Amy Winehouse died this weekend at the age of 27. Her death is being mourned by her family, friends and fans. Others with a predilection for celebrity schadenfreude or capital to be made for their anti-drug agendas are reveling in her demise.
Her excessive drug and alcohol use was very public knowledge and among the flowers, candles, prayers, personal notes and other items normally associated with grieving and loss, alcohol and cigarettes have been left along with an empty coke bottle that not-so-obliquely references a penchant for cocaine. It’s a polarized picture that paints the thousand words being written around the world by well-meaning fans and celebrity-column mawks alike.
Whatever the reason for leaving alcohol, tobacco and a “coke” bottle (signifying her drug use) as tributes to Amy Winehouse, it shows a staggering lack of understanding of the disease that took her life. Perhaps it was intended as a salute to her perceived rebellion or as a last offering for her to enjoy herself now that death can no longer touch her. It’s as ignorant as leaving bullets at the spot of John Lennon’s murder. These are the things that killed her, not the things she could control and enjoy. Perhaps it’s a stretch but then maybe the gross misunderstanding of the problem would be clearer if people had left syringes in “tribute.”
Some of her fans and fellow celebrities have declared that her death marks the loss of possibly the greatest British talent to emerge in decades. Others refer to the wonderful human that lay behind her public persona. Expressions of tribute are often the strongest in times of deep emotional pain and it is to be expected and accounted for.
But hyperbole isn’t exclusive to those who feel the pain and in some quarters Winehouse is being described as a typical, self-obsessed druggie, willing to abuse family and friends and unwilling to do anything about it. A waste of talent. Scum.
Unfortunately, the real issues get lost somewhere in the middle among the shouting proponents of extreme views and we often lose sight of many things that would help us understand.
The first is that addiction is an illness not a choice. We lose sight because we blame the addict for making an initial choice to use drugs. We blame the alcoholic for choosing to take the first drink. We blame the lung-cancer victim, if they smoked, for their decision to smoke. And we blame the drug addict for their first choice to use a drug. It’s that element of the first choice that makes people regard addicts as willing participants in their own addictions.
For some reason, many people have the idea that the addict has a choice to continue with the addiction. Every cigarette, every drink, every injection or snort is seen as an option that the addict is perfectly capable of choosing not to do. But addiction is an insidious illness that makes its victims believe they don’t need help, that they are smarter than their habits and that they are in control.
The implicit argument is that Winehouse knew hard drugs could kill and therefore it’s her own fault that she’s dead at 27. But the addict does not make the decision to be an addict any more than a boy makes the choice to be an obese man by biting into his first hamburger. But it’s that idea of the initial choice and all the subsequent, incremental choices along the way that makes it all too easy to condemn the addict as something less than human.
Many of the politicians and journalists and public who are slating Winehouse for her addictive behaviors have tasted alcohol, or smoked pot, or had a cigarette. They knew the dangers. They knew the consequences. They still tried it. And yet here they are demonstrating a staggering lack of compassion because they were not afflicted by the same addictive illness that leads all addicts to the brink and beyond. It’s not a lack of willpower that makes an addict but a genetic predisposition to succumbing to the illness.
The second thing that we commonly lose sight of when we start polarizing the public debate is the human being afflicted by the illness. When we hear about addicts dying, we often hear about the person within, the “real” Amy, the wonderful spirit destroyed by addiction. We habitually diminish the person consumed by the addiction and allow the addiction to take the person’s place until ultimately the human is supplanted by the illness.
If we haven’t condemned the addict as scum, then we supplant the person with the disease. It’s a cognitive dissonance we maintain so that we can deal with the idea that the human was dead a long time before the body stopped breathing. The person becomes the addiction so we can maintain the memory of the “real” person and blame the disease instead.
I’ve been guilty of it too. My first wife was addicted to drink and drugs and even now, years after her death, I bitterly regret my inability to separate her illness from her humanity. She was a smart, vibrant, capable woman who could not overcome the illness that made her believe she was in control. She was not in control but no amount of treatment and counseling could make her see that. She was not selfish but her addictions made her do things that severely impacted those around her. She had a disease and the actions that I berated her for were not a deliberate choice she made any more than it was my choice to be emotionally destroyed by witnessing it.
We also lose sight of the fact that drug use does not make a drug addict and that alcohol doesn’t make an alcoholic. Plenty of people use drugs and never get addicted. Plenty of people use alcohol but are not drunks. Plenty of people make these choices and are still able to function. Yet plenty of people are still willing to talk about the talent that Amy Winehouse threw away, the people she hurt and the low-life scum she was, and all while sipping a beer or a scotch. Addiction is not only something addicts cannot control; it’s also something non-addicts can never relate to without broader education or deep personal experience of the disease, or both.
It is conveniently simple to dismiss addiction as a personal choice made by worthless people and to characterize addicts as people battling personal demons, predisposed to self-destruction. It’s easy because society itself is addicted. But society’s addiction is to laziness and convenience, to a penchant for pigeon-holing, compartmentalizing, demonizing and condemning that which we cannot understand. We are addicted to an unwillingness to think, learn, accept and change.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule and no single attitude is appropriate to every case, but punishing a drug addict to stop the addiction is as patently ridiculous as punishing a cancer victim to cure the cancer. The sooner we understand that, the sooner we can move away from a one-size-fits-all idea of punitive justice and create compassionate and effective models of treatment.
Disclaimer: I am not a fan of Amy Winehouse and doubt I have heard more than one song I would recognize as hers. I don’t use drugs and I’m not an advocate of them. I rarely drink but enjoy it when I do. And I’ve been battling nicotine addiction since I was a teenager.