On July 8, 2017, at the young age of 39, actor Nelsan Ellis of True Blood fame died doing something usually good for one’s health. He quit drinking. The problem was that Ellis was an alcoholic, in and out of treatment facilities, and he attempted to quit alone.
You know how when people bench-press weights they use spotters? That’s because pushing up large amounts of weight is extremely difficult. It requires help just in case the weight becomes too much and starts to fall. The spotter is able to help lift the weight so that it doesn’t collapse the chest of whoever’s bench-pressing. At least eleven Americans have died since 2002 lifting weights without spotters.
Eighty-eight thousand Americans die every year from alcohol.
Nelsan Ellis died as a result of heart complications that came about from quitting drinking without the proper assistance. Quitting alcohol takes a lot of spotters.
Let’s talk about the circumstances of Ellis’ unfortunate passing, and the dangers therein. Also, let’s discuss in depth the science that shows why you should never quit drinking alone, regardless of what ‘level’ alcoholic you are. Finally, let’s touch on Ellis’ acting career, (which contains more films than you probably think), as well as how his family believes his death should be considered a “cautionary tale.”
How Nelsan Ellis Died…
Ellis was reportedly very secretive about his drinking. He apparently felt shame from his alcoholism, and his stints in and out of rehabs were kept private. It’s not known exactly when he decided to quit on his own, without professional help, but it did kill him.
Intimate details surrounding the actor’s death were shared with the Hollywood Reporter by Ellis’ manager, Emily Saines. As said by Saines, “According to his father, during his withdrawal from alcohol he had a blood infection, his kidneys shut down, his liver was swollen, his blood pressure plummeted, and his dear sweet heart raced out of control.”
Nelsan Ellis died of congestive heart failure. It was a direct result of quitting suddenly after a long period of heavy drinking. It’s easy to tell from his father’s quote above just how devastating quitting without help can be. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, up to 25% of people who suffer from alcohol withdrawal syndrome, or AWS, die as a result of it. This is what happened to Ellis – more on AWS later.
…Is How Amy Winehouse Died
The late singer, whose death in 2011 at age 27 raised concern about drug abuse, may very well have died from alcohol withdrawal, according to her own family. Apparently, “Winehouse ignored doctors’ advice to step back gradually from her heavy drinking and went cold turkey in the past month,” according to a friend interviewed in the Sun. “Abstinence gave her body such a fright, they thought it was eventually the cause of her death. It was all or nothing and she gave up completely.”
Her doctor had advised her to cut back on her frequent drinking. She decided to go cold turkey for three weeks. This led to a seizure (likely DTs), which the Winehouse family believes was the cause of her death.
The Danger of Quitting Alone
Quitting drinking without help is extremely dangerous. Plus, the more severe someone’s alcoholism is, the more dangerous quitting becomes for that person. Safely quitting, with the right help, is a completely different thing than attempting it alone.
Going ‘cold turkey,’ as they call it, can cause rather negative side effects, including but not limited to dehydration, vomiting, arrhythmia, and even DTs, or delirium tremens. DTs, which can be deadly, occur in 30-40% of those who experience withdrawal seizures. These seizures are experienced by 60% of those who quit alcohol.
That alone ought to show you how dangerous quitting alone really is. Roughly speaking, there are nearly 20 million alcoholics in America at any given time. Sixty percent of that is 12 million, and 35% of that is about 4.2 million. Therefore, if every single alcoholic in the US quit cold turkey at the same time, DTs would occur in approximately four million people. That’s absolutely terrifying.
Please realize that most if not all experts agree that you should NOT detoxify from alcohol without the proper help. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS) is a medically diagnosable sickness consisting of multiple alcohol-withdrawal-related symptoms. Half of those who quit experience AWS.
Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
The consumption of alcohol causes the brain to release serotonin, epinephrine, and dopamine, among other hormones and brain chemicals. This is what causes the feeling of being intoxicated. Over time, in regular and heavy drinkers, the brain becomes used to the overflow of these chemicals, and compensates. Basically, the brain relearns how to function, this time with the near-constant presence of alcohol.
Take away that alcohol suddenly and without assistance, and the brain does not simply revert. In fact, things get ugly. The following is an incomplete list of the symptoms of AWS:
- Nausea / Vomiting
- Irritability / Excitability
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid emotional changes / Depression
- Bad dreams
- High blood pressure
- Undue confusion
- Jumpiness or Nervousness
- Insomnia / Fatigue
What Help You Need to Quit
Okay, so you may be asking what help is required to stop drinking safely, since it seems to be so dangerous. Well, the answer is quite simple. Because so many different symptoms can occur, it is safest to be in some sort of alcohol treatment program when quitting drinking. While any one of the above-listed symptoms can be severe, DTs are by far the worst, as they are fatal 15% of the time when treated, and up to 40% of the time when untreated.
