By Cynthia Toussaint
In April this year, it snowed.
When I got the news that Prince, my all-time favorite performer, was gone I was devastated. I picked up the phone and called my mom – and we both sobbed.
For the first decade of my CRPS, Prince helped me survive. I played his music and watched his videos on MTV constantly. His singing and dancing gave me the adrenaline rush I got from the performing I’d lost – and when I felt suicidal I’d think, “This rush, this excitement isn’t going to be wherever I go when I die. It’s here and now. I’m going to stick around.”
Prince’s death took me through most of the stages of grieving. When I first saw the report on the internet, I told John it was a hoax. In fact the whole first day in between news reports I kept going back to work because it couldn’t be true. Denial is a powerful balm for overwhelming emotional pain.
Numb by that night, I saw a replay of Prince accepting a life-time achievement award in 2010. It was clear to me from his tears and words that he was suffering and not long for this world. I just didn’t know why such a vital, young man was speaking about handing over the creative keys to a younger generation. Heading off to bed though, that clip gave me some peace because I believed the reports of his death from natural causes.
When I woke to learn that Prince had had chronic pain and most likely overdosed from opioids, I was angry. Really angry. Questions swirled around my head: Why wasn’t he stronger? Why didn’t he care about his life? Why would he hurt the pain community? Was he really just an addict? Though still confused, most of my feelings about Prince had turned to disappointment and even bitterness.
Two weeks later when I was one of 25,000 who attended his memorial at Los Angeles city hall, I was still wrestling with feelings of love and gratitude for this artistic genius and contempt for his weakness. When the tribute organizers released a stream of white doves, I cried. Mostly I was just mad that he wasn’t there – and he would never be there again.
While waiting for the medical examiner’s report from Minnesota, I caught CNN’s town hall about opioids. One of the doctors frightened me when he described the appearance of people who overdose on these drugs. That was an “a-ha” moment for me.
About 15 years ago my then pain doctor gave me fentanyl patches, instructing me to slap one on my chest next time I was at a level 10 pain. I did that one morning when John was at work and then quickly fell asleep. Next thing I remember was hearing my mom talking to me from the foot of my bed. I woke to an empty room frightened and disoriented. I don’t remember calling John, though he tells me I did mumbling about our children who were in Yellowstone Park and in danger.
As John raced home, he got my doctor to phone me – and I recall him yelling to rip the patch off. By the time John arrived, I was so pale, weak and nauseous he was afraid for my life. I recently shared this event with my psychologist who informed me that I had hallucinated from drug-induced psychosis. She also said I was lucky to be alive.
When Prince’s report stated he’d accidentally overdosed on fentanyl, I was overwhelmed by sadness and stunned it was the same drug that almost killed me. Finally in acceptance, I now see that Prince was a victim of chronic pain and at least one irresponsible doctor.
I have a new question: with chronic pain being an epidemic public health problem, why do opioids after 150+ years remain the gold standard of pain management? No matter what angle you come from, these drugs are flat-out dangerous. While they are tremendous pain relievers, opioids can also generate dependence, addiction and death. We deserve better!
The only reason opioids are still the go-to therapy is that this country has never respected chronic pain as the hellish, life-destroying disease it is. The time is now for a “moon-shot” initiative that pours billions of dollars of resources into developing safe and effective pain relieving medications.
I hope this brilliant artist’s death will push us one step closer to finding that grace. Thank you, sweet Prince, for being mine during many of my darkest hours.
Cynthia Toussaint lives in Los Angeles. She founded For Grace, which is a non-profit that concentrates on the issue of women in pain.