Let’s Go Crazy: Lessons Learned From Prince

By Emily Ullrich, Columnist

As many call for Prince’s death to be a “wake up call” to America about the dangers of prescription drugs, I propose a different wake up call.

If the allegations are true, and Prince did die of an overdose, I propose that we use the messages that Prince preached and lived: messages of understanding and compassion. America needs to “wake up” to the oppression and depression that keep many chronic pain patients quiet about their conditions, and the reprehensible stigma with which this country punishes pain patients.

By now, many of us have read Lorraine Berry’s insightful piece, “Prince did not die from pain pills -- he died from chronic pain.” Perhaps the most poignant statement Berry made was, “Chronic pain kills. It killed Prince. It’s time to talk about it.”

We love to find flaws in celebrities, particularly those of a scandalous nature. Instead of finding compassion for a beloved icon, we are quick to turn our backs and make the pain of loss easier by falling prey to the judgmental “celebrity druggie” stereotype.

I propose that we pay tribute to Prince in a way I think he would have appreciated, by using this tragedy to start a conversation about the differences between addiction and dependence, about the commonality of chronic pain, and the deeply rooted prejudice associated with the disease of chronic pain.

But, I also propose we take it one step further, and affect change. We need not complain to each other endlessly about “us” (those who suffer chronic pain) and “them” (the healthy), and the great rift between. We have been doing that for years, and although it’s nice to know that someone else “gets it,” it is not other chronic pain sufferers who we need to understand our plight.

As much as we may not like to admit it, there are some similarities between addicts and chronic pain patients -- neither of us get the treatment or respect we need and deserve. We tend to be equally as judgmental of addicts, deeming them lower on the social hierarchy than us, in the same way as healthy people think of us to them.

I am not suggesting we continue to blur the lines between addiction and dependence, but I am suggesting we consider fighting this battle together.

There was a time when white people who sympathized with black civil rights activists were considered “almost as bad” as the “uppity blacks,” who demanded their well-deserved, long overdue rights to equality. Eventually, most people began to understand that treating people differently, as though they were not entitled to the same liberties, was intrinsically wrong. Many didn’t like it, but they had to abide by it. Understanding would only came later.

The same can be said about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and other groups that differ from what society considers “normal.” On many levels, these groups still struggle with inequities, just as we do, but they are making strides. And we must, too.

As it stands, the current political and social climate surrounding pain medication and chronic pain itself, not to mention addiction, have become civil rights issues. We no longer need to worry about gaining understanding, as much as we do defending our basic human rights. Although understanding is a part of the answer and a desirable outcome, sometimes people must be pressed to follow rules against discrimination. 

I was an outsider long before I was a chronic pain patient. I am a long–time artist, activist, outspoken woman, and all-around “weirdo” in many circles. But, I’ve never been ashamed of that. In fact, I’ve always taken pride in my one-of-a-kindness, having been voted “Most Unique” in my class of ‘93 at a conservative, rural high school.

To me, Prince always seemed a kindred spirit—emotional, passionate, creative, misunderstood. Now that I know he suffered chronic pain, and that he may have had double hip replacement, I find myself even more drawn to his spirit of individuality and strength. I find myself respecting him and relating to him on an entirely different level now.

His elusive, gentle, humane, kind, pained soul was not merely the cliché tortured soul of an artist, but also the tortured soul of a human being who must present a strong face, while holding back the physical and emotional pain, loneliness, and often hopelessness that all chronic pain patients can relate to.

In the name of Prince, I propose a revolution. The play on words is not accidental. Prince revolutionized music, fashion, art, gender and sexual perceptions, and more. He was for many of us the embodiment of our coming of age and understanding. Let us memorialize him in a way he would appreciate—by standing up for who we are, and by not being afraid or embarrassed of what people will think or say.

And like his band, The Revolution, let us stand with him, and make the world see that we will not be shamed, shunned, or disenfranchised, and that we will stand up for our rights and be prepared to explain and defend our cause -- life.

“Dearly beloved: We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Electric word, life. It means forever and that's a mighty long time.”

In Prince’s honor, let’s go crazy and do something unheard of. Understand each other and learn from this.

Emily Ullrich suffers from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), Sphincter of Oddi Dysfunction, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, endometriosis,  Interstitial Cystitis, migraines, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, anxiety, insomnia, bursitis, depression, multiple chemical sensitivity, and chronic pancreatitis

Emily is a writer, artist, filmmaker, and has even been an occasional stand-up comedian. She now focuses on patient advocacy for the International Pain Foundation, as she is able.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.