The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nelsan Ellis died of alcohol withdrawal. Family hopes his death will be a ‘cautionary tale.’

Nelsan Ellis arrives at the premiere for the fourth season of HBO’s “True Blood” in Los Angeles in 2011. (Matt Sayles/AP)

When 39-year-old actor Nelsan Ellis died Saturday, his manager Emily Saines said he died of “complications with heart failure.”

On Monday, though, Saines released a new statement showing the story to be much darker and complicated than that. The heart failure was caused by Ellis’s attempt to stop abusing alcohol on his own, which had been a lifelong but private struggle for the actor. The subsequent withdrawal led to his death.

“Nelsan’s father has bravely agreed for me to share the circumstances of Nelsan’s heart failure,” Saines’s statement to the Hollywood Reporter began. “Nelsan has suffered with drug and alcohol abuse for years.”

Though he was in and out of rehab, his sobriety never lasted. So finally, “After many stints in rehab, Nelsan attempted to withdraw from alcohol on his own.”

Attempting to detox from alcohol without medical attention, particularly after sustained use for a long period of time, is extremely dangerous. As WebMD stated, “Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a potentially life-threatening condition that can occur in people who have been drinking heavily for weeks, months, or years and then either stop or significantly reduce their alcohol consumption.”

‘True Blood’ actor Nelsan Ellis dies at 39

Its symptoms, which can begin “as early as two hours after the last drink,” include shaky hands, sweating, anxiety, vomiting, seizures and death. Many believe musician Amy Winehouse may have died from attempting to quit alcohol cold-turkey, meaning stopping immediately rather than tapering off use.

That’s because alcohol disrupts the brain’s neurotransmitters, suppressing the production of some such as glutamate, which “produces feelings of excitability,” WebMD noted. “When heavy drinkers suddenly stop or significantly reduce their alcohol consumption, the neurotransmitters previously suppressed by alcohol are no longer suppressed. They rebound, resulting in a phenomenon known as brain hyperexcitability.”

Indeed, Ellis experienced many of these symptoms. In his statement, his father said that “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.”

Unlike some celebrities whose visits to rehab are splashed across the trade publications and tabloids, Ellis’s battle was a private one. Most of his fans likely never suspected a thing. His father said Ellis “was ashamed of his addiction and thus was reluctant to talk about it during his life.”

There’s a sad irony, then, that the character Ellis was best known for playing was Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s vampire show “True Blood.”

In the show, Lafayette was a gay short-order cook with a penchant for taking and selling “V” — vampire blood, which in the show’s mythology produces extreme, euphoric highs. He’s also often seen with a half-drunk bottle of liquor in his hand or within arm’s length.

Drinking and drug use, in fact, is a major feature of the show. It’s set in a fictional town called Bon Temps, La., a play on the Cajun French phrase, “Laissez les bons temps rouler” or “Let the good times roll.” The show presents many stereotypes of the area — including the idea that Louisianans spend life on a Mardi Gras-type bender, as if life in the bayou is one big bacchanal.

Even so, he didn’t publicly discuss his substance abuse issues.

But in the wake of his sudden and unexpected death, his family chose to tell the world in hopes of helping anyone else who might be struggling with addiction. They believed “that in death he would want his life to serve as a cautionary tale in an attempt to help others.”

Finally, his family reiterated, “Nelsan was a gentle, generous and kind soul. He was a father, a son, a grandson, a brother, a nephew, and a great friend to those that were lucky enough to know him.”

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