Tuesday, 19 January 2016

David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Glenn Frey - should we have known they were sick?

In less than two weeks, the world has lost three much loved and greatly influential performers. David Bowie, icon of the unique; Alan Rickman, suave bad guy with the honeyed voice to die for; and Glenn Frey, guitarist and co-founder of rock band The Eagles. 

These men were all 'icons' in their way. Bowie, chameleon extraordinaire, and the master of reinvention before that was even a thing, made it possible for generations of fans to accept the 'different' in themselves. His landmark ventures in music carved out a unique pathway through the work of more mainstream music makers. Rickman, classically trained and a force to be reckoned with on stage, by all accounts, will always be loved/hated as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movie franchise, but there were so many other roles he played where he made a huge impact, and gathered fans. Frey was the co-founder of one of the iconic bands of my childhood and adolescence, and many others of my generation. I know all the words to Hotel California - who doesn't? There is still a timelessness to their music - much of which he wrote or co-wrote - that speaks of serious talent and knowledge of music that we see so rarely these days in the contemporary music scene. 

Much of the shock appears to have been due to two main factors: none of them were very old - late 60s, and all of them were ill and had chosen to keep that information private. In today's terms, the late sixties are no longer seen as the venerable age they once were. The bibilical 'three score years and ten' (70) that we have traditionally been allotted is certainly a landmark age, but the average life expectancy in Australia is currently around 82. Our sense of what is really 'old' has changed, and while we know and accept that illness and accidents all too frequently take people much younger, we are able to reconcile ourselves to the death of someone in their 80s - they had a 'good run', after all. 

That they were all three ill, and decided to keep that information within their families is absolutely fine, as far as I'm concerned. Yes, it adds to the shock for fans, but that's their decision. There's an agenda out there, particularly in chronic illness circles, so I'm certainly seeing a degree of backlash as far as Frey is concerned, that people in public positions should be open about illness, so that awareness can be created about the diseases, which will benefit those of us with similar illness who don't have a public face. I have a real issue with the assumption that because someone is a public figure, they have an obligation to also be advocates for their disease. Certainly, there have been famous people who have been open - Jane McGrath, among others, did that for breast cancer in Australia. Due to her profile, and that of her husband who has continued the work, the foundation formed in her name has been instrumental in placing a large number of specialised cancer nurses in medical centres to benefit other women suffering the disease. That's all to the good - BUT, it was a personal choice made by McGrath. It remains, and should remain, an entirely personal decision as to whether or not anyone - public figure or otherwise - creates a public profile based on their disease and educates and/or advocates for it. Should some individuals chose not to should not mean that they be castigated - during or after their lives.
I am beyond angry to see the level of hysteria and panic in the groups I belong to on Facebook over the claim by Glenn Frey's manager that it was the drugs he took for RA and Ulcerative Colitis that killed him. One - to my mind - highly ill-advised, irresponsible and disrespectful comment has sparked a rash of posts and threads with people worrying about what this means for them, wanting to know which meds he was talking about (having said what he did, he followed up by saying he'd been legally advised to not divulge the particular drugs), and the inevitable comments from the woo merchants alluding to Big Pharma and the poisons that they call drugs that we should all, apparently, avoid.

The official statement from the Eagles website, from his family and friends, is that he died from complications of RA, UC and pneumonia. THAT is what should be respected. I don't think, also, that writing posts and comments berating him posthumously for not having been more public about having RA is useful either. This phenomena seems to me to be more rife in chronic illness circles than other diseases - somehow, if a person has cancer, there is a different level of respect granted them for their fight, and space to do that without the requirement that they do anything beyond manage their lives with the disease. I haven't seen similar comments being made about either David Bowie or Alan Rickman, neither of whom made their fights with cancer public knowledge. 

That the family did make public Frey's fifteen year struggle with RA and UC public with the announcement of his death is, I believe, useful in itself, because it does raise public awareness of the seriousness of diseases like RA. All too often, those of us living with the disease struggle to be taken seriously, by doctors and non-medical people alike. Unfortunately, his manager's comment about the drugs has taken away from that, by introducing a level of conspiracy theory that not only raises great fear and unease among other people with RA, but it downplays the intrinsic seriousness of the disease itself. 

