I crossed paths with her before any of the scandalous headlines that shadowed her life. Before the overdoses, the many arrests and jail time. Before the sex tape, the bottle of wine a day, the stint in rehab. Before she kidnapped her own son from her mother’s legal custody and crossed state lines with him. Before all that. She was just twenty years old and on the brink of a promising career as country music’s freshest sweetheart. She was everything Nashville looked for. Young and petite, with smooth, bronzed skin, perfect white teeth, and hair that shimmered like gold. And that voice!
I had just started seeing my then-boyfriend who’d done some demo work in the studio with her. He’d also written a couple of songs with her aunt. At the time, she was living with her producer – a big-time country music producer who’d worked with the best of the best. On Christmas Eve day, 1995, she extended a last-minute invitation to us for Christmas dinner. Her debut album (which went on to sell over two million copies) was being released in just a few months. A prior commitment prevented me from going, and I told my boyfriend to go without me. He wouldn’t. I can’t tell you how many times I kicked myself for not accepting that invitation. There were endless possibilities it could have presented for me as a songwriter.
As time went on, I learned that she and I shared similar demons in our lives. We both had strained relationships with our mothers. We both fought clinical depression. We’d both over-dosed on prescription pills. I remember hearing that she was in jail in Nashville, and trying to decide if I should go visit her there. She and I had never actually met, but we had come close a couple times. I was invited to her house for Christmas, after all. If I’d gone and told her who I was, who my boyfriend was, maybe she would have been receptive. Maybe I could have helped her in some way. That’s not to say that I could have saved someone that professionals (including Dr. Drew and Dr. Phil) had failed to save. But sometimes all you need is someone who’s felt the same way that you do. There’s a big difference between studying depression, and actually being in such a dark place that a drugged sleep is your only relief. But since we were never formally introduced, I decided not to go. I figured they’d probably assume I was a crazy fan and not let me in to see her. And even if they did let me in, she might not appreciate some stranger she almost met invading her privacy.
The only time I ever saw her face to face was right after her debut album was released, in 1996. Tower Records in Nashville used to have artists come in to do little shows, right inside the record store. It was a great PR move. It got potential customers into the store, and it boosted sales for the performing artist. The store was packed that day, and there she was, just a tiny little thing back then, sitting on a stool, singing, smiling, radiating. When she saw my boyfriend in the crowd (he was 6′ 5″ and pretty hard to miss) she waved and smiled bigger. She spoke to the audience with such grace and humility. She told them through tears how much it meant to her that they were there to see her. She was a twenty-year-old karaoke singer from Florida who had made it big and was overcome with emotions. It was endearing.
She and her producer boyfriend split up, and she later became the victim of domestic abuse. In 2009, she was a patient on Dr. Drew’s “Celebrity Rehab” TV show. During filming, she suffered a grand mal seizure. It was powerful television, and just one more thing that we had in common. I’d had a grand mal seizure four years earlier. Mine was attributed to severe stress and dehydration. Hers, the result of a brain injury she didn’t know she had, caused during a fight with her ex.
As more years passed, she became the mother of two boys, and moved to Arkansas with the man she called her soul mate. And then, on January 13, 2013, she found her boyfriend on the front porch of their home, shot dead. There was speculation that she had shot him during a fight and made it look like a suicide. In a TV interview, she admitted they’d fought that night, but denied having anything to do with his death. She cried, “He was my life!” Watching that interview, it was clear how life had aged her. No longer the petite, shining star, she looked older than her years, tired, worn.
On February 17, she shot her boyfriend’s dog on the same porch where she’d found her boyfriend’s body a month earlier. And then she shot herself. There was a suicide note saying that now they could all be together again in Heaven. The couple’s son was only ten months old. Thankfully, he and her son from a previous relationship were with their grandmother.
Some said she killed herself out of guilt for having killed her boyfriend. Some said she did it because the pain of his suicide was unbearable. Others said it was only a matter of time before she killed herself, having had several past attempts. It was a tragic end to a life that had so much potential, a life shrouded for years in pain and addiction and scandals.
What strikes me most about her suicide is how she did it. It’s rare for a woman to kill herself with a gun. That kind of violence is a man’s method of suicide. It makes sense to me that it was her choice because it was how her boyfriend died. But the thing that haunts me is that she didn’t shoot herself in the heart, or the stomach, or even the side of the head. She shot herself in the face. That face, once full of sunshine and joy. I don’t want to know what goes through a beautiful woman’s mind when she makes the decision to shoot herself in the face.
All I can think of is the line from her debut single, “I need ten thousand angels watching over me tonight.”