Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hollywood Cover-up

by Kathryn Casey

A friend called the other day. Her teenage daughter confided in her, told her that there were drug problems at her pricey private high school. It wasn’t coke, meth, or even pot being whispered about. This time the kids were heavy into prescription meds, pills they steal from their parents’ medicine cabinets or buy on the Internet and on the streets, everything from Xanax to Adderall to Vicodin.

Drugs have been on my mind a lot for the past year-and-a-half. I just finished
A Descent into Hell (June 2008, HarperCollins), a book on Colton Pitonyak, a brilliant kid from Little Rock, Arkansas, convicted of killing a young woman, Jennifer Cave, from Corpus Christi, Texas, in the grisliest murder in the history of the University of Texas. Pitonyak arrived in Austin on a $150,000 business scholarship, and then focused his studies on partying and drugs. Jennifer had the misfortune of befriending him, and that mistake ended her life.
In Pitonyak’s case, his addictions ran the gamut, from alcohol and coke to Xanax and Ambien. My argument is that no matter what the drug is, no matter what type of addiction, the dangers should be openly aired. Is it different because the drugs are legal?

What I found frustrating, as I listened to my friend talk about the kids at her daughter’s school, was the strong arming in Hollywood over
the death of Heath Ledger. In case you’ve been in a coma for the past couple of months, here’s the rundown: Ledger was found dead in his New York apartment on January 22nd. Two weeks later, toxicology results pinned the cause of death as “acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam, and doxylamine,” two sleeping pills, two pain pills, and two anti-anxiety drugs.

The timing was almost eerie. Days after Ledger’s death, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released the results of a
study that showed that among teenagers, as my friend’s daughter reported, prescription drug abuse is on the rise and now ranks ahead of all illegal drug abuse with the exception of pot. Most teenagers polled in the study believe prescription drugs are a safe high. They are, of course, as Heath Ledger’s death reveals, anything but.

Yet instead of Hollywood getting out the word to educate kids, clue them in to the concept that any kind of drug abuse can be lethal, Tinseltown attempted to sanitize Ledger’s death. It was common knowledge in the celeb set that in the final years of his life Ledger was a party animal, drinking, doing drugs, and burning the proverbial candle at both ends.

Yet that didn't keep Hollywood from putting on a full-court press to stifle talk of anything but Ledger’s brilliance as an actor. Want to talk about his dependence on drugs, first the illegal then the prescription kind? Nah, we’ll skip that. Rather than addressing the dangers of abusing one's body, of pumping it full of overloads of any type of drug, a top talent agency and a group of A-list celebs
successfully pressured “Entertainment Tonight” not to air a video of Ledger at a January 2006 party at the ritzy Chateau Marmont, where cocaine was being openly snorted. It's agreed: Heath Ledger’s death is a tragedy. He was 28-years-old, a dad with a young daughter who will now grow up without knowing him. He had a stellar career on the rise. Should how he died be his sole legacy? Absolutely not. Certainly he was much more than that. Yet should the cause of his death be swept away by the Hollywood spin machine? No. There are painful lessons to be learned here, important ones.
By all reports, Heath Ledger was a great guy. Kudos to Cate Blanchett for dedicating her Oscar to him. It's fitting to celebrate his life and his art. But please don’t dismiss how he died.

Addiction is addiction, and Hollywood shouldn’t hide its consequences. Let’s talk openly about what really happened to Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole, John Belushi and so many others on that sad roll call who have succumbed to their addictions. Rather than glamorize Ledger, as we do so often with those who die young, let’s talk about how Ledger’s lifestyle led to his death. There are thousands of families like Ledger's across the world who will lose a loved one to addiction this year. We need to get the word out: abusing any kind of drug, even prescription drugs, can be deadly.


Anonymous said...

If you take a prescription that was not written for you, it is illegal drug use. Remember Mother's Little Helpers? Those mothers had children. Those children often helped themselves to mother's little helpers.

Kathryn Casey said...

Good point. I know in Ledger's case there was speculation that he was obtaining the drugs from multiple doctors. Later, I read that the police weren't pursuing the docs, so perhaps they didn't know about the other prescriptions he had.

The last movie Ledger worked on, the one at the time of his death, I understand he complained about not being able to sleep for days at a time, probably due to pumping so many drugs into his system. Very sad.

Anonymous said...

Hey KC! I agree wholly with your post about Heath. People should be aware that RX drugs are too easily obtainable, and do the most damage when abused. Whether they get them from their parent's medicine cabinets,a doctor, or from a dealer, they're dangerous. I think doctors are way too eager to sell that prescription without weighing out the fact that their patients are already on other drugs to supposedly help them. people tend to believe what their doctors say, regardless. The cocktails they are prescribing are turning out to be deadly, and I think the doctors should be held acountable for it. They should make it their business to know exactly what their patient is currently taking before prescribing another drug. Even go as far as giving a urinalysis before prescribing anything at all.
Queen Elizabeth

Diane Fanning said...

As I recall, there was a lot of talk about the drug abuse involved in Belushi's death. But not this time. Why is the focus different?What has changed?

AuthorinNC said...

I couldn't agree with you more if I'd written it myself. Having a teen in my own home who still is a very big fan of Heath Ledger, his death was disturbing. Just drives home the point that, as parents, we must be our children's main role model and make sure we are living a life we would want for our children.
Love the new site! Have it bookmarked. Will visit often! :)

blimeyhecks said...

