Carrie Fisher’s Death Reminds Us How Drug Use Becomes Habit, Not Merely Addiction

On Friday, June 16, 2017, the Los Angeles County’s Coroner’s Office’s publicly stated that after examining Carrie Fisher’s body they’ve concluded she died from sleep apnea and “other undetermined factors.” Those “undetermined factors” turned out to be drugs. People magazine obtained an official toxicology report yesterday; it shows that Carrie Fisher had heroin, cocaine, methadone, ethanol, traces of anti-depressants, antihistamine, and ecstasy in her body. The actress was flying from London to Los Angeles last December when she had a heart attack; she died in hospital several days later without regaining consciousness.

We all know Carrie Fisher as the beautiful and courageous heroine, Princess Leia, from the space opera Star Wars. But beneath the beauty and courage was a woman who had bipolar disorder and began using drugs from the time she was 13 years old. I’m afraid there are far too many people who fit that same description.

Drug addiction is the bane of our culture. It does not privilege the rich and famous, nor the young. Carrie Fisher was 60 years old when she died in December. We have an opioid epidemic; but all we can do is report and tell the stories of addicts. We know more about the history of the opiate epidemic, and the effect it has had on working-class Americans. As a culture we talk about its economic and social cost; we talk about it in the language of psychology and disease, and often we talk about it as a crime. Too often we talk about it as merely a fact of life. Writing about the Fisher toxicology report, a Huff Post writer argued that the public shouldn’t focus on the fact that Fisher had so many drugs in her system when she died, but instead honor her efforts at sobriety over the years; “relapse is part of substance abuse,” the author noted.

True enough, but as a culture, we don’t talk enough about its moral and ethical dimensions. We can collectively sigh about our heartbreak over the latest fatal celebrity overdose, but in doing so, we are careful to refrain from being seen as morally judgmental. Yet clearly a life on drugs damages people in body and spirit. Would not compassion dictate that we as a society should call that wrong? What does it say about the state of our culture that we can watch drugs ravage people but neglect to address the moral side of drug addiction?

Our society has us locked into a false dichotomy by casting drug addiction as either disease or willful choice. But there was a time when the words “drug habit” were more prevalent than the word “addiction.” The word “habit” is significant, because it places drug use in the chain of thoughts, words, actions, habits, character, destiny. A habit is more than an act, more than a choice, harder to establish and harder to break. Telling someone “just say no,” may be necessary but it’s not sufficient to keep them away from drugs, because a habit is a choice which has been made so many times that it has become second nature. As a society we should be doing more to encourage a healthy moral revulsion to drugs without undermining efforts to help the people who abuse them. Our society’s timid response to the drug crisis is an ethical failure; as Carrie Fisher’s death reminds us, perhaps it’s time to welcome the moral dimension back into our national conversation on drugs.

Image: By Riccardo Ghilardi photographer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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