The tragedy of Amy Winehouse

I didn’t know Amy Winehouse.  I wasn’t really a fan of Amy Winehouse.  I had only a tangential interest in Amy Winehouse, inasmuch as I knew that she sang “Rehab,” had a strange hairdo and made news for drinking, drugs and getting into a lot of trouble.  That would probably be a common answer if you asked any dozen people on the street to describe her.  So the news of her sudden death at the age of 27 this past Saturday would not come as a great surprise either.  She joins the pantheon of musicians unravelled by their demons – Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley.  What stands Amy Winehouse apart from this crowd is how her downward spiral became the focus of her fame.  Despite her talent, entire forests were whacked to instead provide embarrassing photos and salacious accounts of somebody who was clearly suffering a great deal – so much so that the sanctimonious among us can now say smugly, “it was only a matter of time.”

The first time I ever received morphine was during a brief hospitalization for a collapsed lung.  I remember thinking as the sensation of euphoria washed over me and cleansed away the pain, “ah, this is why people do drugs.”  (Clearly a world-changing revelation from a naïve 21-year-old who barely drank and never even tried a cigarette.)  Despite the morphine experience, I don’t have an addictive personality.  Most of us don’t, which is why we love jumping all over the latest celebrity drug abuse scandal.  It is incomprehensible to a non-addict where this need to smoke, drink or inject chemicals into one’s body for a temporary “high” comes from.  Things just can’t possibly be that bad, we say.  Just don’t take the stuff.  A lot of misguided drug policy has been formulated from this morally superior perch, because our brains aren’t wired the way an addict’s brain is.  And with a lack of understanding comes a lack of empathy.

Addiction, like any mental illness, is still a stigma.  If people don’t look like anything is wrong with them, then it’s assumed that they are perfectly fine.  People missing limbs, people wasting away from AIDS, people who have suffered disfiguring injuries are regularly celebrated as heroes, resolute in the face of their challenges.  But most mental illnesses are still equated with weakness, or worse, turned into punchlines.  Someone with bipolar disorder who needs to have regular electroshock therapy is viewed as “crazy,” much less courageous than the stalwart woman fighting breast cancer.  And raising money to fight addiction and mental illness isn’t as politically sexy as other diseases because many of the people who suffer from them are often viewed as the undesirables of society – far too often winding up in prison instead of treatment.

The tabloids loved to kick Amy Winehouse when she was down, which seemed to be regularly.  Plenty of stories ran earlier this year about her cancelling concerts, appearing incoherent and slurring her words on stage.  “Winehouse Behaving Badly” was no longer news – it was just expected.  Not having known her personally, I can’t attest to what was going on in her life, what kind of person she was, how she treated those around her.  All I know is that she didn’t get the help she needed in time, and her parents have now lost a daughter.  And I can’t help wondering if she had suffered a more visible illness, might she have garnered more sympathy?  If she’d died of leukemia or ALS, would people be saying, as was overheard in my office today, “well, she was clearly headed that way”?

Suffering doesn’t always come with a limp or a scar.  We need to stop assuming everyone with an addiction or a mental illness is crazy, or that it is something to be scorned.  It’s difficult to watch someone self-destruct, as it must have been for those closest to Amy Winehouse.  It’s harder still to continue to be there for them, to not let them go, to fight against the stigma and the public perception and the belief that it’s their weakness.  But we can’t let ourselves do any less.  Love is, after all, the most important part of Rehab.

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