I can’t say I was surprised by the new of Amy Winehouse’s death. When I heard about her last concert, and saw the video, I thought to myself, “She has a year, maybe more, unless somebody does something.”
And, yet, at the same time I knew that there was nothing anybody could do. No one, that is, except Amy.
There’s a reason I say that. I’ve always been open about being in recovery. Just this month, I celebrated 19 years of sobriety. For that reason, There’s a part of me that roots for any addict to get better, for their own sake and that of those who love them.
That holds true even in the case of an artist like Amy Winehouse. I wasn’t introduced to her work until around the same time everyone else was. (Even her friend and contemporary Russell Brand didn’t hear her until well after the hype machine got going full tilt.) I was mesmerized. I heard echoes of so many singers in her, though her voice and delivery were all her own. Most notably, she reminded me of Billie Holiday towards the end of her career. And not just vocally.
Maybe it was the lyrics to “Rehab,” that did for me. As much as I hummed it and sang snatches of it around the house, I still found its declaration a bit jarring. Not because I saw it as a defiant embrace of addiction on Winehouse’s part, but because as I listened it with the ears of someone in recovery, I said to myself, “Oh shit. She doesn’t get it. This girl really doesn’t know how much trouble she’s in.” As one article I’ve read since I first learned the news put it, Winehouse seemed not to grasp the severity of her addictions.
And there were many of them. Alcohol. Heroin Crack. Cocaine. The evidence ranges from the anecdotes of her ex-husband, who claimed that the two of them binged on heroin and crack for three days in 2007, causing Winehouse experience an apparent overdose, from which she emerged asking for more drugs. There were the pictures of Winehouse that suggested serious drug use, which were reminiscent of the photos of Whitney Houston during the height of her addiction. And there were the unfortunate videos that confirmed the suspicious spawned by the photos.
Two questions come to mind. Didn’t the people around her see what was happening? Couldn’t the state do something? Couldn’t anybody do something? I wondered, about the time that the video of Amy smoking crack circulated whether there was some reason she couldn’t have been arrested at that point. Maybe that would have gotten her into rehab again.
But that’s the thing. People tried. Amy wrote a song about it. “They tried to make me go to rehab,” she sang, “I said no, no,no.” Her record label tried. Her family tried. Her friends tried. Kelly Osbourne, who mourned the loss of her friend on Twitter, joined forces with Amy’s Dad to try to get her in to rehab. According to her dad, she was even drug free for a year after one stint of rehab. But she reportedly needed to re-enter rehab, and did so in Israel.
At one point, seeing the danger his daughter was in, Amy’s father expressed a desire to have her committed or “sectioned” under the UK’s Mental Health Act, which allows for persons diagnosed with “mental disorders” to be detained in police or hospital custody for up to six months, and have their disorder assessed or treated against their wishes. But as near as I can tell, that never happened.
Some Unholy War
“If my man was fighting some unholy war,” Amy sang, “I would stand beside him.” The truth is that Amy and those who loved her were fighting the same unholy war in which millions of us daily fight, gain ground, lose ground and sometimes fall. And they were fighting it on two fronts.
One of those fronts, obviously, was addiction. And Amy’s addictions have been well documented, and the trappings of her fame make it easy to forget that Amy wasn’t that different from other addicts, even though her addictions seemed inextricably woven into the artistry that made her famous.
Janis Joplin once said that she made love to 25,000 people at her concerts, but went home alone. It’s that yearning for love and acceptance, that aching but unanswered need for connection that underlies both the drive for fame and the pain of addiction, which may be why the two are so often found together.
The pain that infused Winehouse’s voice seemed inextricable from her talent and was one thing that allowed her to move so many so profoundly. In counterpoint, her joyous sounds seemed that much more uplifting. It’s that deep and complex mix of feelings that helped her fans connect to her even as she herself never benefited from that connection. That paradox is at the heart of the addiction.
Here’s why: a key pillar of addiction is often self-hatred and an inability to see oneself as worthy of love. In songs like “You Know I’m No Good,” and “Back to Black,” Winehouse made those feelings painfully plain. If you’re an addict, that belief has probably always been with you. You may make a desperate attempts to pile up evidence otherwise—Look at my million-selling songs! My stadiums full of adoring fans! My husband who tolerates whatever I dish out! But it can’t possibly be enough. You know that if they really knew you, they’d hate you.
…Is it any wonder then that drugs seem like the answer?
It’s harder to see someone who achieved the kind of fame Amy did as struggling, but she was. And she wasn’t struggling alone. No one has put that better than Russell Brand.
Addiction is a serious disease; it will end with jail, mental institutions or death. I was 27 years old when through the friendship and help of Chip Somers of the treatment centre Focus 12 I found recovery. Through Focus I was introduced to support fellowships for alcoholics and drug addicts that are very easy to find and open to anybody with a desire to stop drinking and without which I would not be alive.
