Last Saturday after we woke up, Dionne logged onto the computer and hopped over to Facebook. Within seconds she said "Amy Winehouse died."
My first reaction was to tell her to go to TMZ to confirm. Now, I don't usually go hopping to TMZ to confirm major news events, but I do go there to confirm celebrity news. They were the first to break Heath Ledger's death, so I put a lot of faith in them.
My second reaction was that this was not a surprise. It's never a surprise when a known addict dies. It's sad, and wasteful, but never a surprise.
I've been thinking about writing about this for awhile, but didn't really know where to start. Firstly, I didn't want anyone chastising me for not writing a detailed post about what happened in Norway, or about any other tragedies that have occurred in the world recently. Is it bad that I feel compelled to write about this? I don't think so. I've seen friends and family struggle with addiction. I am the child of an addict. I have lost friends to the direct effects of addiction and to the violence and car accidents that are related. Considering how much of a party girl I was, I find myself lucky to have escaped with only an addiction to nicotine.
What finally compelled me to write about this was a conversation I had with Angie last night. We talked about people's reactions to Winehouse's death, how the jokes were almost immediate, and something Angie said really struck a chord. "Would these people make a joke on Facebook about someone who had just lost a five year battle with cancer?"
Look, I get it. People make jokes about horrible things. I'm guilty of it myself. I used to laugh hysterically at my late friend Jake's dead baby jokes. I'm not trying to make anyone feel bad for being one of the 20 people on my news feed who made a joke about Amy saying no to rehab. Well, I will make you feel bad for your utter lack of originality, but that's neither here nor there.
I think this goes beyond another sad story of the wasted life of a talented young person. What makes me pause is that the things said about Amy Winehouse are indicative of the way that our entire culture views addiction and other mental illnesses. Too often we don't exhibit compassion, only scorn and ridicule.
You may say that an addict's struggles are entirely self inflicted. In many ways you'd be right. But would you fail to give compassion to someone who has heart disease, because they didn't eat perfectly their entire life? Most people with chemical dependency start out self medicating a deeper problem such as depression or anxiety. Addiction rarely starts with a healthy person. Saying that addicts just lack discipline and willpower is like saying that people with depression should just "be happy" and "get over it." It shows complete ignorance of the nature of these illnesses.
Showing compassion does not mean that you are condoning the behavior. It doesn't mean that you are letting the person not take responsibility for their actions. Accepting responsibility is the fifth step in the 12 step program. Steps eight and nine are about making amends. When an addict admits they have a disease, they are not relinquishing responsibility, they are finally embracing it.
Dr. Drew Pinsky has said that addiction is the only disease that you have to convince someone they have. In most cases can't just take a pill or have surgery to correct the problem. If there is medication available, such as methadone, it's just as addictive as the original drug.
Also, recovery is a lifelong process. You are always a recovering addict. The recovery process requires constant vigilance and personal development in order to succeed. And even then you don't always succeed. Recidivism rates are high, as are death rates.
I am addicted to nicotine. I have not been a regular smoker since 2003, but I know that if I let my guard down I could be back up to a pack a day in no time. That occasional cigarette when I've had a couple of drinks could easily become a habit again. It almost did early this year when I was having a particularly stressful time. Cigarette addiction may not destroy a person's life as drastically or with the same speed as other drugs, but the nature of the addiction is the same. I am still triggered by stress, and by seeing others smoke. Sometimes I can't watch Mad Men without wanting all the cigarettes in the world.
The mechanism of nicotine addiction has been compared to that of heroine. Both are physically and psychologically addictive, and strongly tied to habit as well as biological changes. So when I see someone struggling with an addiction to alcohol a hard drug, I go to those days when I couldn't even go to a bar because I knew I would end up smoking, when I would stand out in the cold to smoke, and I try to walk a mile in their shoes. I imagine what it would have been like if I'd become addicted to something other than nicotine, something more insidious. I think that for many of us, only one or two good choices separate us from tragedy.