In news that shouldn’t have shocked anyone, Amy Winehouse was found dead today in her London flat, at the age of 27. For those who obsessively follow the tragedies of the music industry, the so-called ’27 Club’ refers to a number of artists deemed extraordinarily talented, who perished at a young age due to self-destruction; Amy has now joined the likes of Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Otis Redding. It’s the prestigious club that no artist should want to belong to, and yet, one every single generation seems dead determined to join.
While Twitter mourns, laments, and in some cases, cracks weak jokes about Amy ‘going to rehab’, I’m not really sad. I have to confess, I found Amy to be highly overrated, and Back To Black didn’t impress me. I spent many months praying that Rehab would fall off the radar, and now anticipate it jumping right back on for a good three months. That aside, I’m not sad because Amy, like so many addicts, made a choice: she chose her drugs over health and recovery. She wasn’t gunned down, killed in an accident, or the victim of cancer or some other physical ailment of that sort; she died because of her addictions, because of the mental illness she bore almost as a badge of honour.
Do not misconstrue me: mental illness, addictions included, is a serious problem, and not the fault per se of the afflicted. Mental illnesses are deadly, and not a fun choice made by those diagnosed. I freely disclose that I am Bipolar II, suffer from anxiety issues, and have previously struggled with an eating disorder, self-harm, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse (binge drinking). I know what it’s like to be in the trenches of the war against self, and I thankfully lived to tell the tale, in spite of my efforts to put an end to myself. In this regard, I feel empathy for what Amy went through over the last several years, and for the turmoil that drove her to self-medicating with drugs. As someone who has struggled with the beast of addiction, I am sad she lost her life to it. Too many people do.
The difference is, I made choices. I eventually chose health. I chose to take the help offered to me, work through my demons, and move forward. Pain is pain, so there is no comparing or claiming that Amy “probably had it worse than you”; I could tell you stories about my life that would make you cry – I even made a psychiatrist cry with them, and it’s her job to listen to horror stories. I live with the consequences of my choices, too: I have permanent damage to my esophagus, and am on medication for life because of it. I don’t ask for sympathy, because it was my own fault; I was a Psychology major, studying eating disorders for my thesis, and the daughter of a recovered anorexic mother, and I still became bulimic. I knew better. I had chances to get help early on. I didn’t want it.
Therein, we reach my point about Amy Winehouse: she made a choice, and sadly, death is one of the consequences of drug addiction. Unlike many addicts who struggle to even keep a roof over their heads, Amy had so many opportunities to receive help, to heal her mind and body, and to rise above. She recently left rehab after seven days – calling it ‘an assessment’ and insisting she was to continue on an outpatient basis; the reality is, she had a tour scheduled in June and refused to stay the 6 months or longer true rehabilitation would take for someone with her complex issues. After a horrendous gig in Serbia last month, her tour was cancelled to allow her all the time she needed to heal… but she didn’t return to the inpatient treatment she needed. She’s got a long track record of bailing on rehab – her fifteen minutes at the insistence of former management (whom she later fired) was the impetus behind her hit single on the subject. Repeatedly, stints ended at three or five days, if she went at all. We can blame the music industry, blame fame, but we can also say, ultimately, Amy knew that she would die without proper help, and she refused it, repeatedly.
It’s sad no one got through to her, that no one let her truly hit rock bottom. It’s ludicrous that anyone booked her for a tour this summer, without ensuring sobriety and mental stability to cope with the rigors of touring, particularly given her track record. It’s awful that despite the blatant threat she posed to her safety and health, she was not forcibly remanded to rehab or sectioned last month. But Amy had far more chances and resources than most addicts do, and definitely knew the score. She knew it from the moment she wrote Rehab, noting that in spite of knowing that she wouldn’t find anything of use in a shot glass, she didn’t have seventy days to dedicate to happiness and health. Not even losing all of her positive attention, money and ability to make music was enough of a consequence to change her mind. Alcohol was her lover, her favourite friend – and she made the choice to love booze ’til the very end.
All of the “OMG RIP AMY!” on Twitter and online means nothing of import; you’re foolish if you didn’t see this as a very probable ending to her life. Don’t paint her out to be some sort of sad, helpless saint, because she wasn’t one.
This endless cycle of stars rising fast, only to fall hard before their thirties, needs to stop. The glamourizing of substance abuse and alcohol use needs to end. Hell, she got rich off her fans embracing a song about her refusing help for her addiction! What message did that send to her, or to others who will one day skyrocket up the charts, turning to substances to cope with private pain? What message did we send when, as Natalie Cole (a former addict herself) noted, we “let her have her cake and eat it too” by giving her awards in the throes of severe addiction?
If you truly feel upset about her passing, learn from it. If you see a friend teetering on the border of use and abuse, speak up. Donate to organizations that work to help addicts recover. Question our societal attitudes and media portrayals of substance use. Question the music industry when it pushes people beyond their personal limits, like Amy, or Janis, or Demi Lovato (aside: I am so happy for her, and wish her continued health). But more importantly, remember this: even if one has hit bottom, you cannot make an addict want to recover; he or she must choose it (or not), and accept the consequences of that choice… And we must accept those consequences as well.
The Toronto Star has done a great job recapping the rise and fall of Amy, including her refusal to treat her manic depression, here.
A video that may be interesting to watch: Ken Seeley, noted interventionist, speaking about Charlie Sheen at the beginning of the media blitz – another celebrity.