According to the US National Library of Medicine, the goals of treating DTs are to “save the person’s life [and] prevent complications. A hospital stay is needed… While in the hospital, the person will receive medicines to stay calm and relaxed until the DTs are finished.” Imagine going through that on your bed, alone at home?
If you plan on quitting drinking, at the very least you should notify a substance abuse counselor. Even an outpatient treatment program, where you visit daily for a couple of hours, could work – provided your alcoholism is not severe. If this is the case, then an inpatient treatment program is strongly recommended, where you have an extended stay at the facility itself.
For people who are extreme alcoholics, partial and/or full hospitalization is strongly recommended. The chances of experiencing DTs at that point are very high, and as seen can be fatal without assistance.
Proof that Help Helps
Some people need hard evidence to be convinced of certain things. If you find yourself to be one of those people while reading this, consider a study performed in 2010 at Oxford University that analyzed the factors that determine a patient’s survival when hospitalized for Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.
There were a total of 539 hospitalizations for 436 patients over the course of the study, 156 for AWS and 383 of them specifically for DTs. A total of 29 patients died, mostly from delirium tremens.
The researchers explain that over time, the death rate from Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome has significantly decreased, from 37% to less than 3%. “This improvement in survival rates has occurred parallel to the advances achieved in the treatment of AWS, especially in critical patient care,” according to the study.
Back to Mr. Ellis
As reported by NBC, linked above, Ellis’ family wishes for his death to be seen as an anecdote of sorts. “In Ellis’ case, his family revealed his private struggles with alcohol to the Hollywood Reporter because he ‘would want his life to serve as a cautionary tale in an attempt to help others.’”
Ellis died on July 8th after four days at an undisclosed hospital in Brooklyn, New York. This suggests that even if you receive treatment after attempting to quit alone, the damage can sometimes be irreversible.
The worst part of this tragedy is that Nelsan Ellis was trying to save himself. He knew his disease, alcoholism, was going to kill him. He tried professional rehabilitation, but to no avail. No service works for every single person, but as quoted in the Washington Post, “Though he was in and out of rehab, his sobriety never lasted.” Sobriety was attained for Ellis, just never maintained.
Still, as his family wishes, let Ellis’ story serve as a ‘cautionary tale’ about the dangers of quitting alcohol unassisted. It may even be as dangerous as long-term heavy drinking itself.
Lafayette Reynolds is the character Ellis played on True Blood, a vampire-based fantasy show on HBO, based on a book series. As stated by Rolling Stone magazine, “Ellis’ portrayal of the character was so beloved by True Blood fans that even though Lafayette was killed off early in the Sookie Stackhouse book series, the character lasted the entirety of the show.”
Anna Paquin, who plays Sookie, the main character in True Blood, said on Twitter, “It was an utter privilege to work with the phenomenally talented and deeply kind soul. I’m devastated by his untimely death.” Other celebrities who publicly shared their condolences were Riz Ahmed, Octavia Spencer, Gabrielle Union, and Alan Ball.
Ellis has also starred in The Soloist as a doctor, Lee Daniels’ The Butler as Martin Luther King, Jr., Get on Up as Bobby Byrd, Secretariat as a groom, and will appear posthumously in True to the Game alongside Vivica A. Fox. He will likely always be best remembered for his seven years on True Blood, a role for which Ellis has won an Emmy, two Satellite Awards, and a nomination for a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance.
Nelsan Ellis became a ward of the state in Illinois after his mother had a mental breakdown after her brother’s death. His grandmother ended up raising him in Alabama. (His siblings shared the same fate). He attended three different high schools before joining the US Marines. His stint in the military didn’t last long, and he began attending Illinois State University. Then, at 22, Ellis was accepted into Julliard, where he received his bachelor’s degree in fine arts.
Long story short, Nelsan Ellis knew what it took to fight hard. He knew what it was like to come from hardship and make not only a living, but a rather successful one. Later in life, alcohol took hold of him, and from what evidence is available, it never let go. Ellis tried multiple treatment facilities but wasn’t able to give up drinking.
“Why not take all of the hard work in my life that I’ve done ALONE and apply it to quitting drinking?” Maybe this was Ellis’ thought before taking matters into his own hands. It’s just too bad he didn’t realize what kind of struggle he was up against.
Not everyone needs spotters to do difficult things, but every alcoholic or problematic drinker needs spotters to quit drinking. Your brain and body simply cannot handle reverting to normalcy after the physiological changes of alcoholism have taken place.
If you or a loved one is considering quitting drinking, please consult with a professional treatment facility first… no matter how ‘bad’ your or his or her alcoholism is. Every level of alcoholism requires assistance to get back from.
Rest in peace, Nelsan Ellis.