Like millions of people around the world this weekend, I'm deeply saddened by the passing of Amy Winehouse, one of the greatest artists of our generation. Amy's death at the young age of 27 is striking a chord with so many people, not just because of her music and gifts but because so many people can relate to the struggles of addiction. Whether we've experienced the struggle personally and or watched helplessly as loved ones battle the disease, addiction has infected most of us in some way.
As a child, I didn't understand that addiction was a disease; all I knew was that my lovely, kind mother had changed into a brooding, violent, hysterical woman who I was alternately scared of and angry at. She stopped cooking, cleaning, caring about where I was, caring about anything. She got her SSI check and immediately bought alcohol that she would drink in the street because she couldn't wait till she got home. She went to AA meetings drunk and came home to drink more. She took medicine to make her nauseous when she drank and then just drank and threw up. She attempted suicide multiple times and almost committed homicide a couple of times. She was surprisingly strong when drunk and once attacked me till I was bloodied and my ribs were fractured. She stole the money I was making working in a restaurant and pawned the ring that a boyfriend had given me. She refused to admit she had a problem, even after the doctor gave her less than a year to live.
My response was, of course, to drink. I was my mother's daughter, numbing the pain with as much liquor as I could stomach. By 14, I was drinking daily, mostly Cognac; by then, though, I'd added weed, speed and ecstasy pills. By 15, I was a fully-fledged addict and alcoholic and once beat the members of our local football team in a drinking competition. I was proud of my ability to consume massive amounts of liquor and saw drinking as simply part of who I was. I loved Billie Holiday and Marilyn Monroe both of whom had died of overdoses and believed that I would die young of an overdose too. By 17, I'd had three suicide attempts and was on track for that end. At 17, I began working in a strip-club where we were encouraged to sell as much alcohol as possible to the customers by drinking with them. In the club, we all drank and did coke so that we wouldn't have to feel the hands of the men, so that we wouldn't feel the disgust or the shame. We drank and got high when we got home to forget what our night had been like. I was addicted to substances and even more addicted to my boyfriend/pimp whose primary contribution to my life was to introduce me to crack. I hit bottom and stayed there for a while. After I nearly died at 19 at the hands of my pimp, I got out of the life, found a church, started afresh and after 7 years of drinking and getting high, I stopped.
I didn't really think much about alcohol or substances over the next few years. I was annoyed by people who said 'once an an addict, always an addict.' I believed I was proof that that just wasn't true. My mother got sober and we struggled to maintain an amicable relationship. We didn't really talk about her substance abuse or mine. I started dating a guy, who had serious addictions of his own, who kept telling me it would be okay if I had just one drink. Deep down I doubted it but eventually gave in, anxious to make him happy, still struggling with my love addiction issues. It wasn't long before we were drinking every weekend, and then having a few wine coolers during the week. Just socially. When he became abusive, much like my step-father before him, I began to drink to just to be able to deal with the trauma. When I left him, I drank to forget our relationship and to once again, feel numb. I drank when I went to dinner with friends and I drank at work events. I drank when I came home from work if it had been a rough day and then began to drink just because I'd come home from work. I drank alone mostly, in my house, away from any scrutiny. I thought I was fine. Everyone drank.
When I reconnected with an old flame after many years, he told me he didn't drink anymore. I was bothered by this at first and self-conscious around him when I'd been drinking, which I soon realized was every time I was around him. I began to ask him about his sobriety, curious why he did it, how he did it and he shared openly his struggles and his commitment to recovery. I started taking online quizzes about alcohol abuse and scored off the charts. But still, I rationalized, I wasn't an alcoholic. My mother was an alcoholic. I didn't beat anyone, pass out in the street or go broke getting alcohol. I had a career, I was high-functioning and was nothing like my mother. After an incident, where I'd mixed prescription pain meds and alcohol and had nearly not survived the night, I went to see a therapist who told me that I had a problem and needed to go to rehab. Like Amy, I said no. But I couldn't shake the feeling that perhaps I did have a problem, even as I went home that night and drank a bottle of wine. I asked my friend if he missed drinking, and he told me that yes, sometimes he did, but that he felt closer to being whole. I cried and realized that I wanted to know what whole felt like. A few weeks later, after fighting it tooth and nail, I admitted that I was an alcoholic and made the decision not to drink that night. And the next night. And the next.
While it was tough in the beginning, recovery changed my life. I realized that I didn't have to worry about how much I drank in public and that I didn't have to wake up with an underlying feeling of guilt every morning. I began to talk to my mother about her sobriety and found a level of understanding and compassion for her struggles that had eluded me for years. I discovered that I didn't really struggle with depression in the same way and that my emotions stabilized drastically. I was able to actually deal with much of the childhood trauma that I numbed for so many years and start letting the past go.I found how much I enjoyed doing all the things I'd been scared to do without alcohol and how much richer, sweeter, calmer life was sober. I understood all the AA sayings that I'd thought so cliched before and began to experience gratitude on a whole new level. And slowly but surely the fragmented pieces of my spirit have come back together and I began feeling pretty close to being whole.
Ultimately that for me is the tragedy of Amy Winehouse. Not just that her family and friends are experiencing such a tremendous loss. Not that her fans have lost her incredible gifts and artistry. But that as a young woman, as a person, not just an artist, that she never got to experience that feeling of wholeness and never got to discover how good life could really be on the other side. She deserved that, as does everyone who struggles with addiction.
It's been upsetting to keep reading over and over again, that her death was 'predictable' and 'expected'. We all of course were aware of her struggles with addiction(s) for several years and had collectively watched a once healthy, ridiculously talented young woman waste away into an emaciated, stumbling, erratic yet still ridiculously talented young woman. Yet to 'expect' someone's death, even a raging addict, is to deny the existence of so many of us who have hit bottom, often multiple times and in spectacular ways and yet who have overcome addiction to regain control of our lives, repair our relationships and experience a joy that we never knew possible. For those of us in recovery, and for those of us who know and love someone in recovery, we know firsthand that people constantly defy expectations. At my lowest points, I did an excellent impression of someone who would never be able to get well. Yet the truth is that as long as you're breathing, there's always hope. That's what makes Amy's death so sad is that that hope, no matter how fragile it was, no matter how tiny, is now gone. Yet for those of us who remain, we can't forget that its not over until its over. There's still hope for us, hope for our loved ones and hope for anyone who struggles with this disease.
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