So here’s what happened.
My beloved was standing at the stove, cooking our breakfast at 7:00 A.M. on Sunday morning because apparently I’m the kind of person who has a beloved and lets someone cook for me and enjoys waking up very early – even on Sunday mornings. I was relaxing, drinking coffee, and scanning news headlines (and by news headlines, I mean Entertainment headlines). Suddenly and loudly, I gasped and exclaimed “WHAT?!” which caused my beloved to nearly send scrambled eggs all over the kitchen floor.
“What happened?! What’s wrong?!” he wanted to know.
In fairness, my reaction was probably a little over-dramatic. But what happened was this: Nelsan Ellis died. He was 39 years old.
If you’re not a True Blood fan, you’ve probably never heard of Nelsan Ellis, but I’m a True Blood fan; more specifically – a Lafayette Reynolds fan. I adored Lafayette in all his hooka-fabulous glory…and Nelsan Ellis was the actor who delivered Lafayette to my living room and buried him deep in my heart.
I was crushed by the news of his passing.
“Heart failure?!” I muttered, scanning the article aloud. “How does a 39-year old die from heart failure?”
My manfriend responded, “How do some of these athletes and young kids die from heart problems? I guess nobody knows when it’s their time. And I hate to speculate, but a lot of times, deaths like that involve drug or alcohol damage.”
Nelsan Ellis wasn’t Kim Kardashian famous so the details of his personal life were never front-page news, but I’d never read anything to suggest he struggled with substance abuse. Maybe it was just bad genetic luck, I thought…I hoped.
And then Monday happened. His family released additional information regarding his death. The following is an excerpt from an online article:
Nelsan’s father has bravely agreed for me to share the circumstances of Nelsan’s heart failure. Nelsan has suffered with drug and alcohol abuse for years. After many stints in rehab, Nelsan attempted to withdraw from alcohol on his own. According to his father, during his withdrawal from alcohol he had a blood infection, his kidneys shut down, his liver was swollen, his blood pressure plummeted, and his dear sweet heart raced out of control.
On the morning of Saturday July 8th, […] Nelsan was pronounced dead. […] Nelsan was ashamed of his addiction and thus was reluctant to talk about it during his life. His family, however, believes that in death he would want his life to serve as a cautionary tale in an attempt to help others.
Upon completion of the article, I felt a kinship with the gone-too-soon artist. I know what it’s like to feel deeply ashamed. I know what it’s like to feel controlled and gripped by substances you desperately want to escape.
And then I became furious.
Furious with our culture…with an alcohol-centric society…with ignorance…with the multi-billion-dollar-a-year alcohol industry…with commercials and marketing campaigns and “but first, wine” quips…furious with our healthcare system for failing to properly educate people about the dangers surrounding (EVEN MODERATE) alcohol use…furious with myself for not being louder or more resolute in my beliefs.
I couldn’t help but feel that we, as a society, were to blame for Nelsan’s death and the millions of other drug-related deaths which occur each and every year…largely unacknowledged…mostly swept under the rug…happening only to those of us who make it into the “other” category, the problem drinkers and users.
Nelsan’s family hopes his death will serve as a cautionary tale. It won’t. It can’t possibly – not in a country and culture that so thoroughly celebrates and incorporates booze into the fabric of our lives.
There exists an invisible line and we’re aloud to consume alcohol, an inherently addictive substance, as frequently as we please: in large and dangerous quantities, at family gatherings, in public spaces, in the company of children, in photos on social media accounts, with glasses raised and eyes glazed…as long as we don’t cross the line into “problem” territory.
If, per chance, your biology reacts to alcohol or other narcotics the way it’s designed to react (i.e.: to become addicted), you’re fucked.
To “come out” as someone who struggles with substance abuse is to pick up an almost unbearable burden of shame and embarrassment – to know most people will believe something is wrong with you or that you’re lacking self-discipline or sick or irreparably broken.
We’ve been brainwashed into believing there is such a thing as “normal” drinking. And we let people like Nelsan and myself do battle against a behemoth in silence, in hiding, drowning in shame, desperate to avoid the pity and stigma.
The first few months after I quit drinking, I kept quiet for fear of failing. Then I got loud. I got super excited and said things like, “I’m three months sober!” and watched my mother cringe. She didn’t want me to make those kind of proclamations; it wasn’t something she wanted broadcasted to family members and friends. She believes, like we’ve all been taught to believe, being sober is something to keep close to my chest – if not hidden altogether. Because it’s something I should be ashamed of. Like I failed at “normal drinking” somehow.
And THAT’S exactly what killed Nelsan Ellis and millions of others. It’s exactly the kind of mass-cultural belief that will continue killing our people.
Sober family, here’s what I recommend we do: LET’S GET AS LOUD AS WE’RE COMFORTABLE. I can’t tell you how many people, upon learning I don’t drink alcohol, approached me with their own drinking stories, questions, and requests for guidance. It’s scary to “come out” as HAPPILY and PROUDLY sober, but you know what happens when you do? You kill a little bit of the stigma…murder it right there in its tracks. You become blazing truth; a beacon of light. And Lord knows the world needs more truth and light.
Last night, I sent a screenshot of the article regarding Nelsan Ellis’ death to my sweet manfriend with the following message: “You were right. The actor I was telling you about died from complications associated with alcohol withdrawal. Man alive, I will never stop being grateful to be free of that shit.”
Onward and louder, loves.
Also – because she fucking nails it, all the time: