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.
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.
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.