For myself, it is a sobering reminder that my disease is serious, that I have to maintain focus on ensuring that I continue to have a good medical team around me, and that I keep educating myself about advances in research and emerging treatments so I always give myself the best shot of keeping it controlled. What I see online suggests to me that, unfortunately, too many people don't do that. They're so fast to grab onto sensational moments like that comment about Frey's drugs, without realising that the combination of diseases Frey had, in addition to surgery for the UC, and the complication of pneumonia appear to have been a perfect storm of pathologies that brought about his death. We DON'T KNOW any more than the family have chosen to make public, and we can't assume anything. Everyone with this disease presents differently, and everyone responds differently to accepted medical protocols. Instead of ricocheting wildly into the realms of supposition and panic, we should instead be reminding ourselves that Frey was ill with a serious disease, and all too tragically, he died. As did Bowie and Rickman from their respective cancers.   

The world has lost three remarkable men who contributed enormously in their respective fields, and we will be poorer for losing them. That is enough. Zichrono livracha, and may their memories always be a blessing.


  1. Hear, hear! Nothing frustrates me more than the blind resistance against the medications. "Just find out what causes the inflammation and stop doing that" they say. Like researchers hacen't been looking for decades. "Just stop eating gluten" they say. Well, it's not as simple as that. And onto the privacy issue. Being a public figure does not require you to share everything. It's great when celebrities do, but jeez... when someone's dying, can't you allow them the dignity of privacy?

    1. EXACTLY!!!
      The big pharma conspiracies are just rubbish - I know where I'd be without the drugs, and I don't want it. So, I'll take them. Someone else wants to subscribe to the conspiracy theory - well fine, but keep it to yourself, and don't make ME the bad guy for taking the meds.
      I find the current climate of 'ownership' of public figures offensive - I really do. Just because they have jobs that make them familiar, on some level, to us, doesn't make them our property, with rights to the inner workings of their lives. The press have a lot to answer for, as far as that's concerned, but so do the general public, for buying the publications full of paparazzi shots and scoop articles. It's hard enough to live with an illness, and G-d forbid, lose a loved one without it all being in the public eye. Everyone deserves, and should have a right to conduct their private lives privately - and there's NO obligation, in my book, for anyone with an illness to become a poster child for that illness.

  2. Again, I can rely on you Kaz to inject some sense into the discussion. I agree that each person's battle with any sort of illness is entirely personal and one should not be obliged to turn it into some political or other kind of agenda. I find it hard enough getting through my daily life and managing my autoimmune conditions without any extra burdens or expectations of advocacy. Our first responsibilities are to our own health so we can be the best people we can be and live the best lives possible (for ourselves and those around us and our communities). Coming to terms with chronic illness and its progression and complications is a battle in itself and it needn't be a public one. Before anyone can 'go public' about anything, they need to be able to reconcile the situation within themselves - an ongoing process that may never be realised within one's lifespan. I had no idea that such arguments were going on in response to Glen Frey's death. Like you, it is a reminder and notice to everyone that RA can have serious consequences. I hope the awareness that is raised about RA can lead to better support for RA sufferers in the long run instead.
    I keep thinking there must be a rockin' party going on in heaven with David Bowie, Glen Frey and Stevie Wright as new arrivals!

    1. Thanks Jodie. If I'm making some sense of the discussion, that's a good thing - I've not seen a lot of sense out there in social media land... While I can understand the fears that Frey's death have awakened for many, I can't understand the hysteria. I don't have energy for that - apart from anything else!!
      If, by the family making public his illness, there is an added level of public awareness about RA and other autoimmune diseases, that's a useful thing. However, clearly he chose not to be an active part of raising that awareness, and as you say, there are a gazillion reasons why that could have been, just as there are for the rest of us. Lene Andersen - who commented above - has posted an interesting piece about RA specifically - I'll tag you on FB so you can read. Different angle, but applicable to your situation too.
      Alan Rickman must be MCing that party - wouldn't it be a blast?!

  3. I will make it short and sweet. thank you for writing a fantastic piece that says all that was needed to be said.

    brilliant, to the point.

    thank you.

    1. Thank you for dropping by and reading. And leaving a comment!

  4. I think it's up to anyone whether they share their conditions, whether they be a public figure or a 'real life' person. I have ankylosing spondylitis and fibro, and a host of other conditions, including not quite diagnosed gut conditions, but most of my illnesses are autoimmune. Some of the meds I have been given have made me very sick and caused other illnesses. But this is the same with many conditions. It doesn't mean I'll stop taking what my specialists suggest are best for me, because they are the experts. And yes, I'll continue to try everything else as well! And, it's sad when people die, particularly those talented icons we think of being immortal. But none of us are.