By Team EarPeace
by Marcelo Quarantotto
Content Warning: The following contains mentions of depression, self-harm, substance use, overdose, and not-so-favorable references to organized religion and government.
Word on the interwebs is that a new, unauthorized biography of rapper and producer Mac Miller’s roman candle career and extinguishment has initiated a dividing stir among the now deceased artist’s family, friends, and fans.
I fit into none of the aforementioned categories. Upon writing these words I’m listening to Mac Miller (and, by proxy, Jarad "Juice WRLD” Higgins) on purpose for the first time, after ignoring mentions of him over the years, I admit, because of personal sensitivities about white rappers and any other effort that might taste of the disingenuity of cultural appropriation — myself having been called the "w-word" for my own (however brief) teenage enthusiasm and emulation of hip-hop culture.
The late Juice WRLD, by contrast, also remained beyond my orbit of interest due to the “emo” qualifier that shadowed his reputation. Nothing wrong with it. It’s just that as an introverted Cancer sun, Pisces moon, I experienced more than enough emotive swirlings on the inside to ever go searching for it on the outside, and have never clicked with any part of the overall emo aesthetic.
To keep from disingenuous expression myself, I won’t proffer a remix of a hasty-made compilation of internet content to beguile the SEO sentinels or you, dear reader, as if I have insider insights about the “gone too soon” celebrities Miller and Higgins that you already have longstanding dealings with, deep connections I won’t dare to feign as my own.
My unsubtle ruse here, instead, is to urge you into insights about you, through the vehicle of my own mental health and addiction struggles as an artist born under the same bad sign — Patriarcy sun, Colonialism moon, Capitalism rising — however without the Ophiuchus of social media that wrapped around the childhoods of these forever sleeping giants.
The opening line to “Inside Outside,” the first song on Miller’s 2014 mixtape, Faces, is a sobering admission from such a high-profile individual publicly known to have struggled with mental health and addiction woes: “Should have died already.”
I’ve heard almost identical words from almost every artist in my life — no matter how talented or successful. Come to think of it, my non-statistical analysis generates the hypothesis that the more gifted the artist the more they seem beleaguered by ironic feelings of inadequacy.
Some call the tendency to disbelieve in oneself “imposter syndrome.” I call it par-for-the-course when living in a society built upon exploiting our perceived weaknesses, self denial, self-hate, and the addictive need for the external validation that our mainstream media, religions, and social hierarchies are acute yet covert in prescribing, to give even more money to the pockets that already have most of it.
What am I experiencing as I go through these first listens? Body chills. Goosebumps (or, as my porteño Pops would say, “chicken skin”). A sense of solidarity sinks in mixed with grief mixed with “I get it, homies: life sucks and then you die. Get high to flee the lows in the meantime.”
I take deep breaths — inhaling to the count of seven and exhaling to that of eleven, lowering my heart rate and adrenaline levels when my own personal anxieties begin their chemical crawls beneath my skin.
In the years since I’ve separated from my childhood roots in the New York City suburban sprawl known as the Hudson Valley, my diet of hip-hop has cinched down to a few greats, both from now and then. I recollect surreptitious listenings of Busta Rhymes’s Extinction Level Event during middle and high school classes; I’d often smuggle music into my ears throughout my academic processions under the cover of decent grades, hoodies, and long, curly hair.
Halfway through 9th grade, as the new kid in a district several towns over from the one I’d been a pariah in since kindergarten, I pulled a quote from one of Busta's wily sketches for an “about me” project in Spanish class: “If I ain’t gonna be part of the greatest, then I gotta become the greatest myself.”
I’ve been revisiting that record while musing about co-writing a feature-length script that relays the psycho-emotional (and, therefore, social and vocational) effects of growing up in fundamentalist religion, evinced through following the timelines of two Latinx buddies who were urged to identify more with giving mental assent to a collection of dogma than their actual individual, ideal natures.
My first and only efforts for the project to date include reconnecting with the childhood friend I shared my first so-called “queer” experiences (and shame) with and creating a joint Spotify playlist that includes songs from ELE, of course, but also Wu Tang’s Enter the 36 Chambers, Ace of Base, Jars of Clay, d.c. Talk, and then-contemporary Christian worship compilations — to scratch just the tip of the iceberg of my dissonant influences.