Now Amy Winehouse is dead, like many others whose unnecessary deaths have been retrospectively romanticised, at 27 years old. Whether this tragedy was preventable or not is now irrelevant. It is not preventable today. We have lost a beautiful and talented woman to this disease. Not all addicts have Amy’s incredible talent. Or Kurt’s or Jimi’s or Janis’s. Some people just get the affliction. All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill.
We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care. We need to look at the way our government funds rehabilitation. It is cheaper to rehabilitate an addict than to send them to prison, so criminalisation doesn’t even make economic sense. Not all of us know someone with the incredible talent that Amy had but we all know drunks and junkies and they all need help and the help is out there. All they have to do is pick up the phone and make the call. Or not. Either way, there will be a phone call.
Not all addicts have Amy’s talent. Brand is correct. And not all addicts have the access to treatment that Amy had. I don’t know how true that is in Britain. In America, we have a three-part failure when it comes to addiction: the “war on drugs,” prevention and treatment.
In July 2008, a report revealed that Americans were the world’s top drug users. A year later, we most likely still are. And, while the study revealed that 16.2% of Americans had at least tried cocaine and 42.2% of Americans used marijuana (the actual numbers could be greater, considering that people might not be entirely honest about their drug use), that wasn’t its most interesting finding.
Drug use “does not appear to be simply related to drug policy,” the researchers wrote, “since countries with more stringent policies toward illegal drug use did not have lower levels of such drug use than countries with more liberal policies.”
In the Netherlands, where drug policy is more liberal than the United States, 1.9 percent of survey participants said they had used cocaine and 19.8 percent marijuana.
And despite the US government’s massive anti-drug efforts, the United States remains the world’s top drug market, one amply supplied by South American cartels.
And our drug policy is equalled in its degree of failure only by our drug prevention efforts.
Despite investing $1 billion in a massive anti-drug campaign, a controversial new study suggests that the push has failed to help the United States win the war on drugs.
A congressionally mandated study released today concluded that the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign launched in the late 1990s to encourage young people to stay away from drugs “is unlikely to have had favorable effects on youths.”
In fact, the study’s authors assert that anti-drug ads may have unwittingly delivered the message that other kids were doing drugs, inadvertently slowing measured progress that was being made to curb marijuana use among teenagers.
“Youths who saw the campaign ads took from them the message that their peers were using marijuana,” the report suggests as a possible reason for its findings. “In turn, those who came to believe that their peers were using marijuana were more likely to initiate use themselves.”
Amy’s talent got her the fame and fortune but she, too, had “the affliction.” It’s possible, likely even, that Amy was one of many people who are prone to addiction, perhaps even genetically predisposed to addiction — one of those for whom addiction is a ride they can’t easily get off of. Some can’t get off without help. Some just can’t, period. But for most of us, there’s no way to know that until we’ve taken the first drink/hit/shot/pill/bump, etc. By then, the ride has already started.
In the U.S., to many of those who
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, from the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Association, in 2007 some 22.3 million Americans aged 12 and up were classified with substance dependence or abuse in the past year. Of those, only 2.4 million, or 10.3% received treatment at “specialty facilities” — defined as hospitals (inpatient only), drug or alcohol rehabilitation facilities (inpatient or outpatient), or mental health centers — meaning that 20.8 million needed, but did not receive treatment.
Of those 20.8 million, 1.3 million reported that they “perceived a need for treatment for their illicit drug or alcohol abuse problem.” Some 380,000, or 28.5%, made an effort to get treatment, but found none available. And among those who needed — and felt they needed — treatment but did not get it, the top reasons (33.4%) they didn’t get it because they lacked health insurance and couldn’t afford the cost of treatment.
However you add it up, the numbers make it pretty clear that we have a huge opportunity to decrease demand for drugs — and by extension decrease the effects of addiction both here at home and in Mexico. We’ve had the chance for a long time, and just haven’t been willing to grab it.
The statistics are dry and abstract, but multiply them by the millions addicts and families featured on “Intervention” (keeping in mind that 1/3 of Americans have a family member with a drug or alcohol abuse) problem), for whom desperately-needed help is unavailable, and add the communities where these families (and their addicted relatives live), and you get some idea of the cost of addiction.
The other front on which it looks like Amy and those who loved her fought a losing battle was mental health. Amy, in several interviews, referred to herself as “manic depressive,” and while I don’t know that she was ever diagnosed as bipolar, but she admitted to experiencing severe depressions, and even suggested as much in lyrics in songs like “Rehab,” which made reference to soul singerDonny Hathaway, who also struggled with depression (as well as paranoid schizophrenia), and ultimately committed suicide.
It’s hard to know whether depressed persons are more prone to addiction or wether addiction leads to depression, as there may be other factors involved, but both were realities for Amy, as they are for millions of us.
It’s tempting and too easy to use Amy’s death as a “cautionary tale,” though it truly could serve as a warning to anyone thinking of buying a ticket for the same ride that finally ended for Amy — in a devastating crash. It should serve as a reminder of how difficult it is for millions of not-so-famous people in our society with the same afflictions to get the help they need.
That is, if they want it. And that’s the other thing about Amy; one that I’ll have to get to in another post.