Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Prescription to Die

Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger

When the news of young Australian actor Heath Ledger's death first appeared on gossip sites like Gawker.com and Us Weekly on January 22, 2008, it seemed like a fake death Internet rumor. Ledger, whose career was on the ascendance after an Oscar nomination for Brokeback Mountain and a soon-to-be co-starring role as the Joker in The Dark Knight, wasn't viewed as a typical Hollywood playboy, out in the clubs every night till the wee hours, or getting pulled over by the police and earning a mugshot feature on The Smoking Gun Hall of Fame a la Robert Downey Jr.

But his death was confirmed, and, in the weeks afterward, the autopsy revealed that Ledger had sought to self-medicate, using different doctors from around the world — filling prescriptions in Europe, American and Australia — a feat that's much easier for a world class actor, constantly on the go. He'd complained in recent interviews that he'd been having trouble sleeping during the shooting of The Dark Knight and was quoted as taking more than one of the powerful sleeping pill, Ambien, because he'd woken up in less than an hour.

In November 2007, he told The New York Times: "Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night."

Police found diazepam and alprazolam (both anti-anxiety drugs), as well as Ambien, the insomnia drug Zopicolone, and Donormyl, an antihistamine, next to his lifeless body. The toxicology report cited oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine as the cause of death, which was ruled an accident.

Unlike many of the other celebs who use prescription meds, it is arguable whether Ledger was indeed an addict. Though he'd been known to dabble in recreational drugs, he didn't appear to struggle with addiction; rather, his death seems to have been the result of too many different medications that affected the central nervous system in similar ways, overpowering it. It is a mistake many less well-known Americans make every day.

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