British singer Amy Winehouse died this past weekend, calling attention to her ongoing struggle with addiction.
I was on my way back from the Jersey shore this past weekend when I found out that Amy Winehouse, the British jazz singer who burst onto the music and entertainment scene with five Grammy Awards in 2008 for her album “Back to Black,” had been found dead in her Camden, North London apartment.
My initial reaction to the news was sadness. Winehouse was a tremendously talented singer who was unable to conquer her addiction to drugs and alcohol. When I got home, I went onto the Internet to find out more about her death, of which there is no explanation as of yet. Naturally, two of the places I went to find out more information were Facebook and Twitter; I am a “fan” and “follower” of many music pages like Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy, and I figured my news feed would be cluttered with information about the singer’s death. I was correct; however, my feed was also cluttered with status updates from friends and celebrities who took their opportunities to publicly chastise and ridicule Winehouse, a self-acknowledged addict, as someone who had finally gotten what she deserved.
Is it absolutely shocking that Amy Winehouse died at age 27? Given her well-documented history of alcohol and drug problems, along with a plethora of archived photographs showing the singer inebriated and glassy eyed on various stages, the overwhelming answer to the question is “no.” However, that doesn’t mean that she (and all struggling addicts for that matter) shouldn’t be treated with some sort of humanity and compassion. She wasn’t a murderer or terrorist; she was just a singer who shuffled in and out of rehab in a failed attempt to control her inner demons. Which is why I was pleased to find, among all those criticisms and inappropriate jokes and comments about her death, a poignant and moving article written by British actor and comedian Russell Brand (disclaimer: some vulgar language, perhaps out of emotion). In the article, Brand writes about how he knew Winehouse prior to her finding fame and fortune, when she was just a “twit in a pink satin jacket shuffling round bars with mutual friends.” But the real reason Brand chose to write about Winehouse’s tragic death is because the two shared a very similar and serious affliction: addiction.
Finally! Someone had reflected on Amy Winehouse’s death and taken an opportunity to call attention to the seriousness of addiction and how, in our culture, often times people treat addicts as weak and disgusting people who are unable to curb bad habits instead of what they truly are: people with a serious disease in need of help.
In Winehouse’s case, the public perception of this disease is even more complicated—a mixed bag of those who believe she finally got what was coming to her and others who romanticize her death as that of a true rock star who partied hard and embodied the image of a modern day Janis Joplin. Add on top of all this the fact that our society seems to be more infatuated with the drama behind a celebrity downfall than the more boring outcome of someone getting the help they need and cleaning up, and it's no surprise that the seriousness of Winehouse's addiction was downplayed while she was still with us.
How many times did Winehouse appear on the cover of a tabloid with certain signs of serious addiction problems? And how many people are guilty of viewing those images and publications only to say to themselves, "Look at what that crazy rock and roll star is doing now," while dismissing her condition? It's this type of cycle that needs to be broken. It's this type of situation that needs to be looked at under the magnifying glass in hopes that we as a culture learn from these sad outcomes. Brand mentions that the life of an addict can be broken down to one phone call that could go one of two ways: either it's from an addict who is ready to get clean (maybe in part because someone they know and love helped them understand what they needed to do) or from someone else telling the person on the other end of the line that it's too late. It's time to stop brushing off, glamorizing, and downplaying the seriousness of addiction; otherwise, the young, impressionable minds of the next generation will only continue this cycle of destruction.
Brand saves his best for last, concluding with the following sentiments:
We have lost a beautiful and talented woman to this disease. Not all addicts have Amy's incredible talent. Or Kurt's or Jimi's or Janis's. Some people just get the affliction. All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill.
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 criminalization doesn't even make economic sense. Not all of us know someone with the incredible talent that Amy had but we all know drunks and junkies and they all need help and the help is out there.
Hopefully these words do not fall on deaf ears. Until the public perception is changed, it's hard to imagine that addicts are getting all the help they truly could be. As Brand mentions, it doesn't make sense to spend taxpayer money on sending addicts to jail when it's almost guaranteed that, upon exit, they'll be right back to their ways if untreated.
Addiction, much like cancer or HIV, is a serious disease that, if untreated, will undoubtedly result in death. Perhaps no one knows this better than ex-addict Russell Brand.