Percolations for this idea rose to the surface when I reached out to said homie while visiting Dallas, Texas, just hours after attending the final session of the Mental Health Solutions Conference led by Zimbabwean cognitive neuroscientist and communications pathologist Dr. Caroline Leaf.
I texted, opening the out-of-the-blue conversation with one of the many one-size-fits-all nicknames we’d throw around as teens:
“yo johnson. [...] ~4 hour layover at JFK mañana.”
We’ve not seen one another since we were both kicked out of our church's youth group following my senior (and his junior) year of high school for not showing adequate evidence of spiritual growth. (They weren’t wrong.)
It was a shot in the dark sent while getting an old-school style skateboard set up at The Point Skate Shop, eyeing the store's indoor bowl with equal parts excitement and terror (well, ok, more like 85 percent terror since I’m still recovering from lateral collateral knee ligament replacement surgery and have yet to actualize my dream of learning to ride bowls).
He asked if I planned to come into town from the airport where I’d pause before heading home to Richmond, Virginia. He was going to be busy and couldn’t make the ride to me. I looked at Uber prices and realized there was no way I’d be able to make the ride to him either. We made loose plans to get together in Richmond in the near future, which last time I checked would only require a $40 bus ride from Manhattan’s Chinatown.
“But yo this is crazy I was just talking about you recently.”
I gave a thumbs up to the skate tech when he gestured to the grip tape's positioning.
“Yeah man. it’s long overdue.”
“for real … .”
And for real, for real — since he’s evidently missed the memo that I'm not a guy (lol). The three-letter-word didn’t bother me, though. Felt less like a misgendering and more like a throwback term of endearment, coming from the friend who I used to climb into “boxcars” with as kids — cardboard vessels decorated to look like they had spaceship controls on the inside, rested on top of a skateboard belonging to one of his extremely cool older brothers — and bomb down the hills in his Newburgh, New York, neighborhood.
“OK dope. We should hang out man. After all the holiday bullshit me and the chick are tryna get out of town. She’s got friends there so I can piggyback and we should hang and talk about life. […] Dude this is crazy man, I swear to god I was just talking to folks about you and I and our friendship as kids. This is nuts. haha.”
We talked filmmaking for a bit. We’ve both found our individual way from making silly camcorder videos in high school to working as professional cinematographers and camera operators, doing work for “big brands” that maul the creative, knowing we’d never be satisfied no matter the payout and craving to create something more soulful.
He inquired about life in general. The kids. Life post divorce.
“How are you holding up man? You hanging in there?”
“being a parent is awesome but also bonkers at times. Like, if you don’t have your own personal shit locked down, it will definitely affect them.”
“Haha we sure had a crazy upbringing man. I still have a lot of baggage and issues that would destroy my kids if I went that route [and had kids]. I’ve got a lot to work on. […] I feel like religion and the church stuff has destroyed a big part of my life. But that’s another convo that we should have in person man.”
I laughed. I’d cried enough that week.
“haha yeah it fucked me pretty hard too, and not in the good way. Absolutely. so much to discuss haha. that shit was socially and psychologically violent.”
“Totally man. And very inhibiting for us as youth growing into ourselves. As artists especially.”
“you have no idea how much i talk about and work on this exact topic jaja.”
“it’s only because our upbringing was completely saturated with the crap! haha. it’s a huge deal man. I feel like one of the greatest things of growing up is growing out of that shit. And thriving to get past all the trauma that was associated with it. And it was fucking rough man … but shit, is worth it.”
“oh yeah. the crucible. coal into diamonds. grass busting through the sidewalk.”
“Hell yeah. i’ll be that fucking grass. And i’ll be the weeds. haha.”
We texted for several hours. I think I finally went to sleep somewhere between 4 and 5 a.m. after cruising around the city on the throwback Welcome skateboard and intermittently cruising on the queer “dating” app Grindr (it’s full of hell — I do not recommend). As I tried to fall asleep I reflected on what the fuck I was gunning for with another atrociously late night, especially after such an incredible conference.
What am I seeking? What’s missing right now? What do I want? Why? What do I feel?
A random hookup, just to get off? Not really. A new friend? My return flight was the next morning and I had no reason to return to Texas soon.
