What Happened to Aaron Carter?

mental health

Before the face tattoos, the public family feuds, the bankruptcy, the drug addictions, and the trouble with work drying up, there was a teenage boy who had my heart. His name was Aaron Carter. 

During middle school, I was his self-proclaimed #1 fan. True, my leopard-themed bedroom’s wall space was split between early-2000s pop royalty–Backstreet Boys, Christina, Britney, NSYNC, but Aaron Carter was the real apple of my eye. I devoted myself to him earnestly, memorizing his albums, scrapbooking pictures, taping appearances, and counting down the days until his show tickets went on sale. 

Part of Aaron’s appeal was that we were the same age. We were going through the same growing pains together. When he released albums at 9, 12, 13, and 14, they helped me accept myself through the changes of growing up. Listening to Aaron’s music made me feel free to be myself and lovable for who I was. I liked his older brother’s music, but the boy bands were several years older, and they were singing about things I didn’t understand. While Aaron was singing about crushes and parents, the older boys were singing about loneliness, break-ups, and lusting after the wrong person. Plus, he was way cuter than any member of Backstreet Boys or NSYNC, an opinion I still stand by. 

In my freshman year of high school, he stopped releasing music, and gradually my obsession faded out of my life. He became a memory, a distant special something that feels wonderful to recall. Little did I know that his life was changing rapidly around this time. His parents split up. He was on the fritz with his record label. He came into financial hardships that required filing for bankruptcy. With mounting family and career troubles, his early adult years swept him in an entirely new direction. 

Of course, I only learned about these facts last week, after he was found deceased at his home. Since his death, he’s all I can think about. Even though I’m not the fan I once was, I’ve rekindled that familiar sense of devotion, spending the last week sorting through his recordings, performances, interviews, and live streams. I want to understand how my teenage dreamboat turned into the tattoo-faced 34-year-old who was found unresponsive in his bathtub a month before his son’s first birthday. I want more than facts on a timeline or an explanation of cause and effect. I want to understand what’s behind the little tragedies that made up his life.

In his last interview a few days before his death, he referred to himself as a “legend”. At first, the lack of humility made me cringe, but then I couldn’t help but tear up. It hurt to see him slumped on a couch, hiding behind a baseball cap and tattoos, asking to be remembered. To devote your life to something and not be recognized for it, for it to not land the way you wanted it to, to become irrelevant to your audience. It connected me with the part of myself that wants to make a difference in the world. The part of me that wants to be remembered as someone who did something, who helped people, who made things better. He wasn’t wrong when he called himself a “legend,” it’s just that all legends are forgotten eventually. And oh, how it feels to have never been called a legend in the first place. To me, he absolutely was a legend, sadly forgotten within his lifetime. But it seems like to many of the people around him recently, he was never a legend at all. 

Something else stood out to me about that last interview. He says he’s 5-years sober, but he also smokes weed on the podcast, seems to be drinking Lean (a mix of prescription-strength cough syrup and soda), and admits to taking psych meds he’s been trying to get off of for more than a decade. Combine this with his history of huffing, and it’s difficult to see what he means by sober. Maybe he was misdirecting our attention so we wouldn’t pry into his business. Or maybe he was deluding himself into believing he was actually sober. I know how tempting it is to believe I am already the person I imagine myself being down the road, after I’ve done the hard work of slaying whatever dragon is in front of me. I know how painful it is to admit when I am not living up to the person I want to be, to come clean when I’m living against my values. The desire to believe is powerful enough to turn fiction into fact. This isn’t a tendency you can outsmart–even the most intelligent people can delude themselves into believing things that aren’t true. 

Delusions or not, I think he would agree with me when I say he had an ongoing struggle with addiction. Who knows when it started, but let’s say sometime during his teenage years when his family and career fell apart. The substances shifted over time, but the stickiest and most problematic were cans of air duster that he inhaled, and a suite of prescription psych meds that he used daily, including both benzos and opiates. When you run down a report of the challenges in his life, it’s no surprise that he found a friend in addiction. But it does make me wonder why he chose huffing and psych meds as his preferred form of pain relief. Could something else have worked better? 

I can’t help but think things might have ended differently if he were surrounded by people who wanted to listen to him, to understand, to feel–without judgment–how the world sparked inside of him. How many people sat with him as he explored the pain inside his parents’ divorce, career challenges, financial troubles, his substance use, his family’s substance use, the sudden death of his sister and father, the bullying he endured, his relationship turbulence? Would the duster still have had the same appeal? Would he still have cherished his benzos? Who was brave enough to hold space for his pain without feeling the need to judge or advise? Did he have anybody who made him feel like he belonged–scars, pain, bad decisions and all? Or did he feel bottled up, alone in dealing with his challenges, told what to do, isolated from the world? I'm not saying that empathetic listening alone could have saved him, but I can’t help but think it could have set him on a path to a different ending. After all, addiction can seem like your best friend when you feel alone in the universe. 

With all of this addiction in play, did he intend to die or was this an accident? In 2018, he said his biggest fear was, “not being able to live as long as I can.” He wasn’t trying to destroy his life with drugs, he was trying to ease his pain. Even in the middle of the storm, he believed life was good. After all, he was still the same kid who performed for stadiums of people, was adored by millions, and traveled the world while other kids were stuck at school. He knew a version of life that’s a fantasy for most of us. Having tasted how good life can be, how could he not become an advocate for it, even when times turned bad? Somehow, the love of goodness was always there, even if it didn’t always win.

When I heard about his death, I was hit deep. It’s difficult to imagine a world without Aaron Carter. With him being six months, 20 days, 11 hours and nine minutes older than me, I guess I assumed we would share our time on earth together. 

As I sifted through everything, I knew I wanted to write something, but I didn’t know what to say. I’m not a reporter, an insider, or a professional. It’s not my place to write the facts of his life, or find the moral of the story, or offer a protocol for helping people like him. I’m a fan. It’s my job to love him and to celebrate him for what he gave to the world. Because once upon a time I was a sad and struggling teenage girl. And when I listened to Aaron’s music, the strangest thing happened: I felt as if Aaron was listening to me. His songs were my pain relief. Could that have had an impact on the direction of my life? Could that have been one of the many things that helped me avoid his fate?

I close this chapter with a lot on my mind. The least I can do is fulfill his wish and resurrect him as a legend, if not to you than at least to me. Not for his old music. Or his new music. Aaron Carter is a legend because of his spirit to endure. Because he never gave up. Because he knew that life’s sweetness always somehow exists, even when you’re disconnected from it. This is the new legend of Aaron Carter, and I intend to live up to it.