Police have not yet declared the cause of singer Amy Winehouse’s death – a post-mortem was inconclusive and toxicology reports aren’t expected for several weeks – but most in the commentariat are taking it as writ that her death was linked to her widely publicized struggles with drugs and alcohol.
Even as fans mourn the fallen jazz singer, her death has reignited debates over addiction and society’s perception of it: Is it a disease? Is a symptom of weakness of will? And could anything have been done to save her?
Amy Winehouse’s family and friends remembered the singer at a private funeral at London’s Edgewarebury Cemetery on Tuesday.
Comedian and former addict Russell Brand paid tribute to Winehouse in an op-ed published in The Sun on Sunday, the day after Winehouse’s death. In it, Brand argued that society must revise how it views addiction, “not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill.” Brand continued, “We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care. We need to look at the way our government funds rehabilitation. It is cheaper to rehabilitate an addict than to send them to prison, so criminalisation doesn’t even make economic sense.”
But not everyone agrees that addiction is a disease; nor do they agree on exactly how to treat it, if it is.
- Why does no one try to understand addiction? Tanya Gold, writing at The Guardian, claimed that “any useful understanding of the mental illness” that killed Winehouse is occluded by the myth now building around her tragic passing. “Why do we give so much energy to the thrilling pantomime of an alcoholic dying in the public eye, and so little to understanding the illness that took her there?” she asked. “It was obvious years ago that Winehouse sick was more grotesquely interesting than Winehouse sober; as she temporarily dried out, so did the press coverage. But she relapsed, and came home to fame.” Gold argued that society still views addiction as a “self-inflicted” disease and treats it as something the sufferer can control; a Harley Street doctor once told Gold, a former addict herself, to try and “limit” her drug intake. “Thousands like Winehouse die every year, and they are not venerated, or even pitied. We will not educate ourselves about the disease, or reform drug laws that plunge addicts into a shadow-world of criminality and dependence on criminals.”
- Addiction is not a disease. In a letter to The Guardian in response to Gold’s article, Phil Barker and Poppy Buchanon-Barker of Newport-on-Tay, Fife blasted Gold for “perpetuating the self-serving myth that addiction is a ‘mental illness’ or a ‘disease’”: “This is a gross insult to everyone afflicted by genuine illness or disease. People with the lifestyle problems of reckless or excessive drinking or drug-taking are the active agents in their own difficulties….None are coerced into this lifestyle, nor can they be rescued from it, however much they might pay a Harley Street psychiatrist. While personal or social circumstances might be part of the story, the person is always the key agent. To suggest that they are not responsible is to diminish them as a person.”
Despite her objections to rehab in her famous song and despite once saying, “I’m of the school of thought where, if you can’t sort something out for yourself, no one can help you,” Winehouse did seek treatment at many points in her career. The BBC has a timelines of her visits to rehab.
- Misunderstanding addiction and counterproductive solutions. Winehouse’s death “also presents another occasion for well-intentioned people who misunderstand addiction to push counterproductive solutions,” claimed Maia Szalavitz, also a former addict, at TIME’s Healthland blog. Addiction, she says, is borne of self-loathing and an inability to one’s own self-worth; Winehouse gave voice to those fears in songs like “You Know I’m No Good” and “Back to Black”. Drugs and alcohol medicate that pain: “Contrary to popular belief, however, it’s not the euphoria that hooks you. Instead, it’s the ability simply to feel OK, the silencing of that voice of self-hate and the small sense of adequacy that comes in those quiet moments.” Szalavitz continued, “Even if Winehouse hadn’t said ‘no, no, no’ to many rehabs, no therapy would be able to reach her if she couldn’t first come to believe that her intolerable pain could end without self-medication.” It’s time to rethink how addiction is treated.
- Winehouse glamourised addiction. It’s a remarkable statement coming from the pages of very tabloid that did so much to help publicise Winehouse’s addiction: Columnist Amanda Platell at The Daily Mail claimed that Winehouse’s fans loved her not just for her talent, but because they also wanted to emulate her “car-crash lifestyle”. “Her very public solution to easing this pain was to take drugs and to drink. Her life was a lesson in self-destruction. The tragedy is that it wasn’t just for her, but for countless other young women who hero-worshipped her,” Platell worried. “The result was that, for the vulnerable and impressionable, I fear Amy Winehouse made crack cocaine cool. She made alcoholism attractive. She made abusive, violent relationships exciting.”
- Can a parent save an addicted child? The BBC explored this question, noting, “Many parents reading of the death at the weekend of singer Amy Winehouse will have thought to themselves: ‘What would I do if my son or daughter was an addict?’” The answer is complex and varies; moreover, treatment doesn’t always work. The broadcaster spoke with the parents and families of addicts, including Lisa Moore, the aunt of 17-year-old Hannah Meredith, who died of a heroine overdose in 2009. “Families feel helpless, they feel like failures, they think, ‘How can we fix it when that person is choosing to do it’?” she said. “What people don’t realise is that no matter how badly someone is on drugs nothing ever prepares you for the knock on the door or the phone call, nothing prepares you for their death.”
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