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Chasing Amy: Prohibition & the Infantilization Of Addiction

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I did not know Amy Winehouse. I never met her, never heard any of her music, and was not a "fan." None of that seemed to matter when forming an opinion of her. What I did know about her was what I felt I was permitted to know, that she was a prodigious musical talent who, not surprisingly, had an even more prodigious penchant for substances, and her life was a 24-hour train wreck that was parsed out neatly in thoroughly unforgiving YouTube clips.

This was pretty much the public face of Amy Winehouse that society obsessed over: the zoned out, stoned out girl with streaked mascara eyes, long stumbly bumbly legs, wild hair, an unabashed undoctored nose, and a mouth that was loud and defiant and unrepentant. Lost inside that societally-imposed archetype was a deeply sensitive being overwhelmed by her life, and thus, medicating her way through it.

This was the Amy Winehouse I did know, the Amy I didn't have to meet, because I had once been her. I knew this the first time I saw a video of her smoking crack in her Camden flat, shot clandestinely by someone she probably thought was a friend. There is a certain look addicts get who are in as deep as Amy was, or as I was back in my day. It's a combination of the thousand yard stare, and the Sicilian Look of Death, of total trauma, paralytic fear and rage, and of abject denial.

It is the look of hopelessness that all addicts wear, a screaming neon sign for "Help!" which we, as a society, choose to ignore at face value, and instead, point at in condemnation. Don't be fooled, we haven't evolved as a society just because it's now politically correct, and rather profitable, to call addiction a "disease." Deep within us all, we as a society still castigate the addict as weak, immoral, lesser-than, bad.

Through Prohibition, we have criminalized addiction, and shoved (certain, but not all) drug users down into society's shadow class, relegating drug addicts and drug offenders to second class citizenry, with all the dehumanization that comes along with it. Once dehumanized, a certain Colonial attitude of infantilization is imposed upon them. Like children, the natives/addicts aren't capable of taking care of themselves, so we, their Betters, need to manage them. And the way our society "manages" addiction is to punish it. Prison, drug court, mandated rehab & psychiatric medication, homelessness, unemployability, loss of children, and generalized wide scale stigmatization and exclusion.

On its face, this is madness. Do we punish someone who has cancer? Stomach ulcers? Migraine headaches? Bi Polar Illness? Impotency? So why do we punish addiction? From where does this despisment arise that in the wake of her apparent overdose has caused millions around the world to say, Amy Winehouse deserved to die! Deserved to die? Don't we reserve this sentiment for murderers and traitors? What does that say about the relative health and sanity of our society?

This attitude, and paradigm, has got to change if we are ever to get to a saner, more compassionate (and yes, potentially profitable) Post-Prohibition society. The first step, as Amy's friend, the British actor Russell Brand, wrote in the Guardian, is to end the criminalization of use:

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. 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. All they have to do is pick up the phone and make the call. Or not. Either way, there will be a phone call.

Addiction is not "a crime or a romantic affection," Brand concludes, "but a disease that will kill."

Let's speak frankly here. Prohibition is as guilty for the death of Amy Winehouse as her addiction. Because when Amy used drugs she wasn't just indulging, she was breaking the law. There's a huge social stigma behind breaking the law, and it usually means unwanted attention, fear, hiding and lying.

In The Exile Nation Project: An Oral History of the War on Drugs, Dr. Julie Holland, a psychatrist and emergency physician, explains that the hiding and lying of illegal and prohibited drug use leads to a pervasive feeling of shame, and that shame creates more of the intensely negative feelings and emotional states that lead to self-medication as a means of escape. This cycle is then reinfoirced over and over until it becomes hard-wired.

"The way our drug policy is set up," she concludes, "it's turning us into addicts."

Now imagine the pressure borne down upon a celebrity of Amy Winehouse's stature, struggling with a very public addiction. How can anyone in her position find the peace and solace, or simply the space, necessary to heal? Addiction takes years to overcome, you can't just stuff someone in rehab for 30 days, and then send them back out on tour, and expect them to be cured.

Perhaps we still shove addicts into our collective shadow because we're afraid of addiction and we're afraid of losing control, and as a means of reinforcing control in ourselves, we project this fear onto those who we perceive as having lost control, and thus, are in violation of the social contract and deserving of punishment. We warehouse them so we don't have to look at them, and thus, don't have to look at ourselves.

When the media went after Amy Winehouse, it was in the same manner, and with the same tone, that parents and teachers go after naughty children. And while Hollywood and the tabloid leviathan that it spawned loves a good train wreck, what it loves more is a properly contrite former bad boy or girl, who cleans up their act, toes the line, and stays on message.

For Amy Winehouse, there was no relief, because she was unrepentant. Thus the media chased her, and chased her, and chased her, hoping to catch her and shame her, as the late jazz great Charlie Parker once put it, "in the midst of her disorientation."

This sentiment was best captured in the notably moralistic overtones of this tabloid-style post on the pop-culture site, Scallywag.

On one hand the media reveled in the attention of another session of bad behavior, her fans adored her no matter and even her local neighbors, who had last seen her go on a drug purchasing expedition did nothing or very little to address this woman's kinetic descent into self mutilation. But what could anyone do when the perpetrator insists on derelict behavior?

One could almost argue, the real art that this young woman had created wasn't necessarily the music she had created, but the strange and obscene performance art piece she called her daily life. One can only wonder what type of morbid fascination the public had watching this woman again and again sink into self oblivion. But that perhaps was part of the appeal and expectation that one has of their stars. The idea that it can ultimately lead to a kind of capricious public death, or martyrdom hardly registers until we see the dead woman's casket being hauled down the street and the world suddenly turns around and grieves violently as the final curtains of this woman's life, performance comes to a close.

A very bitter close indeed...

We can stop this from happening. When those who are suffering are finally viewed with the compassion they deserve, rather than with the derision they receive. And when there is no longer any profit to be gained from their immiseration, then we will have taken that final necessary step to break the nefarious back of Prohibition, and move us slowly along into a saner, more rational world, one that would have helped Amy Winehouse and millions like her, instead of recklessly chasing her into her own grave.