Michael’s Milk of Amnesia

What was Michael Jackson trying to forget when he overdosed on propofol?


The King of Pop is gone—that spectacular, superhuman figure from the 1993 Super Bowl performance, arms outstretched, white shirt fluttering like a flag, black hair against a pale face. Or that chocolate-skinned, full-nosed Michael, all sex and androgyny at the same time in that white suit on the cover of Thriller, the first album I ever owned. 

He died of “acute propofol intoxication,” according to the Los Angeles County coroner. And to think that he, of all people, after a strange, tragic half-century of a life died from an anesthetic given to colonoscopy patients rings of a particular pathos. Other musicians overdosed on smack or coke. Jackson was killed by milk of amnesia.

He reportedly took propofol to sleep.

Bullshit, I say. Jackson wouldn’t have played with his life—no matter how painful it was—all for a better night’s sleep.

I was given propofol three years ago during a colonoscopy, the way a person is supposed to have it—in a doctor’s office, hooked up to a heart monitor, as a sedative for a medical procedure. “It’s very clean,” a nurse assured me. At the time, I thought her word choice was odd.

But propofol was the least of my concerns. I was 33 years old at the time, undergoing this unusual procedure for someone my age because, a couple months earlier, I had an ovarian tumor surgically removed that appeared to be intestinal in origin. I was preoccupied by the sudden precariousness of my mortality and fertility, and the shock of being a young, healthy person who was suddenly seriously ill.

Because of that—and something doctors euphemistically call “colonoscopy prep,” of which I’ll spare you the details—I was a wreck when I arrived to the doctor’s office.

However, taking propofol was one of the most truly pleasant pharmaceutical experiences. Propofol didn’t just make me sleepy; it made me feel as if my soul had been detached from my body and was resting just above it, on a cloud of marshmallow fluff, sweet and achingly tender. It made the time I was under its influence pass in a flicker like the inside of a tunnel viewed from a bullet train, just a glimpse of darkness and lights stretched into long streaks. Then daylight.

I remember seeing the gastroenterologist through my milk-of-amnesia haze, and feeling something for him that was akin to love. Not desire, just an expansive, all-encompassing euphoria that had no rhyme or reason. Everyone looked beautiful—I could see past their external appearances and feel their radiance within. The doctor pointed to an image of the inside of my colon on a screen. That was even beautiful, too.

When I came to, I felt redefined, the boundaries between me and the world around me crisper—clean, just as the nurse had promised. The worries and fears I brought to the doctor’s office eventually seeped back, but for a few hours they seemed as vague and insignificant as my tenuous memory of events and conversations in the doctor’s office. Had they really happened or had I imagined them?