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A reality clouded by drugs

Michael Jackson was like the rest of us — trying to manage life.

October 29, 2011|Sandy Banks
  • A man outside the downtown L.A. courthouse shows support for Michael Jackson, who was an extreme example of the demands life makes. Dr. Conrad Murray is being tried in the pop star's death.
A man outside the downtown L.A. courthouse shows support for Michael Jackson,… (Michael Nelson / European…)

The Conrad Murray manslaughter trial is mercifully limping toward its end, with the defense team trying to put the victim on trial — portraying pop star Michael Jackson as a desperate drug abuser who concocted his own fatal brew.

In summing up testimony Thursday night, NBC news anchor Brian Williams asked whether Jackson might have been nothing more than a hopeless, doctor-shopping drug addict.

If that was the case, then Jackson had several high-powered accomplices and plenty of mainstream company.

Full coverage: The trial of Conrad Murray

In 2009, the year Jackson died with six prescription drugs in his system, more people were killed by drug overdoses — 37,485 — than by traffic accidents in this country. Prescription pain pills and anxiety drugs were responsible for more deaths that year than cocaine and heroin combined.

In the world of legal meds, Jackson was at the top of the food chain. If you hurt, you might get Vicodin; he got routine shots of Demerol. If you can't sleep, you take Ambien; insomniac Jackson got propofol.

But to dispatch him as nothing more than a doomed and driven drug abuser doesn't do justice to the issue:

Like so many people, he was searching for a simple fix to the complicated problems of high-pressure living.

I'm not saying Michael Jackson was "Everyman." He was extraordinarily rich, supremely talented and stunningly eccentric. But if his life was celebrity writ large, well, so were these challenges:

-- The emotional pain of a life spent in the spotlight, the relentless public scrutiny.

-- The physical toll on a fragile body, abused in ways we couldn't see.

-- The need to satisfy millions of fans with someone that he used to be.

Can you blame him for wanting an escape inside a dreamless sleep? It seems to me that's a universal hunger in this plugged-in, amped-up reality that passes for normal society.

What Jackson had that most of us don't — unfortunately, it seems — was a $150,000-a-month private doctor willing to help him push past rational limits.

::

Celebrities aren't the only ones who slide from self-medicating routine stress into destructive drug addiction.

We've become a prescription-dependent culture — both patients and physicians. And getting ushered down the road toward addiction is easier than you might think.

A young friend of mine hurt his back recently in a surfing incident. He found a doctor through his insurance company's website and X-rays were taken of his aching ribs. He walked out with a clean bill of health — and a prescription for 75 Vicodin pills.

That doesn't make the doctor a criminal. But it does help explain why, according to respected medical research, 1 in 4 18-to-25-year-olds will abuse prescription painkillers in their lifetime.

And I guess I shouldn't have been shocked to read that 1 in 10 Americans over 12 years old takes an anti-depressant drug. That's according to a study by the National Center for Health Statistics. Among women in my age range, the number jumps to 1 in 4.

Fewer than a quarter of those with prescriptions have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety disorders. Most got the drug from family physicians for what once were considered ordinary problems — trouble sleeping, moodiness, difficulties in relationships.

In our hyper-competitive world, it's easy to feel like a failure: A parent who can't afford college tuition; a middle-aged woman surrounded by Botoxed friends; a downsized exec who can't find a job and has to trade in the Lexus.

For me, a Blackberry with a blinking light is a constant reminder of all the people I'm tethered to, all of the messages I've yet to return, all of the tasks I don't have time to do.

There are so many ways to feel slammed these days, it's not hard to see the lure of a quick pharmaceutical feel-good.

::

The Murray trial, whichever way it goes, will have done some good if it draws our attention to the dangers of over-reliance on prescription drugs.

Propofol is an extreme example of a dangerous drug; it's an anesthetic typically used only in a fully staffed medical setting. It's not being traded on the streets.

But then Michael Jackson is an extreme example of the balancing act that life requires. He was a single father trying to pay the bills, provide a safe, happy home for his kids, and revive a fading career. He also was an icon, revered by millions.

And he was fearful that he might fail to deliver.

For me, Jackson stopped being an icon the moment I heard concert promoter Randy Phillips recall a tearful meeting with the superstar. Jackson told him the main reason he was going all-out for the concert series was to earn enough to purchase a home for his children so they could stop living like "vagabonds" moving from hotel to hotel.

Full coverage: The trial of Conrad Murray

"He finally wanted to really settle down and really get a good home for him and his family," Phillips testified.

Such a simple request, so important and fundamental; a dream that Jackson worried was slipping away in a string of sleepless nights.

He was surrounded by enablers, but no one to set boundaries. And that's what was needed to make it real.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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