Not a damn clue.
In retrospect, I spent that energy looking for that which was unfindable — at least not in the avenues I scoured. My first excursion was an Uber ride to a skate park that I learned too late was torn apart months before (and is still seeking resurrection). The few friends I knew in the area were too busy (and notified of my arrival too late) for us to hang out.
The sort of meaningful connection I hoped to chance encounter through “the apps” was impossible under the circumstances. People have ongoing, full lives. Friends. Jobs. Spouses. Pre-existing lovers. Hobbies.
I was a couple weeks in to being (literally) back on my feet, and pushing my luck by pushing a skateboard around Dallas, financially depleted after two months of a medically-induced work hiatus — unwise to spend much on unnecessary travel within the cowboy metropolis. (Somehow, getting a new skateboard still felt like an obvious “right move” ... a sensible personal investment.)
What I really wanted didn’t require any of those things or anyone but my own personal self. An Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter sat idle back in my room at the hotel where the conference had been hosted. I would have likely enjoyed myself more had I Ubered food in instead of Ubering myself out, and poked around the keys until I fell asleep content with my self-contained expression and having not brought that 13-pound machine for no reason.
But I think I needed such a wistful (if not wasteful) night in the wake of sitting through Dr. Leaf’s sessions on how we as individuals have everything we need within us to take control of the inefficient (at best) or toxic (more likely) thought and behavior patterns that create so much turmoil in our personal lives and relationships.
Instead of the bandage of outer approval, momentary distraction, or scoring a bag of weed in an unfamiliar place, the connection I was most craving and in dire need of was that of self acceptance — a concept held in contempt as ridiculous or even as narcissistic in light of the doctrine of Original Sin and the eerily similar philosophy that runs our consumeristic economy: You, inherently and undeniably, are not enough unto your own personal self. So, therefore, you must seek that which is outside of you to fill the holes in your head, heart, body, and spirit. Only then can you be a happy, productive part of the human story.
I’d been about the aforementioned conference by my mother, an evangelical Christian who used to the worship team at the Baptist church we attended when I was a kid. Although I now write and perform my own music, as a child I avoided singing in church, if not altogether.
Back then I watched the many waving hands around me in the congregation raised up high for the On High. People wept as they crooned in yearning and gratitude for their sins being accounted for by another’s suffering. They would get to live forever despite their mistakes, undeserving yet redeemed by an external force — acknowledging that without which they’d be lost, destitute, and doomed. A true bargain.
I, however, was afraid of making any mistake whatsoever. My worry was that an all-seeing being would destroy me in my ignoble attempts at goodness since at my core I was broken and evil and without hope. Jesus’s sacrifice didn’t feel like enough. Saying certain words in a certain order and thenceforth ignoring all natural impulses and worldly influences never sat right in my gut.
At the same time, I was programmed to believe that acceptance beyond the walls of the church was also a no-go. The hallmark of a true believer was utter scorn for his or her certain beliefs. While I never quite believed, truly, I did experience the wedge of rejection. I grew up in both worlds feeling ill-adept at both. So many people couldn’t be wrong about what’s right for me, so I must be wrong. (You get the shitty picture.)
Depression set in as early as 4 years old. Self-harm. Self-hate. Assured of my unworthiness for friends or achievement. And yet in writing these words now I don’t feel all-the-way unique in this experience, just perhaps more aware of it in my traumatized brain than others around me were willing to confront within their own. So I bore theirs too, under the weight of projected ridicule that would have hurt them too much to perceive as their own.
This cocktail gave me the stupor of paralysis known by many late bloomers and social outcasts. It didn’t matter how much people eventually came to praise my so-called intelligence or creative abilities or looks. I didn’t believe them. I had already hard-coded my brain with the knowledge that I am shit, even years after shedding the ill-fitting snakeskin of my Christian identity.
So, even though many consider Mac Miller the most successful indie rapper among his generation’s crop, it doesn’t at all surprise me that he, too, struggled with mental health maladies that he self-medicated with substances that numb yet never truly heal. Especially in light of being a “white” boy — a privileged Jewish kid grown even more privileged by pursuing his enthusiasm for music from (as some might opine) someone else’s culture — releasing his first album at 19 years old and met with fame and fortune, sure, but also disdain and discouragement for being exactly who he was doing exactly what he was doing.
