This 'True Blood' Actor's Death Reveals a Hidden Danger of Addiction We Don't Talk About

July 10th 2017

Danielle DeCourcey

Actor Nelsan Ellis, who portrayed Lafayette Reynolds on HBO's "True Blood," died from heart complications on Saturday, and now his family wants everyone to know why.

Ellis' manager Emily Gerson Saines shared with The Hollywood Reporter on Monday that his death came as a result of his attempt to quit alcohol.

Nelsan Ellis

The statement reveals a hidden danger of addiction: Ellis died from physical withdrawal while trying to quit drinking, not from poisoning or an overdose.

"Nelsan’s father has bravely agreed for me to share the circumstances of Nelsan’s heart failure. Nelsan has suffered with drug and alcohol abuse for years," she said in the statement to THR. "After many stints in rehab, Nelsan attempted to withdraw from alcohol on his own. 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." Ellis died after four days in a New York City hospital.

People expressed their condolences for Ellis' death on Twitter and discussed the struggles of addiction.

Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous.

Although the opioid crisis receives a large share of media attention, alcohol addiction is a persistent problem in the U.S., linked to thousands of deaths. From 2006 to 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that alcohol led to 88,000 deaths, shortening the lives of those people by an average of 30 years. It's not clear how many of those deaths happened from complications during a withdrawal, but years of research shows that severe alcohol withdrawal can cause serious illness, including seizures, and even death.

When a person with an alcohol addiction stops drinking abruptly, the National Clinical Guideline Center in the U.K. says they can experience the following symptoms:

  • anxiety
  • tremors
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • dry heaving
  • a fast or uneven heart rate
  • high blood pressure
  • fever
  • seizures or convulsions
  • hallucinations
  • heart vessel failure

Resources for drug and alcohol rehabilitation are important.

The experts agree that it is safer to detox or go through withdrawal symptoms at a treatment center or with medical supervision. However, not everyone can afford to attend a private treatment center, and a potential repeal of the Affordable Health Care act could significantly reduce coverage of addiction treatment for low-income Americans. On July 6, nearly 60 addiction experts wrote a letter opposing the Senate's proposed Better Care Reconciliation Act, saying it will "cripple" efforts to fight the opioid crisis and other addictions.

"Research has clearly shown that substance use disorders are complex, chronic medical conditions, best treated with comprehensive and integrated care," the letter states. "Until the passage of the Affordable Care Act, substance use disorders were financed and treated separately from the rest of healthcare, largely through government funded block grants. This produced a truly segregated, seriously under-resourced system that contributed to the current addiction epidemic in this country and perpetuated discrimination."

Beyond resources for addiction clinics, any treatment for addiction was allowed to be considered a pre-existing condition before the ACA, blocking some people from insurance coverage or making insurance too expensive.

Nelsan Ellis

The family of Nelsan Ellis hopes the actor's story can save other people. Saines said in her statement that although Ellis was ashamed of his addiction, his family wanted to share the circumstances of his death as a warning.

"Nelsan was ashamed of his addiction and thus was reluctant to talk about it during his life," the statement to THR read. "His family, however, believes that in death he would want his life to serve as a cautionary tale in an attempt to help others."

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