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Amy Winehouse: A Diva with Demons

24 Aug

Amy Winehouse in High School

Amy Winehouse in high school

The world’s reaction to Amy Winehouse’s death seems like everyone did and didn’t know she was going to die.  When she was finally found in her Camden house on 23rd July, the media was shocked and validated at the same time. People who are now using her death as a platform for their outrage against the irresponsible practices of record firms, the glorification of drug and alcohol abuse by celebrities, the regressiveness of drug laws, etc- are the very same who mutely witnessed Amy Winehouse’s most pathetic avatars of battered, bloodied, glassy-eyed self destruction.

 Few who saw the living figure of Winehouse on one of her binges ever described her as fragile, heartbroken, a creative inspiration, a delicate flower – or other such gentle epithets that are now being showered on her memory like flowers on her grave. In short, most people have granted Amy Winehouse in death the empathy that she might have got in life. I credit this to the fact that, sadly, there might be some dignity in death, but there is absolutely none in wandering the streets of London barefoot, sobbing, in jeans and a red bra.

Distressed Amy Winehouse

A Distressed Amy Winehouse Outside her London Home

Addicts are truly pitiable creatures. Whether they are Grammy-winning superstars or homeless junkies, they are commonly the object of public humiliation. While the world waxes poetic about Amy Winehouse’s tragic life and death, there are so many who are doing exactly what she did, who are not being pitied or venerated, who are, in fact, being scorned, derided and descriminated against. Most people are unaware of the fact that, setting aside genetic predisposition and other extraneous factors such as environment and availability, addiction is a disease just like any other disease. Just as a healthy person who looks at someone diagnosed with cancer and tells himself, “that could never happen to me,” is secure in his own superior physical makeup and perceived immortality; the same way a person who looks at an addict and says “that could never happen to me,” is filled with a sense of security and even hubris over his own balanced mental state, superior life choices and lack of chemical dependancy.

It is this very false sense, coupled with the sometimes sheer repulsiveness of the addict’s outward aspect, that creates an Otherness which permits non-addicts to treat an addict with hostility and disparagement. In turn, this discrimination plays a significant role in further enlarging the addicts’ already overblown capacity for self-hatred and inability to take in support and love. So once again, they turn to alcohol and opiods like heroin which replicate the chemistry of a relational connection, and/or stimulants like cocaine and metamphetamines, that produce a sense of worthiness. In this way, we help perpertuate the cycle of “woe is me” to “wow is me” to “woe is me” again, in which they are already deeply embedded.

In August, Amy Winehouse’s family released a statement saying that toxicology reports showed that there were no illegal drugs in her system at the time of death.  The reports do indicate that there was alcohol present in her system, but it is unclear whether that contributed to her death. So until the results of an inquest, which is due in October, are published, it is anybody’s guess about what got her in the end. This uncertainty truly underscores the point which Maia Szalavitz makes in her blogpost “The Pain Of Addiction”, which was published a day after Winehouse’s death:

“One thing, however, is certain. Blaming drugs or  Winehouse’s “enablers” for her death misses the point: what she needed was compassion, most of all from herself.”

I agree. What should be taken away from all this is not that Amy Winehouse was an addict whose addiction killed her, but that she was a person who had been apportioned far more than her fair share of unhappiness and heartache, even if it was mostly self-inflicted.  As for all the fame, money and accolades, just like in Humpty Dumpty,they just summed up to all the king’s horses and all the king’s men-  not enough to put her shattered psyche back together again.

There are millions like Amy Winehouse, struggling to feel comfortable in their own skin; yearning for, and at the same time rejecting love and social acceptance. One doesn’t need to have an indepth knowledge of addiction, or a degree in psychology to empathise with these people. In my view, compassion and empathy are inextricably linked with a knowledge of our own fallibility and fragility. Maybe we can never completely envision ourselves in Amy Winehouse’s place, but surely we can realise that her situation, and the situation of others like her are not such a far cry from us as we would like to believe.

(Update: On 26th October 2011, coroner Suzanne Greenway gave a verdict of “death by misadventure”, stating that Amy Winehouse’s death was caused by fatal levels of alcohol in her system.)

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