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How Insomnia Killed Michael Jackson

by Cath Murphy

November 8, 2011

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Donate There’s a kind of twisted irony for me in the story of how Michael Jackson died. As skeptics, we’re used to stories about people choosing alt-med over science-based medicine and the bad consequences for their health that results. In Jackson’s case, that scenario seems to be turned on its head. One of the witnesses in the trial of Conrad Murray, now found guilty of the singer’s manslaughter, told how she suggested to Jackson that he try “sleepy tea” as a cure for his insomnia. Jackson responded that he had tried the tea and it didn’t work. As it turned out, Jackson’s autopsy revealed that he had taken five different sedatives in the time leading up to his death, including both lorazepam and diazepam as well as the now notorious propofol: the anaesthetic which eventually killed him. I’m no medic, but I’m pretty sure that no one has yet died from an overdose of chamomile tea.

What Jackson’s death does illustrate is that making bad choices about how to treat your body isn’t just the preserve of those who trust in the power of apples to cure cancer. Jackson wasn’t sold a quack cure by a charlatan " he was being treated by a qualified doctor. At the time of his death he was in better than average health for a person of his age. All that was wrong with him was that he found it difficult to sleep for more than five hours at a time and like many people who suffer from chronic insomnia, he desperately wanted a cure for his condition. But the psychology behind Jackson’s decision to fill himself (or allow himself to be filled) with an assortment of medications which would fell the average bull elephant, isn’t so different from that of the person who has a cupboard full of vitamins to treat the chronic fatigue caused by stress. Like many of the complaints which throng the appointment books of the alt-med community, insomnia is common, distressing and stubbornly resistant to conventional therapies. Benzodiazepines (which include lorazepam and diazepam) are sometimes used as a short term treatment for insomnia, but taken long term can make the problem worse - as appeared to happen in Jackson’s case. The best treatment for sleep disorders is cognitive therapy along with the teaching of relaxation techniques. No one has ever died from trying these either, but they take patience and the willingness to commit to lifestyle changes. When a sleep diary was suggested to Jackson, he said he didn’t have the time and it strikes me that there’s a straight line here between that and the back pain sufferer who prefers acupuncture to exercise, or those of us who buy diet books instead of eating less. Sometimes the answer to what ails us exists, but is harder work than we would like.

But in case anyone thinks I’m anti medication, another recent story had my feathers well and truly ruffled. The Synagogue Church of all Nations in London has been linked to three recent deaths, after encouraging HIV positive patients to come off their medication in favor of prayer. According to its website, which also carries testimonials from people claiming prayer cured their HIV infection, there is ‘never a sickness that Jesus cannot heal.’ Except stupidity, of course.

by Cath Murphy

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