Dubbed the “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson is recognized as one of the greatest cultural icons of the 20th century. He earned hundreds of awards over his career that spanned four decades, including 13 Grammys, 86 Billboard Awards, 85 MTV Awards, eight World Music Awards, and 13 number-one singles on the Billboard 100, more than any other male artist to date. He holds 31 Guinness World Records, including Best Selling Album in History for Thriller, which sold about 65 million copies worldwide. He also gifted the world with complicated dance moves such as the robot and the moonwalk which, decades later, people are still trying to replicate.
Jackson’s career began in 1964 when he and four of his brothers formed what came to be known as “The Jackson 5.” The group quickly became popular and could be found playing anywhere from talent shows and school dances to clubs and cocktail lounges. In 1967, they won an amateur night concert at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, a distinction shared with the Isley Brothers, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. Through the late 60s and early 70s, Jackson 5 sold more than 100 million records worldwide. Jackson last performed with his brothers on the Victory Tour of 1984 and launched his solo career.
When Did Michael Jackson’s Drug Addiction Begin?
Prior to leaving the Jackson 5 in 1984, Jackson and the other members of the group filmed a Pepsi commercial. During a simulated concert, pyrotechnics accidentally set Jackson’s hair on fire, causing second-degree burns to his scalp. To help him with the pain from the severe burns and the reconstructive surgeries that followed, Jackson’s doctors prescribed opioids.
Later, Jackson would attribute the fire to the beginning of his experience with drug addiction. In one statement, he said, “I remain out of the country. I have been undergoing treatment for dependency on pain medication. This medication was initially prescribed to soothe the excruciating pain that I was suffering after recent reconstructive surgery on my scalp.”
In 1993, Jackson entered rehab where he progressed through a 12-step program. Despite his commitment to recovery, he continued to live with substance addiction for the rest of his life. By the time of his death in 2009, Jackson was receiving daily doses of OxyContin, a strong prescription opioid used to manage severe pain, and was regularly taking Demerol and anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications. He also had numerous track marks that indicated intravenous drug use.
Aside from his time in rehab, Jackson was largely in denial of his addiction. Friends and family routinely staged interventions and privately expressed their concerns regarding his drug habits. Unfortunately, Jackson turned down their help.
Jackson died in 2009 at age 50 of cardiac arrest. His death was caused by a combination of sedatives and propofol, which his doctor prescribed and administered to treat insomnia. Propofol is a general anesthetic used to cause relaxation and sleepiness for and during major surgeries. It works by lowering the individual’s blood pressure and slowing their breathing, making it very important for the individual to be closely monitored. His doctor was ultimately charged with and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Addiction Is a Common Struggle
While Michael Jackson’s career success set him apart, his experience with opioid misuse and reliance on addictive sedatives is far too common. Anyone who takes opioids or sedatives, even if they were given a prescription, is at risk of developing an addiction. Certain factors, such as living in high-stress environments or having mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, make some people more vulnerable to becoming addicted.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, roughly a third of people prescribed opioids go on to misuse them, and about one in 10 people who take a prescription opioid for chronic pain becomes addicted. Among people who use heroin, about 80 percent misused opioids prescribed to help them manage pain.
Despite stereotypes, anyone can develop an addiction regardless of where they live, their level of education, income, and family status.
What Caused Michael Jackson’s Drug Addiction?
In Jackson’s case, star status was likely a contributing factor to his addiction because it ensured easy access to strong medications available only by prescription. While Jackson’s drug use was extensive, his lawyers said that there was no evidence at the time of Jackson’s death that he used more painkillers than his doctor prescribed.
Instead, his lawyers contended that AEG Live executives were negligent for paying a doctor $150,000 per month to treat Jackson. This salary made it very difficult for the doctor, whose own financial situation was precarious, to deny Jackson’s request for strong medications. In court, Jackson’s longtime dermatologist blamed the doctors who prescribed these drugs for Jackson’s addiction and ultimately his death, calling them criminals.
Learning from Michael Jackson’s Experience with Addiction
Michael Jackson’s story ultimately ended with tragedy. Like many living with substance abuse, Jackson was unable to admit that he needed help. While every person is responsible for their own addiction and recovery, there are environmental circumstances that can make it very difficult to maintain sobriety. For many caught up in addiction, social factors can hinder long-term success.
Entering rehab is an important first step to change, but lasting recovery depends on what happens after the individual completes their treatment program and is reintegrating into society. Those who enter back into their pre-rehab routines and relationships may have a very difficult time incorporating the skills they learned. It’s much easier to fall back into old patterns and go back to using drugs or alcohol than it is to incorporate new habits and healthier coping skills.
The average person living with addiction doesn’t have access to a doctor whose financial security depends on their ability to provide the drugs their patient requests. However, they likely have their own network of enablers who provide them with the substances they’re addicted to or play a role in normalizing addictive behavior.
Stories such as Michael Jackson’s can effectively illustrate the importance of having strong social networks of people who support each other’s mental health and sobriety. For families and friends, this may underscore the need for providing regular check-ins and encouragement after addiction rehab. For the individual seeking sobriety, it can be a reminder of the importance of connecting with those who support recovery and cutting ties with those who enable drug or alcohol use.
Finally, Jackson’s story shows the importance of choosing ethical health care providers. In recent years, the public has paid more attention to the incentives doctors get for prescribing opioids, which undoubtedly resulted in far more people being exposed to addictive painkillers than necessary. One recent study showed that health care providers are still prescribing opioids at rates much higher than those of other developed nations. To help individuals reduce their risk of developing an opioid addiction, the CDC recommends that patients talk to their doctors about the risks and benefits of prescription opioids, ask about non-opioid alternatives and ensure their doctor knows about other medications they take.
Addiction is treatable, but it’s nearly impossible to reach recovery without professional help. If you or someone you know is living with an addiction, contact FHE today to speak with an intake specialist about our levels of care, admissions process, and post-rehab support.