Tom Petty and The Opioid Crisis

The first semi-confirmation came through an Instagram post, then Facebook, then an email article from Rolling Stones Magazine (which quoted the Coroner’s findings). My suspicions were confirmed. I could feel my heart pumping in my chest as I read the Coroner’s conclusion. Too many drugs were in Tom Petty’s system. They were prescription drugs. For me, that made it even sadder. And I am sad.


Yes, I am a huge fan of Tom Petty’s music. Losing someone I’ve watched and enjoyed in concert over a dozen times, I was impacted by his death. That seems an inaccurate way to describe my emotions. Too, nonchalant. More than that sadness, it’s the cause of death that has added a thick heavy layer of darkness to my emotions. Even, all of these months after his death in October 2017.

As I read the article, slowly the unclear picture around his cardiac arrest, moved into focus. The official cause of death, these words jumped off the page as I read them, accidental overdose. Drugs in his system;  several pain medications, including Fentanyl, Oxycodone and generic Xanax. Other medications included generic Restoril (a sleep aid) and generic Celexa (which treats depression) according to Rolling Stones Magazine. (See the article here)

I want to add my personal opinion, I truly believe it was accidental.


What jumped out at me, was the Fentanyl, Oxycodone, and Generic Xanax. There is some clarity in this information as we move into the quagmire of prescriptions for Opioids, I am not really blaming the physicians. Yes, they do have some culpability, I don’t believe that can’t be denied. I’ll get into the pressure they are under to get patients out of pain, or at least some level of comfort in a bit. I want to first draw attention to most people’s lack of awareness of the dangers of Opioids, and just what drugs are considered an Opioid.



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Here is a point I’d like to make, the average person that is not in the medical field, is most likely clueless of all of the names for an Opioid. Who can even pronounce half of that list? Even if you are aware of some of the more common prescription names, you aren’t aware of the dangers, and who is really at risk.

Allow me to back up a bit, in this quagmire that is the opioid problem in the United States.

I began putting my first program together for prevention, about four years ago. I developed it initially from a backward look, that started with suicide. I studied and talked with experts in the field of suicide prevention, and drew a popular conclusion that many individuals that commit suicide have an addiction problem.

From there, I began looking at why is it that some people develop addictions, and others don’t. I began with a broad view. I know that there is much research, findings, and opinions on this subject. I went inward and listened to my intuition here. I am not saying that there isn’t validity to “predisposition”, or an “addictive gene”, I drew another conclusion based on all of the information (I know it wasn’t exhaustive) I reviewed. I believe that what “makes” someone susceptible to addictions is a discomfort with themselves.

Here is where it gets personal for me. Just like Tom Petty and Prince who suffered abuse in childhood, #metoo. It doesn’t matter what kind of abuse, that’s where you can get stuck in the details. It’s abuse in the formative childhood years, that can cause PTSD like reaction. As a result, we look to numb ourselves from our emotions; intentionally or unintentionally.

My most damaging behavior was my horrible temper. It got worse before it got better. It may not seem that anger is as destructive as an addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, food, or shopping. Pause for a moment and think about the damage to those around someone with one of these addictions, then to the person who has the addiction. I recite the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr

God grant me serenity

to accept the things I cannot change,

courage to change the things I can,

and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time,

enjoying one moment at a time.

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace.

Taking this sinful world as it is,

not as I would have it.

Trusting that You will make

all things right

if I surrender to Your will.

So that I may be reasonably happy

in this life and supremely happy

with You forever in the next.


Let me return to Tom Petty. Tom had successfully kicked an addiction to heroin during his forties. Heroin is considered an opioid (somewhat interchangeable used with opioit). I’m not personal friends with Tom or any of his family,  so this is a guess. I don’t believe that he would have knowingly taken Fentanyl, Oxycodone, and Xanax had he known they were so similar to Heroin AND classified as the same type of drug.

I do know that when someone is in extreme-ongoing-pain, they will do just about anything to get out of pain. I had back pain over a year ago, and unbeknownst to me, I was prescribed an opioid, with no warning from the prescribing physician. With my propensity towards addiction, (I have other precursors) I don’t believe I would have taken the painkillers, even with as much pain as I was in.

Tom Petty during his Fortieth Anniversary Tour with the Heartbreakers, fractured his hip. His hip worsened as did the pain as he continued to perform throughout the United States last year. He also had other health issues, like emphysema and heart disease, along with depression.  Just imagine the conversations he may have had with his doctors. He wanted to honor his commitment to his fans, bandmates, and all of those that are financially impacted by a musical tour of that magnitude.

I am sure, he argued for and justified the amount of medication he was taking, with his physicians and himself. Maybe, very similar to Prince. We will never know. Their hearts simply couldn’t handle the extreme pain, and the amounts of medications. Both had prescriptions for and were taking Fentanyl. Not a coincidence.

What can you learn from this? Become informed. Tom Petty’s family is hoping that this will lead to a broad understanding of the opioid crisis. I want to ask, are we only capable of understanding as a result of a life lost? I have hope that you are capable of much more. Prevention must look different than the failed campaign of, “Just say no to drugs”.

Besides an awareness of what an opioid is, you can engage in preventive and life-giving habits. This is where the real work of prevention is. You have awareness of what an opioid might be called, then you move into behaviors to adopt, to strengthen your resolve, to live in a manner that nurtures you in all of your imperfections. I have them, you have them. Imperfections are part of the human condition.

We begin with getting comfortable with ourselves, and our own thoughts. Practicing self-compassion. One way that is impactful for stopping ruminating thoughts, is mindful meditation.

I am using the term mindful meditation as a broad stroke description of paying attention to our breath through meditation. Intentional focusing and letting go at the same time. It’s called a mindful or meditation practice. Not because we “hope” to obtain a level of proficiency. More that we continue to sit, and gain a sense of comfort with ourselves, and our place in the world. You may be more comfortable with Centering Prayer. Whatever you call it, or however you do it, the point is, get quiet with yourself. Daily. It’s in the daily habits that the ruminating thoughts, agitation with life, depressing feelings, and emotions, can shift, and yes even dissipate. There is an 83% decrease in depression when we practice mindfulness or centering prayer on a daily basis.

There is another action we can take that moves the needle for prevention. Volunteering. The benefits of volunteering seem obvious for the recipients, yet the largest impact is on the volunteer. When you give of yourself for the benefit of someone (thing, or entity) you take your focus off of yourself, which in turn, your ruminating thoughts, agitation with life, depressing feelings and emotion can shift and dissipate. Sounds familiar to your response to engaging in a mindfulness practice, right? Yes, yet there is a little bit of a difference, between the benefits of mindfulness, and with volunteering. Once we become comfortable with ourselves, the other we feel more connected to life, ours and those we interact with.

I don’t believe either of these activities would have saved the lives of Prince or Tom Petty. Maybe knowing that their prescriptions were for opioids, that was highly addictive and should be used on for short-term pain relief, might have made a difference. We’ll never know.

Now, you know what drugs are considered opioids. You also now know some preventative actions you can engage with, that just might save your life.

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