No matter what, he would never be good enough if the metric he was measured by was his fame, fortune, or creative output. He’d have to doggedly chase something from the outside to bring value to the inside.
Was there another place to turn in that framework, other than drug-aided dissociation? Who can really take that ride sober, when such broken tracks of self-perception are built within us? If the mark of our validity is what we do and what others say and do in relation to it, how does one reconcile the contradictory sentiments or ever find a moment to feel ok? We run ourselves (and each other) ragged.
How does one feel comfy amidst lavish appointments when said accruement and appointments don't actually do fuck all to make a positive impact on one’s self-worth? Isn’t the pursuit of self-worth through anything but recognizing the implicit worthiness of the self an inherent contradiction of terms, and, thereby, impossible to find beyond the walls of ?
It makes sense people would be upset about the “unofficial” biography condemned by Miller’s family (no diss on them, however — nobody wants a rando making a career move to the tune of their loved one’s death).
What is official, what is genuine in a world that disproportionately profits from other people’s labor and pain and calls it “savvy business”? We’re all walking this planet with our brains inflamed, seeking healing by voluntarily poisoning ourselves with subscriptions to substances — their legality making no relevant difference in light of their evident inefficacy at addressing the root issues instead of temporarily masking the standing symptoms.
I’d like to take a moment to stress that I, as someone with her own lifetime of addictive and mental health struggles, have no interest in bestowing shame upon Miller or anyone affiliated. If anything, I’d like to undo the shameful insinuations that myriad conversations carry in relation to addiction, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
Because I get it. I experience these, too. Yet so many of the articles and interviews I’ve encountered on the passing of Miller and Juice WRLD (or other deceased celebrities) do use a hand heavy-laden with shame when talking about their lives and deaths — intentionally or not.
It’s common for these stories to be cloaked in convenient narratives that wind up resting the blame on dead people for being morally compromised when alive, or otherwise declaring that these folks' experience of addictions, depression, anxiety, toxic thought patterns, and “problematic” behaviors are symptoms of diseases they endure(d), if not diseases unto themselves. We do this so readily that we don’t even flinch upon hearing these determinations.
We even herald the “addiction is a disease” narrative as an exercise in compassionate understanding. Meanwhile, scientific research (and, you know, just looking around at what the fuck’s going on) shows that such assertions act as labels, exacting condemnation through gross misunderstanding and keeping people locked in avoidable turmoil.
As I mentioned earlier, my evangelical mother encouraged me to go to Dr. Leaf’s conference. And by “encouraged" I mean she paid for my airfare, conference ticket, hotel stay, and even sent me additional spending money to further support my enjoyment of the trip.
I accepted her invitation with excitement, but wasn't always so receptive to the recommendation.
Why? Leaf is open about her Christian faith, a fact that for many people (like me) can trigger distrust. The aforementioned trauma associated with my Baptist upbringing created a skeptical reflex pattern that meets anything that comes from that camp (or any function that seems remotely group-think liturgical … even if that activity reflects my current life understanding) with abject cynicism.
More than six months before the conference, I explained to my mother why I had been resistant to looking into Leaf's literature. She thanked me for communicating my concern, and took the opportunity to relay that most of her publications made no mention of her faith whatsoever and were entirely based on the objective, clinical research she’s been conducting since the early 1980s.
“It’s not a sign of a defective brain. Your experience doesn’t need to be validated by a medical label. Mental health struggles are not your identity. They’re normal and need to be addressed, not suppressed, or things will get worse. […] We must shift our focus from a symptom-centered approach to one centered around each person’s complex story and unique experiences.” - Dr. Caroline Leaf
My skepticism melted upon reading her work. I dug deeper. Not only does her work refrain from discussing psychology through the lens of Christian mores, but the clinical research she’s conducted over the last 38 years validates concepts commonly attributed to Eastern philosophy such as breathing techniques, meditation, and neuroplasticity — which, in my experience, are more often scoffed at within the Christian circles (academic or otherwise) I’ve interacted with throughout my life.
She acknowledges that the pains and addictions we experience are “very real,” but they are not, as many consider them to be, sure signs of mental “illness.”