Totally agree. It seems to be 'OK' because it was prescription drugs, or at least that is the spin on it. I think the secrecy surrounding his death is ridiculous. Or the fact that certain actors have criticised the press for wanting to discuss it. However much Ledger hated 'fame', that is the byproduct of being a movie star. And I'm afraid when a young movie star dies in suspicious circumstances, the public and media have a right to be curious and ask uncomfortable questions.

I can understand his family not wanting to face up to the truth, but the fact is, it was only an 'accidental' overdose inasmuch as he was obviously trying to get high and mistook the dosage. Same as a heroin addict who pumps too much brown into their vein and winds up dead - but that wouldn't be called an 'accident' now would it? It's a terribly sad death, particularly because he had such a young daughter, but to present it as some sort of mix-up with medication is wrong.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hi--and congratulations on your wonderful new blog!

Of course the amazing Michele McPhee is an icon here in Boston--and it looks like she's teamed up with a truly fascinating group of blogmates.

I just made you a shortcut--and I'll be back often.

All the best..and welcome to blog world!

Kathryn Casey said...

Thanks, Hank. We're delighted that Michele has joined us. Spread the word.

RE: comments on Ledger. You're all right on target. His death was a tragedy, but it's compounding the tragedy by ignoring the opportunity to use it to help our kids understand the danger of addiction.

Hope ya'll drop in often. It's really good to have you here.

Sandra Robbins said...

As a former teacher turned writer, I agree that we need to educate our children to the dangers of drug use. Two weeks ago nine students at the middle school in my small town were caught with prescription drugs, all from their parents' medicine cabinets. You are certainly right. We have to get the word out about the dangers of any drug.

Sandra Robbins

Leah said...

Great Post KC. People, including actors have been abusing prescription drugs for years...way back to Marilyn Monroe and before. They seem to be getting easier to get, legally and illegally. I use to work for a Judge who was married to a Doctor and she had all kinds of scripts in her desk drawer that he prescribled for her [and other family members as well]. You would think that doctors wouldn't be able to write scripts for their own family. At any rate, if you know the right person, you can get drug you want.

Vivian said...

In the "Hollywood Crowd," jumping in and out of rehab is a recreational sport any more. The fact that Hollywood won't use the cause of Leger's death as a way to educate others in the problems of drug abuse is typical any more. Look at the Anna Nicole situation - she's been made into a folk hero or something.

I worked with teens for thirty years, not including the years I was the mother and grandmother of teens. The downward slope of drug usage frightens me. The fact that it is becoming more and more acceptable scares me even more.


Kathryn Casey said...

Scares me, too. Vivian.

Wow, middle school, Sandra. This is awful.

And, you're right, Leah. This is an old problem that just doesn't go away.

I wish we could talk to Ledger's parents, help them understand that while they've suffered a terrible loss, they could turn this into something good. Let's hope someone in Hollywood is listening.

P.A.Brown said...

I don't think it's only Hollywood that should bear the blame for all this -- though they carry a lot of it -- but don't forget the drug companies with their endless feel good ads. Half the commercials on prime time TV are for one drug or another and how you should ask your doctor to get you some. As a society we're addicted to feeling great all the time. Depressed? There's a drug (or 20) for that. Can't get aroused? Try this. Hungry? Tired? Is it any wonder are kids are growing up confused. They're stealing these things out of our medicine chest, remember.

Kathryn Casey said...

Sad and true, Pat.

Jan said...

We live in a culture where drugs are used to get skinny, to stop smoking, to be happy, to sleep. Why should we be surprised when an actor buys into that culture? Other than the fact that an actor receives millions of dollars for doing their job, they aren't any different from the rest of us. Will making an example of their death keep someone else from making the same mistake? I don't know. As long as we are bombarded by advertisements urging us to become better people through the use of pharmeceuticals, then we will have people dying too young and too soon.

Kathryn Casey said...

That's true, Jan, but one of the findings of the recent study was that teenagers don't believe that prescription drugs can be dangerous. Ledger's story debunks that myth. It illustrates the danger.

Blimeyhecks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blimeyhecks said...

I don't think Ledger was buying into any lifestyle ideal with those drugs, I think he was quite simply taking them to get high.

Anonymous said...

Pinching pills from the parent's medicine cabinet may be trendy now, but it certainly is not new. I saw plenty of it over 30 years ago.

Kathryn Casey said...

You're both absolutely right, but what's bothering me is that this is on the rise with kids. I've been reporting on sad cases, tragedies for a couple of decades now, and I have so much respect for folks who take the worst that life can offer and turn it into something good. I know it's early for Ledger's family, but I'd sure like to see them do that with his death.

BuQue Lady said...

Just about every yr, some middle schooler brings some prescription drugs to school and passes it out to friends. So at least there have been plenty of discussions in our household over the letters sent home about these incidents and watching the news together when the police and ambulances are at the school carting kids off to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped.

Our situation is more critical, as our children with special needs do take prescribed drugs. Our discussions have included the side effects of what would happen when mixed with what had been brought to school. Or in the case of one of our children, who drank an alcoholic mixer. I was tempted to send that one packing off to the hospital to join the other classmates who were having their stomachs pumped, and had consumed more of the mixer, that my child's friend brought to school. But my child is very sensitive to certain tastes and smells, so the acknowledgement that it made me vomit was enough for me, as was the smell of his breath. YUCK.

An important opportunity to teach young people about the dangers was lost when the true nature of Ledger's death was trivalized. In our community, seeing one's classmates' faces plastered on the evening news going into ambulances does bring home the message that RX drugs aren't safe. I've volunteered to go into the middle school to help out after these incidents because the request for counseling increases. Students get scared.