By Caroline Reilly
The day Prince died, I was in pain.
I had just been diagnosed with endometriosis, and I was home sick from school when I started to see tweets come in about emergency personnel being called to Paisley Park. That afternoon I sat in my mother’s car trying to figure out if I had forgotten to take my naproxen – or if I was simply in so much pain it wasn’t working, and we talked about Prince – about what he meant to us, about his beauty, and about his pain. I spent the next 24 hours reading about Prince’s death – listening to pundits on the news and on Twitter speculate about addiction, pondering whether Prince overdosed. In their uncertainty, their hypotheses seemed accusatory; nefarious – like they were blaming Prince for his death before the world had even come to grips with losing him.
At the time, it was hard for me to understand how someone could be so medicated and still be in so much pain. But as I look back over the last two years of my life since Prince’s death, some of which involved taking opiates at the direction of my doctors to manage pain as part of my recovery – and as I think about the community of chronic pain patients I have come to know – I feel like I have a clearer picture of this ephemeral man who I had always loved, and my heart aches for the way he left us. I am enraged at how badly we failed him both when he was living and after he died.
We know now that Prince died taking what he thought were Vicodin, a legal prescription medication doctors often prescribe for pain, when he was actually, and unknowingly, taking Vicodin laced with fentanyl. Forensic reports show that the Vicodin he took was counterfeit, and evidence shows that Prince did not knowingly take fentanyl. Of his death, a Minnesota prosecutor said, “In all likelihood, Prince had no idea he was taking a counterfeit pill that could kill him.” He also said that Prince had been experiencing “significant pain,” that he had been taking pain medication for years, and that he had no known prescription for Vicodin.
We don’t know why Prince was using counterfeit fentanyl or why he was taking a medication for which he did not have a prescription. But we know he was suffering. The opioid epidemic is ravaging our country. On the other side of that story though, exist chronic pain patients who need, who deserve, pain management that works, and for many living in this country today, that means the use of opioids, both because they are needed and because there exists an inexcusable deficit of alternatives for patients. So, when I think about Prince’s death, I think about how the paperwork at my internist specifies that the entire practice does not prescribe opioids and about how, in October, a major insurance company announced they would no longer cover OxyContin. I think about women I know with endometriosis who struggle to get the pain management they need, and who are looked at with suspicion in emergency rooms and in doctors’ offices where they are supposed to be made well. I think about people of color, for whom pain management is often even harder to get as some sick manifestation of the long held and deeply racist myth that black people have higher pain tolerances. I think about the number of states without legalized medical marijuana, and then the states where only a certain set of ailments qualify for a medical card needed to legally obtain it.
I think about the isolation Prince must have felt in his pain; to have such a beautiful world around him, and to have created so much of that beauty, and to have died simply trying to not be in pain.
And Prince’s death is not only a reflection on the flaws in our solutions for pain management and in the ways we fail chronic pain patients; his death is a reflection of our society’s discomfort with the reality of mortality – that death comes for all of us, if we lead private small lives, or if we’re Prince.
When Prince died, it was as if the whole world was looking for a way to explain why. They wanted to find fault, both to implicate a target of blame, and to insulate themselves from the possibility that it could happen to them — that somehow Prince must have been making bad choices, acting irresponsibly, and that by avoiding such assumed decisions, we safeguard ourselves from his fate. Pain is like death in that way; we don’t want to face its existence; it’s indiscriminate nature. We like to think that if we ever had to live with it, we would do it better than the next person, and that our lack of empathy is not out of cruelty, but out of our assuredness that we would be able to handle it; to beat it. We don’t want to think untimely death or pain can come for someone like Prince – we want to think that if you’ve earned a certain station in life, financially or otherwise, that you are exempt from facing that unbearable unpleasantness, and that if you are not, there must be some disreputable explanation for your suffering.
But Prince was as human as he was supernatural, and he was in pain. Prince, like all of us, deserved a good death, and a good death is preceded by a good life. A life in pain, chasing relief that for many is only fleeting, or a dull damper on the agony, is not a good life, it is not a fair life. And a death shrouded in speculation and judgement and exploitation, and hastened by the simple desire to not be in pain, is not a good death.
Prince Rogers Nelson
07/06/1958 – 21/04/2016
Caroline Reilly is a student at Boston College Law School and a reproductive justice advocate. She recently presented at the Death and the Maiden conference on how anti-abortion movement co-opts death-phobia to advance their agenda, and is interested in the ways in which death positivity and the reproductive justice movement intersect. She is also an avid true crime fan, and wants to further explore the ways in which women connect to the genre as a source of strength and healing. You can find her writing on abortion rights, women and pain, and more at Bitch Media, Bust, Frontline (PBS), Scarleteen, and Rewire. You access her nationally recognized writing on teen access to abortion here.
Caroline is a member of the Death & the Maiden Collective.