More accurately, her research suggests that those internal disturbances exist as messengers between our non-conscious mind (the part of our cognition that never stops, even while we sleep) and our waking, conscious mind to tell us that there are imbalances within us that need to be addressed — opportunities to acknowledge and heal the toxic thoughts and patterned responses that prevent us from being truly free, truly ourselves.
At the conference, she even relayed something contrary to a core religious tenant I grew up with that states that we the people are inherently wretched beings in dire need of an outside force to save us from our own congenital deficiency … . What some people call our “human nature."
She said the research shows that humans are inherently loving, full of wisdom, and whole, and that the only thing any behavior or belief that jives with proves is that we are experiencing an identity crisis. In other words, her 38 years of research scientifically undermines the self-deprecating overtone of western Christianity and society that most everyone takes for granted as essential, incontrovertible truth.
From the preface of Leaf’s most recent book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess :
“Anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress are all ways of describing natural human responses to adversity and the experiences of life. […] Calling these mental and emotional responses diseases misses the point entirely. Anxiety, depression, burnout, frustration, angst, anger, greed, and so on are emotional and physical warning signals telling us we need to face and deal with something that’s happened or is happening in our life.”
The easy route — labeling Higgins’s and Miller’s use of substances and unfortunate overdoses as willful, poor decision making or as disease — simply lacks scientific backing. And so trying to mend these tendencies by treating them as something that they are not leaves little hope for effective, lasting change. Kind of like using a topographic map to navigate a cross-country road trip, and not an atlas.
Delving further into her work became difficult for me, not because I was learning something new or confronting religion-drenched biases but because what her research conveys about the trauma responses known as addiction, anxiety, depression, CPTSD, and ADHD (to name just a few) matches my own dealings with them — not only in relation to their onset but also their recovery.
When I permanently quit drinking 8 years ago (following 8 years of diligent, heavy boozing), my body and brain went through swift changes, including marked loss of excess physical and (most significantly) emotional baggage. I realized only then that I had been deep in the throes of alcoholism as a means of suppressing the otherwise prevalent symptoms of social and religious traumas that I’d carried for my whole life.
I felt like I’d won a jackpot before realizing what I’d been playing. It was a lottery where winning came with such boons as profound emotional peace, exponential shifts in physical wellness, deepened relationships, joy, and burgeoning creativity, while losing more so resembled the result depicted in Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery (spoiler alert ... getting stoned to death).
The only issue, though, is I didn’t quite understand what happened that made my transformation so dynamic. I cleared most of the symptoms of the addiction that contributed to the destruction of my by then woebegone marriage (huzzah!), but I didn’t know for certain how or why or which changes had worked.
Six months into alcohol sobriety, the self-doubt creeped back into my psyche. Once again I was awash in depression, anxiety, impulsivity, poor focus, and under functioning … perhaps even worse than before. I’d ditched the snake oil once used to numb the deeper issue — never returning to it — and was left with the raw experience of yet unnamed torments hidden deep beneath the places my mind dared to go.
Yoga and meditation helped only temporarily, whereas before I considered them my admission tickets to expanses of resolute mental health.
I crumbled again and again. My despair metastasized with each undulating fall from grace.
Not until I encountered Leaf’s findings did I learn what actually precipitated my healing and growth, and I humbly share this with you now. Using a systematized — yet simple — scientifically-backed, daily mind management technique, I can more clearly and adequately address the wounds beneath my psycho-emotional symptoms. I can confront my needs with greater objectivity, thereby taking steps toward greater autonomy.
Less(ening) self-judgement. Less giving a shit about other’s judgments. More confidence and self-assurance.
I’ve regained my proverbial footing. Now the path is less nebulous, illuminated and illustrated by decades of clinical research and analysis.
“Addiction means to be consumed by something […]” says Leaf, and “involves the desire to suppress an issue or trauma that is causing you discomfort and pain. We are not just controlled by our ‘chemical hooks’ and defined by our biological predictions.”
Our brains are constantly changing in relation to our environment and life experiences (neuroplasticity), she says. “Indeed, the latest scientific research also shows that up to 85 percent of people get out of addictions through choice once they begin to work on the underlying issues that led to their addiction."
