By William C. Moyers
William C. Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations at Hazelden.
He is the author of the best-selling memoir, Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption
It’ll be a while before we know the “official cause” of Whitney Houston’s death. But based on what she openly shared about herself, as well as how others saw her in the final few days before she died, alcohol, other drugs, or a combination of both probably were involved.
I didn’t really follow her talented career, and I’m not much into the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Still, I relate to her struggles. I’ve been right there on the precipice of life or death under the influence of all sorts of substances. Fortunately I survived long enough and with enough chances to finally get clean and sober. Put another way, I am an alcoholic and a drug addict who doesn’t get drunk or high anymore. This requires hard work on my part to stay this way, day after day after day. The good news is that even the toughest days add up; I’ve been in long-term recovery continuously since 1994.
That doesn’t mean I’ve been completely drug-free any more than it suggests I’ve relapsed. In the past 18 years I’ve sought medical help for various ailments. Part of the healing process has always included medications, including those for pain. Not even addicts like me are tough enough to bite the bullet and revel in the hurt stone-cold sober.
Several of these medications, like hydrococone (Vicodin), oxycodone (Percocet), and codeine are narcotics. Some people can become addicted to them. To people in recovery, like me, they are the muse that beckons us back to the mirage of a promised land that was the personal hell we swore to escape. Other medications, like alprazolam (Xanax) can be used to manage anxiety and panic disorders. They too, can be habit-forming. And addicts in recovery are especially susceptible to their addictive effects.
That’s why the dentist and the doctor and the surgeons whose skills I’ve called in my sobriety all know my personal history of addiction, treatment, and recovery. I tell them. They keep careful tabs on my medications, restrict my supply (I’m rarely allowed more than a single refill), and remind me to always visit the same pharmacy. It is easier to fool a lot of pharmacists than one, even in this era of prescription monitoring systems designed to keep addicts from hopping around for a buzz. Most of the time my docs keep it simple and just order me to take two extra-strength aspirin, lie down, and call them tomorrow.
During these times I too must do my part to “stay in the middle of the bed,” as my mentor in recovery reminds me, and not fall off the side. Because addiction is an illness affecting the mind, the body and the spirit, this means taking care of all of me. So I eat right and exercise, stay connected to a power greater than myself, attend group meetings with other addicts and alcoholics in recovery, and remain vigilant to the persuasive, often subtle affects of these doctor-prescribed medications.
For people like me, this is an especially tricky era. Not only is America awash in pharmaceuticals, but we’re getting older. And that means health-related issues that could challenge our sobriety in ways that go beyond simply not drinking or taking the illegal drugs that got us in trouble a long time ago.
Whether she believed she was an addict or thought it was just her personal problems that needed fixing, Houston had sought professional treatment several times in recent years because of the consequences of excessive drinking and drugging. Only her closest friends and family know for sure if she, or they, ever took seriously the experts’ advice while she was under their care, and afterwards. But all the reports of her last days indicate that she was once again undoubtedly in the grips of alcohol and other drugs, like Xanax. She was 48 years old. Perhaps her greatest legacy won’t be that of a singer, but in how the end of her story holds a lesson for all of us too.