It’s been a sobering (no pun intended) week of tragic news stories this week. I might not have joined the dots a few weeks ago, but the dark shadow of alcohol abuse hovering over several individual tragedies seems very ominous to me right now.
Both Tim Bergling – better known as the DJ and producer Avicii – and Verne Troyer – the actor most known for his performances as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers franchise – passed away over the last few days. Both were huge talents in their respective fields, both were known globally for the creation of art which brought joy into people’s lives, and both battled with personal demons. For their friends and families, of course, the loss of these men is a tragedy, and I do not for one moment want to make glib comparisons which in any way diminish their loss or disrespect their grief. Both men, first and foremost, were human beings whose talents enhanced the world.
Both men also suffered from an abusive relationship with alcohol. They had both been open with their fanbase and with the wider media about these struggles: Troyer’s publicist released a statement last year in response to fan rumours, confirming that he had entered into a residential rehab facility to seek treatment for alcohol addiction, and latest reports from the US now indicate that he had been hospitalised with alcohol poisoning in the days before his death. Bergling discussed his excessive drinking in the media following a deterioration in his health which resulted in acute pancreatitis, gall bladder surgery, and an eventual withdrawal from the music business. Alcohol abuse wreaked havoc in their lives.
Closer to home, UK light entertainment host Ant McPartlin was brought before a court this week on a charge of drink driving. He was responsible for an accident which led to an eight-year-old child being hospitalised, pleaded guilty to the offence of driving whilst intoxicated, and was fined £86,000. He has stepped back from his television work to seek further treatment, which is an ongoing process: McPartlin entered unspecified treatment in 2017 for what he had described and “alcohol and emotional issues”.
It is, of course, impossible to say which comes first: the alcohol abuse or the emotional pain. Are these three examples of creative talents whose dark shadows drove them to drink heavily, or are they heavy drinkers whose shadows were fed and watered by alcohol abuse? In truth, with these men as with so many others, it is incredibly difficult to untangle the threads which became their own ensnaring webs.
In addition, I think it fair to say that a life lived in the public eye is its own cage, one in which every personal low is experienced in the full glare of the media spotlight. The press seizes upon stories such as these – CELEB X IN REHAB, CELEB Y’S BOOZE SHAME – gleefully, and readers devour the details of their breakdowns, their “tired and emotional” public outings documented by paparazzi, their rehab sagas rehashed for talk shows or tabloid interview specials.
Alcohol abuse is pernicious and tenacious enough for any of us to deal with: imagine trying to do so when millions of people are, metaphorically, standing with their noses pressed to the window and watching us for any potential slip-ups. Even more so, imagine trying to re-enter a world where drinking (and, for some, drugs) are part and parcel of the “showbiz” lifestyle, having to guard your sobriety against a world where your career profile goes hand-in-hand with what is perceived as a glamorous circuit of parties and after-parties, and where that glamorous lifestyle is steeped in the toxic relationship we have cultivated between an addictive drug and the notion of “good times”.
McPartlin lives, and his struggles continue. Tim Bergling and Verne Troyer have died too soon. It is unutterably sad, in every possible way, that all three have experienced lives made so much more painful by their experiences with alcohol. That these three individuals’ troubled lives made headlines this week is a bleak and tragic coincidence, but more than that, it is symptomatic of a far wider social phenomenon: that so many of us abuse alcohol, and that the alcohol industry knows full well that it sells most of its product to drinkers who drink too much, and that we as a society keep failing, over and over again, to understand how to help those whose lives are wrecked and, ultimately, ended, by the abuse of alcohol.