Nearly without fail, though, interviews about either artist’s passing — even with close friends and relatives — come equipped with the theory-stated-as-fact that they weren’t ready for the cash-flow boon and so they mishandled their suddenly ample resources by shoveling money into the pockets of seedy drug dealers, which sounds a whole lot like blaming them for not being mature enough to handle the high seas of newfound success and fame when maybe their rise to the existential top gives them a clearer view of the structural horrors the rest of us can more readily ignore.
Human and young as they might have been, neither rapper was exactly a simpleton. Even in my brief deep dives into their art and affairs, it’s evident that they were emotionally aware, intelligent people (and were more-or-less famous for being as such), and with the accumulation of so many eyes on them they could no longer unsee society’s more blunderous illusions.
The overwhelming majority of commentary I’ve consumed about the deaths of Higgins and Miller seem to ignore or to simply be ignorant of the current research, and the result is more than the antiquated misconceptions that these artists were either morally flawed or overcome by invisible disease. Neither interpretation offers adequate compassion or respect to these artists, now immortalized legends of hip-hop, taken from the world before we really had a chance to discover how great they could become — like so many flowers plucked before a fuller bloom.
Yet with each passing giant fulling under the weight of a slingshot, stoned to the point of overdose — totally undone yet forever at rest — it’s easiest for us to pin the jackass’ tail on the deceased instead of asking the question, “Wait, why does this keep falling apart?”
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say these folks all had a problem … the same problem, even. Maybe, that problem isn’t self-spun moral mishaps or fundamental failings that brings creative greats to an untimely end: Not enough Jesus. Not enough yoga. Didn’t eat vegan. Didn’t have the right therapist. They worked too hard — or whatever.
Fuck, and in the cases of Miller and Higgins, their deaths were more-or-less flukes.
Miller, for one, was dealt bum pills.
Juice WRLD even remarked on Mac’s premature departure in a radio interview: “In situations like these, all we can do is learn. Learn from the mistakes that people make and better yourself and let them live through you. All you can do is learn.”
And you know what? He didn’t make the same mistake of buying pills from some shadier-than-thou unlicensed pharmacist. Instead, Boosie Badazz alleged that the pilot of WRLD's private jet was a “snitchin’ ass ho” who ratted to the pigs. Higgins worried what harm would befall him and consumed some of the contraband painkillers, leading to his death.
Were the pilot and police genuinely concerned that Juice and his friends posed a federal threat, or did Jarad Higgins fuck up by being a young Black man living beneath the hood of systematized racism but flying high and afraid of what the so-called authorities would do to him and his friends when they landed with a handful of peashooters, some pain killers, and 70 lbs. of plant matter, and so he tried to curb the legislative blow by hiding even just a little bit of the forbidden fruit?
Were those cops (and, if rumors aren’t rumors) the pilot proud of themselves over this outcome? (Is it OK for me to say ACAB on this website? Because if so, damn, ACAB.)
Leaf-laden as this missive might be, she’s by no means the only researcher coming to the same conclusions. We’ve known since the Rat Park experiments in the 1970s that the drugs themselves don’t cause addiction, but shoddy environments and systematic dysfunction.
Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, we go steps farther and blame the people living under less-than-favorable community conditions that they neither choose nor control, while the useless war on drugs rages on and on and on to the soundtrack of our dying.
(Talk about putting the cartel before the horse, amirite?)
Perhaps it’s time we peel the curtains back a little more and take a grim look at the hegemonic Wizard of Oz — the magnificent, bastard system we’ve screwed ourselves over and into this position— run amok and needing us to keep looking at the problems it causes as the problems, keeping itself perpetually employed while creating even more problems for the rest of us … despite being created for the benefit the people it beguiles and subdues.
Maybe we can invest more in initiatives like Live Free 999, founded by Higgins’s mother Carmella Wallace, that destigmatize our body and brain’s natural responses to living under unnatural strictures and help those being crushed beneath the pill-shaped wheels that drive the train.
What if we can have nice things? Eat fruit and touch hands in the garden.
What's the answer?
Well, if the answer isn’t not you, then it would stand to reason the answer is actually you. Being you.
Gathering awareness of your life as it is (with love).
Reflecting upon what's hurting or helping (with love).
Expressing and releasing what you perceive (with love).
Acknowledging what works and what doesn't (with love).
Reaching out and applying what you’ve learned (with love).