For Some Families, Addiction Comes to Light Only in Death

Deaths of Michael Jackson and Billy Mays expose alleged hidden addictions.

August 14, 2009, 5:13 PM

Aug. 14, 2009— -- Just two months ago, Michael Jackson was poised to make a big comeback, with 50 sold-out performances in London. Doctors even gave him a clean bill of health. For this fallen star, the future looked brighter than it had in years. But what the world and even some members of his own family didn't know was that Jackson may have had a secret: he was reportedly abusing prescription drugs and hiding it at any cost.

"Michael would make his mother, Katherine, wait outside his gate three, four hours, no matter what time of day or night it was," claimed Stacy Brown, author of "Michael Jackson: The Man Behind the Mask." "If he was high on drugs, so he could clean up. He didn't want her or his family to see that," he said.

In an interview with ABC's Chris Connelly, Jackson's father, Joseph Jackson, said he didn't know how bad things were. "I didn't know anything about the drugs. I didn't even know the name of them," he said.

It's a story that's become all too familiar recently. In June, popular TV pitchman, Billy Mays died of heart failure. Weeks later, the autopsy revealed cocaine as a "contributory cause of death." It's a finding his family -- especially brother Randy Mays -- won't accept.

Watch "Nightline" TONIGHT at 11:35 p.m. ET for the full story.

"First of all, I'd like to just say, I'd like to see that report," he said. "That's not my brother, other than that, no comment. It's not Billy."

Beyond their fame, what Mays and Jackson may have had in common was keeping their addictions hidden from their families.

69-year-old Marilyn White lived a double life for 15 years. By day, she was a mother who worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet, but she also struggled with a secret addiction to alcohol that was quickly spiraling out of control.

"[I would] go to bars where I didn't know people and drink on my own, drink in the car, drink in the bathroom where you work, I had a flask in my briefcase," White recalled to ABC News.

With addiction, where there's a will, there's a way. "You put alcohol in the Listerine bottle - or you drink Listerine if you can't find any alcohol," said White, who also confessed to drinking perfume when she was desperate.

Growing up with an Alcoholic Mother

Thirty-five years later, what White regrets most is that her daughter Shelly also had to live with the addiction.

Now a grown woman, Shelly still remembers the anguish and uncertainty of growing up with an alcoholic mother.

"I think at 7, 8, 9 years old, you don't really know they're an alcoholic but you know something is wrong. It was just really very scary time. I think not knowing if she'd come home, what time she'd come home, who she'd come home with, if she'd come home. I wasn't a real happy kid."

White acknowledges that her addiction led to an unhealthy role reversal between mother and daughter.

"She took care of me a lot. Like I'd wake up in the morning and she took care of the coffee or she'd tell me I wore that outfit yesterday, don't wear that. She was always afraid something was going to happen to me, and she was right. Things did happen," White said.

For White, the recent accident involving Diane Schuler, the mother who drove the wrong way down New York's Taconic Parkway, raises old wounds. Schuler was killed along with her daughter, three nieces, and three men in the SUV she crashed into. Schuler's son narrowly survived the accident.

An autopsy showed Schuler had marijuana and the equivalent of 10 drinks in her system, a revelation that shocked her family, which disputed the findings.

Schuler's family reacted angrily, saying she never drank and suggested she must have had some kind of seizure or other medical emergency.

"It really brought back a lot of memories, of myself when I was drinking and driving, with my little girl in my car, that by the grace of God I could have been the person who killed everybody and killed my daughter. I had a physical reaction to it, it was terrible," White said.

White's daughter Shelly shudders to think about what must have been going through the minds of the children in the moments before the crash. She remembers how afraid she was to be in the car with her mother after she'd been drinking.

"You know, you can't drive a car. Just helplessness. I just -- thought about the kid that survived, the little boy that survived. I thought man, what he has to deal with now with his memories," she said.

Can You Keep Serious Addiction Under Wraps?

The Taconic tragedy raises bigger questions. Was Schuler hiding an addiction? Did anyone know about it? And, perhaps most heart-wrenching to consider, could they have stopped her?

Ann Scott, the campground owner who was one of the last people to see Schuler alive says she's knew her for years and never detected a problem.

"If you ask me, did I think she was drinking, I don't think I ever saw her sway. I've had an experience years ago in my life with an alcoholic, so if she were in the store and alcohol on her breath, I sure didn't smell it," Scott said.

Schuler's husband Daniel told the same story.

"Listen to this...I go to bed every night knowing my heart is clear, she did not drink she was not an alcoholic," he said. "She was the perfect wife outstanding mother, hard worker, reliable person trustworthy."

For many, it's hard to even believe that someone could keep a serious addiction under wraps from those closest to them.

Former addict White doesn't believe it's possible.

"I think someone always knows. I think the addict is the last one to know how bad it is. Because we lie to ourselves so deeply, because there's so much shame and guilt involved in it, especially as a woman. But people know. Come on, they smell it on you, they see you," she said.

Whether Schuler had an addiction or not remains to be seen. But White, who finally recovered from her alcoholism in the mid-70's, says many families are simply in denial.

Today she runs the Realization Center in New York City, where she's helped thousands of people heal from their addictions. White says she's seen all walks of life come through her doors, hiding their addictions.

"You got soccer moms that are having a little drink and picking up their kids -- everyone. Whether it's your husband, his family, your family, doesn't make a difference- your uncle, your grandfather, somebody you work with, really. There's always someone who has addiction," she said.

Drinking in Secrecy Common, Expert Says

Dr. Petros Levounis, a psychiatrist and director of the Addiction Institute of New York at St. Lukes-Roosevelt Hospital, agrees it's not uncommon for people to cover up their need for drugs and alcohol.

"We do see that quite routinely. Maybe somebody is self-medicating some underlining untreated psychiatric disorder like depression or anxiety and they keep on drinking in secrecy but that is something that is not surprising at all," Levounis said.

For Marilyn White, the hold alcohol had on her was so strong that she even lied about being pregnant to go on a weekend drinking binge.

"I had somebody watch Shelly for the weekend and I told these two people that I was pregnant and that I was going into the city for an abortion. Never had an abortion in my life. I went into the city and drank all weekend and then came back," she said. "That's the lengths you go to to protect your right to drink. And that's how sick it is. You're so sick you don't know how sick you are."

Now 35 years after beating her addiction, White says she still lives with guilt but has found "a little bit of redemption" in knowing she's helping others.

"The first half of my life I was drinking and the second half I've dedicated to making people sober. That's helped me to heal," she said.

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