My older brother, 25, was addicted to opioids for the majority of my adolescence. So many of my memories from that portion of my life are clouded by my constant anxiety over his physical, mental and legal well-being.
Mac Miller died at age 26 from a suspected overdose on Sept. 7, painfully reminding me that sobriety and recovery are fragile things — and no matter how long my brother is sober, my worst fears from my adolescence are just one mistake away from coming true.
Mac’s death was especially painful because, as many people have pointed out on Twitter, his music matured as I and other young adults matured. I’m sure there are selfies of middle school me wearing a “Mac Miller Most Dope” snapback buried somewhere on the internet, taken in the same bedroom where I cried myself to sleep because my brother didn’t come home that night.
I was a huge Mac fan in the days of Blue Slide Park and Macadelic. I admittedly fell off around GO:OD AM, but I still stayed hip to his popular singles and his personal life, as he dated one of my favorite artists, Ariana Grande. I watched him perform some new and old hits at Lollapalooza 2016 and distinctly remember reading his interview with Rolling Stone’s Brian Hiatt that October in which he discussed sobriety and how being sober made him a better person and artist.
That interview gave me hope for my brother and everyone else struggling with substance abuse. I thought if somebody like Mac — whose life and art seemed to revolve around drugs and partying — could turn things around and eventually find joy in sobriety, anybody could.
Turns out things aren’t so black and white.
Of course, I wasn’t naive to the fact that sobriety isn’t an easy battle. My brother went to rehab twice and still struggled to stay clean. Mac eventually opened up about using drugs again, despite denying he was a “drug addict.” It’s become clear to me that old habits die hard. But this is especially true when they’re grounded in a legitimate, heavily stigmatized mental illness and upheld by a pervasive epidemic that seemingly has no end.
The opioid epidemic and substance abuse disorders, though taken seriously by many when viewed on a large scale, are still stigmatized as personal failings when viewed on an individual level. According to 2017 data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 115 people on average die from an opioid overdose every day. But people still felt a need to blame Mac’s death on his recent breakup with Ariana, as opposed to calling attention to the culture of drug use in this country and a lack of preventative or harm-reduction-focused federal policy.
I don’t know how to fix this problem. I don’t know what anybody could have done to ensure Mac lived to see 27. I don’t know what I can do, what my family can do, to make sure my brother lives to see 26. I do know things may seem okay one day and then completely turn to shit the next. The day before Mac died, Vulture published an interview with him from August, in which he shied away from narratives surrounding his mental health and substance abuse struggles.
That’s where comments such as, “If you’re struggling, I’m always here to talk” become problematic. Sometimes people don’t want to talk anymore since things don’t seem to get better no matter how much we talk about it. Just like the problem of addiction isn’t strictly personal, neither is the solution. Something systemic needs to change because personal support systems aren’t enough on their own.
Maybe researchers need to ferociously pursue alternatives to opioid medications. Maybe Congress needs to mandate safe injection sites in every state. Maybe rehab — not incarceration — needs to be mandatory for anybody given a DUI or convicted on drug charges, maybe drug education in k-12 schools need reform, maybe, maybe, maybe…
Mac Miller should still be alive. He was too young to die. The system and our culture failed him. He shouldn’t have been able to return to normalcy after getting a DUI in May, and the release of his latest album, Swimming, shouldn’t have shifted our focus from “I hope Mac’s OK” to “I’m happy Mac’s making music.” Sure, in the end Mac had to make his own choices, and there’s only so much individuals can do to encourage somebody to get help, to utilize helpful resources, but people can get better and there are reasons Mac did not. His death isn’t in his own hands or the hands of any individual, it is instead the responsibility of a collective population that keeps ignoring the immediate dangers of drug culture in America.
I can’t stop listening to Mac’s music and feeling those same feelings I dealt with daily as a sad, worried pre-teen. I can’t stop imagining a world without my brother, and how living in a world without Mac must be hurting his loved ones, who wondered if they were doing enough for him every single day.
I hope this tragic loss to our lives, to culture, to music, can be a catalyst for real, significant change. May Mac Miller live forever in our hearts.
“Grey skies and I’m drifting, not living forever / They told me it only gets better” — Mac Miller on “Come Back to Earth” (2018)