too many vikes and Oxy one night, the jackals and vultures will be out in full force. I’m truly sorry that Heath Ledger is dead – sorry for his family and sorry for our film culture. But I’m not going to pretend that his death was anything but the latest in a very long line of entertainers falling under the weight of their own drug use.