Judging Amy (and Whitney)

26 Feb

The first thing people do when a person dies of drug or alcohol addiction is to start making “I told you so” jokes. During my senior prom, the DJ dedicated “Another One Bites the Dust” to Kurt Cobain, who had just committed suicide after battling depression and addiction for years. Instead of scoffing at such a tasteless gesture, I laughed.

As a teenager, I didn’t appreciate the complexity of the disease of addiction. I saw it as people making bad choices, choices I could avoid. As an adult, I’m not comfortable defining people solely by their disease. I’m much more interested in the humanity underneath.

When 27-year-old talent Amy Winehouse died in July, rehab jokes littered my Twitter and Facebook feed. While some of them were clever, it made me sad that people’s wit outweighed their human empathy.

The reaction to Whitney Houston’s death took longer to descend into judgment and cruelty. I think that’s because at 48, she had a larger number of people who remembered her before drugs claimed her dignity.

Lately, I find myself humming a nameless tune that morphs into “I Will Always Love You” every time! I haven’t thought about that song since 1992, 1993, 1994, or whenever it finally stopped. But I was for it before I was against it.

What makes Whitney’s cover so unforgettable is not her voice but her vulnerability. Those initial a cappella notes made us shiver in the 90’s (mostly because it’s before the saxaphone solo). While later she retreats into the controlled power of the drum-beat punctuated second chorus, it’s the those slightly shaky words “If I should stay, I would only be in your way” that propelled the goose bumps. It’s the first few moments that keep you hanging on for the dramatic ballad it turns into.

I’m not sure what surprises me more, Whitney Houston’s insecurity or that I’m about to quote Kevin Costner, but here goes. He said in his eulogy that Whitney feared the on-set makeup during the filming of The Bodyguard wasn’t sufficient and added the thicker music video makeup she was accustomed to. As the hot set lights melted her mask, she approached Costner with foundation running down her face, only she didn’t know it until Costner turned her around to face the mirror. She was horrified.

Costner painted Whitney as the talent who constantly asked: “Am I good enough? Will people like me?”

“It was the burden that made her great, and the part that made her stumble in the end,” Costner said.

Chasing Amy

Most of the world didn’t hear the sultry soul of Amy Winehouse’s voice until “Rehab” became so popular that the irony was screaming at us. So the public, famous face of Amy became that of drunken live performances on a drug-riddled frame. The beehive hairdo and extreme eyeliner were only add-ons. The fresh-faced girl who auditioned for Island Records in 2002 was largely unknown. We only knew the masked Amy. In and out of rehab for years, she tried to live clean and sober, but the pain ate away at her young soul and she eventually reached for the solace of a temporary fix. The last time she reached too far.

Flannery O’ Connor was right: we resist grace because it means change and the change is painful. It continues to be painful. I am still just as neurologically geared toward the fix, the hit, the conflagration as I ever was; just as prone to be ruled by fear, just as driven by the need for approval, for adulation, to feel better.

–Heather King, NPR commentator and author, writing after 18 years of sobriety in her memoir Parched

Amy, like Whitney, struggled to accept herself. As quoted in The Guardian UK, Amy said:  “The more insecure I feel, the more I drink,”  and when asked about her rapid weight loss, added: “And the more insecure I feel, the bigger my beehive gets.”

In the last year of her life, Amy tried spending time in St. Lucia away from London to work on a new album. This geographic cure made people hopeful she could pull herself out of “the abyss.” But as the saying goes, “no matter where you go, there you are.” The demons inside her would follow her wherever she went. She laid her lot out in her lyrics:

And I tread a troubled track, my odds are stacked

I’ll go back to black

–Amy Winehouse, “Back to Black”

In the end, after giving up hard drugs, she died of alcohol poisoning. Her disease was stronger than her will to fight it.

Whitney Houston’s long battle with drug addiction finally ended in a hotel bathtub in Beverly Hills, after consuming a mix of prescription drugs and alcohol. This was just eight months after her voluntary entrance into an outpatient rehab in May of 2011. Other reports say she was planning to “deal with her addiction” by going to rehab again after the Grammys (held the night after she died). She wanted to put off grace for one more day, only her disease wouldn’t give her more time.

Beneath the tabloid photos that show the ugly face of addiction were two visionaries who influenced the next generation of talent. Whitney Houston paved the way for Mariah Carey and Jennifer Hudson; Amy Winehouse forged a path for Adele and Duffy. To reduce the tragedy of their deaths to crackhead and rehab jokes is heartless. If you haven’t lost someone to this disease, be grateful instead of cruel. If you haven’t personally struggled with addiction, read deeply about it before you start measuring a person’s worth by the symptoms of their disease.

Alcoholism and addiction are diseases of the mind, body, and soul. All three must be healed before a person can maintain sobriety, and that process is gradual and life-long. In 2007, Late Night comedian Craig Ferguson, now 20 years sober, dedicated his monologue to this very issue. He explained the fallacy that 28 days in rehab could cure a person of a “thinking problem.” It’s a disease that requires lifetime maintenance; it cannot be cured with wealth or influence. Amy and Whitney are just the latest examples.

Someone in Amy’s entourage referred to her as “Just a sweet tiny thing with a huge great voice.” What a beautiful summation.

It reminds me of those videos of Whitney signing in church with her mother. Whitney once said that music was love; she advocated music education in schools because it was the easiest way to spread love to our children. She first learned that when she was a “sweet tiny thing” singing about God’s love at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, NJ. At her funeral at that same church, CeCe Winans invited the world to sing “Yes, Jesus Loves Me” with her.

Even a crackhead deserves that.


One Response to “Judging Amy (and Whitney)”

  1. ~Mak~ February 27, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    This is excellent. I agree wholeheartedly. Addiction is definitely a disease, and people are so much more than their addictions.

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