I had returned from running errands on Saturday afternoon. Settling in with a cool drink on a hot summer afternoon, I signed online to check email and the news. As I opened the web browser, a red banner announced: Amy Winehouse found dead.
I remember first hearing Winehouse’s music a few years ago. Her deep, rich voice and her ability to blend musical styles including jazz, soul, and folk excited me. She was a new singer with qualities much like those of great singers of past generations. Over the next few months, I gave a few of my friends copies of her first CD, Back to Black. She quickly rose to international fame, winning several Grammy awards.
The stories of her addictions and struggles with rehab have been reported extensively over this past week. While her death itself is tragic, it’s illustrative of the probably of addiction in society and our lack of resolve to effectively address this pervasive problem.
Winehouse is far from the first artist to die because of complications due to addictions. Perhaps the first to impact me was the death of Janis Joplin. But there have been many others, including Elvis Presley, Heath Ledger, and Michael Jackson.
We live in an addictive society. The majority of us are influenced by addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex, food, tobacco, gambling, shopping and work. If we aren’t addicted ourselves, others close to us are. Addiction impacts every aspect of our lives. That’s because our politicians, leaders of business, religious leaders and so many other people with access to power are addicts and make decisions based on addictive ways of thinking.
As I read discussion postings to news articles about Winehouse’s death, I was stunned by the number of angry postings made by people talking about personal responsibility and Amy’s addictions. Because addiction changes an individual’s physiology and neurology, saying that addicted people are responsible for taking drugs or drinking is like saying the people with cancer are responsible for their actions. Addicts lack the ability to control their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. That’s part of the disease of addiction.
Addiction often starts when a person is unable to cope with events in life that the person experiences as overwhelming. We all know what it’s like to be overwhelmed by something. When overwhelmed, we do something to cope. Frequently people eat, shop, or try to escape the situation in some way. When an escape route is used often enough, a pattern can be set that causes changes to a person’s physiology and neurology. That’s when having ice cream to treat oneself after a hard day to a cold beer – or ten cold beers — becomes an addiction. When addiction sets in, personal choice is gone. The addiction, by definition, is an uncontrollable drive.
At the heart of addiction is a person who has not been able to cope with some sort of pain in life. The person may not even recognize that pain – or it may have been forgotten in the addictive pattern. Sometimes that pain is another mental illness like depression or anxiety; sometimes it’s a childhood trauma like sexual abuse; sometimes is a psychological wound that occurred repeatedly, like when a child or teenager is repeatedly made fun of for being gay or lesbian and begins to cope through alcohol, drugs, or sex. The inability to cope and the addictive pattern both result in a sense of shame. What does an addict do with shame? An addict tries to dull that feeling of shame by eating, drinking, gambling, or acting out based on the addiction. This is how an addict copes with emotional pain or distress. The addict finds a way to escape, at least for the moment.
Winehouse, like other addicts, couldn’t cope with something in her life. We’ll probably never know what it is. But it was clear that her ex-husband, father, mother and the tabloids all increased her sense of shame and enabled her to spiral in the addiction even further. So, too, did the many fans who watched the YouTube videos of her outrageous behavior on stage that marked her final performances.
While addicts can take steps to change their behavior through recovery, which is a very difficult process, the problem of addiction is something we all share in. In fact, I would go further to suggest that we accept and tolerate society’s many addictions. We have come to view dysfunctional patterns as normal because we have grown so used to them.
Each time we fail to live in a healthy, balanced way, we enable addictions to continue in society. Fundamentally, addiction is about a lack of balance. Something is out of control and too much of this or that are used to solve the problem.
I only know of one way to restore balance in life. It’s the same for all of us. We each need to deliberately choose to live in a way that assures sufficient rest, healthy diet, appropriate emotional expression and regular spiritual practice. Tending to physical, psychological and spiritual well-being is how we can prevent the cycles of addiction in our own lives and help to restore sanity in our society.
As long as we blame the victim – the addict – rather than take responsibility for living health and balanced lives, many others will be lost to the cycle of addiction as was Amy Winehouse. The cost of addiction is more than any of us can imagine.
I am thankful for the art and talent of Ms. Amy Winehouse. I regret that she died at far too young of an age. But I hope that at least some people can be inspired to consider how we all contribute to a culture of addiction which limits the potential of so much greatness in the world.
© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.