Family of Nelsan Ellis Shares His Story: Withdrawal from Alcohol Caused his Death

Two days after actor Nelsan Ellis’ death, his family shared the cause of their loss: Nelsan was trying to withdraw from heavy alcohol consumption all on his own. But when a person has been consuming alcohol heavily and continuously, suddenly eliminating this substance can cause the body to break down, resulting in the person’s death. And that’s exactly what happened to Nelsan.

Ellis starred for several years on the HBO series True Blood. When he died, he was only 39 years old. If he had only known that unsupported withdrawal could be fatal, he could have found the right medical support during his withdrawal that would have saved his life.

Alcohol bottles.

In the story they shared, the family revealed that Ellis had been through rehab multiple times and that he had struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for years. His shame prevented him from being willing to talk about this problem but his family felt he would want his death to provide an important, life-saving message to others.

What Happens to a Body Going through Alcohol Withdrawal?

According to the Mayo Clinic, withdrawal from heavy alcohol use can result in rapid heartbeat, tremors, nausea and vomiting, delirium, hallucinations, high fever, insomnia and seizures. After careful evaluation, benzodiazepines like Oxazepam, Lorazepam, or Diazepam may be used to prevent some of the worst of these symptoms that could otherwise result in organ breakdown, as happened in Ellis’ case. According to his manager’s statement, “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.”

Sick, fevered man.

It is possible to survive withdrawal from heavy alcohol use but it requires 24 hour care and monitoring. When a person addicted to alcohol is headed to rehab, he should be evaluated by a competent medical doctor experienced in the unique problems of the addicted and if needed, an around-the-clock medical detox should be done before entering rehab.

The primary lesson from Ellis’ death: NEVER attempt withdrawal from heavy alcohol consumption by yourself. Find a competent, experienced doctor and use his support and advice to help you escape from your addiction and find your way to sobriety.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.