08/02/2011 04:55 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2011

The State of Altered States in a Post-Amy Winehouse World

It was a banner on AOL, a headline at; TMZ no doubt pounced on it tout suite, and before long the news was pinging, bouncing, trending and threading itself all over the place. Young, talented, troubled Amy Winehouse was dead. And as we regretfully acknowledged this untimely, but unsurprising, death, there was a queasy sense that on some level we've become inured to this whole thing -- the repeated "Death by Drugs & Alcohol" scenario played out time and time again over the years. We're used to it. We expect it. We read the stories of rehab and DUIs and bad behavior slobbered all over hell and back, and we start counting the days until that banner pops up announcing the tragic end. We feel a pang of something sorrowful and human; Twitter lights up, we write tributes on Facebook, people gather at a Hollywood star if there is one, but the script has lost its gut-punch. There's a casualness to our response, one tempered by the weary understanding that regardless of lessons that should have been learned, our cultural, cultlike attachment to the state of altered states is a pull more powerful than life itself.


We're willing to die for it. We're willing to get in our cars and drive drunk. We're willing to party like it's 1999 and swallow those designer drugs despite the fact that we know little about them or what they'll do to our particular bodies. We're willing to shoot crap into our veins or throw it down our throats with reckless abandon and a little whiskey chaser. We'll overdo pain meds, downers, uppers, in-betweeners; we'll even pretend to have cancer so we can get that medical marijuana card and puff our way to blissful stupidity. We'll lie, cheat, steal and get downright low to get high. We've got whole wars waging on behalf of its commerce. We've got uptown buying from downtown; the line forming around our very own blocks gets longer every day. Anything dear God, anything, but to actually feel, actually experience, the state we're actually in.

Why is that? When did we stop being able to endure life as it is without the panacea of drugs or alcohol? Why are we so incapable, intolerant, unwilling to deal ... and take some pride in doing it clean? When did it become an epidemic, this need to be anywhere but here?

Certainly the urge has existed from time immemorial and there were likely Huns, Visigoths, early Egyptians and probably a few Renaissance Men who fell victim to their own median overdoing. Frankly, after watching the History channel, I have no idea how anyone got through those winters without a flagon or two. But the world has changed.

The conditions and demands are different, and the lives we live are buffered by comforts, medicines, enjoyments and even nutrition those earlier citizens did without. We have therapy and encounter groups, church counselors and trained mentors, AA, NA, and every other kind of A you can think of. We're deeply educated on the insidious damage drugs and alcohol can inflict on our brains and bodies and on our ability to function and express authentic emotion. We've seen enough destruction to logically be dissuaded from the love affair. But, no. Like that battered wife who can't leave the abusive husband, or the cult member who blindly embraces without question, our passion for altered states supersedes all sense of survival and self-worth. It can beat the hell out of us on a daily basis, and yet, we're still in -- ready to come back for more.

I'm not just talking about the falling down, car crashing, rehab recycling, life destroying, tabloid worthy addicts and abusers. I'm talking about that family member who can't imagine a dinner, a celebration, hell, an evening, without enough wine to get mumble-tongued and incapable of remembering the table conversation. I'm talking about the bandmate who insists on channeling Jim Morrison despite the fact that it's been so done that even the notion is embarrassing. The friend buying rounds all night who can't sit and enjoy a conversation because they're too loaded to even make sense. The high school kid who persists on getting precipitously high on prom night, or the parents of those same kids slipping fake IDs in their wallets so they can get their booze without bugging Mom and Dad. I'm talking about the college kids who are literally chomping at the bit to fight for their right to party till they puke. Whoopee. We pledge allegiance to the cult ...

I can already hear some saying, "There's nothing wrong with a glass of wine, a cold beer, a toke or two," and of course there isn't. Go for it, enjoy it, experience it with gusto. But while there are those who truly do enjoy responsibly, too many others imbibe to the point of mumbling, glassy-eyed intoxication, and do so on a regular basis.

As for drugs, well, how to explain that? For the casual user, it's an excused partaking akin to the wine-with-dinner crowd. But for the abuser -- the Amy Winehouse, Chris Farley, Michael Jackson, Janis Joplin, our family doctor who OD'd on his lunch break, my cousin who won't stop destroying her life -- types of the world, there's either a deep, dark hole of pain and anguish that needs regular filling, or their self-indulgent compulsion to alter their state regardless of health or welfare trumps all other considerations, including survival. Whether it be pain or need, stupidity or self-indulgence, immediate gratification or self-destructive tendencies, somehow any and all of these demand to be fed and, for some, compliance comes at the the destruction of career, health and family. It is this blind compliance that ultimately leads them to the edge of the cliff and right damn over.

We mourn Amy Winehouse, -- certainly her family and friends feel a deep loss -- and yet I have to wonder, how did she get to that edge in the first place? There was a starting point, way back before Top-40 rehab ditties when it was still a dabble, still a changeable thing. A time when her altered state was just nights here and there, moments out of many, before it became a permanent residence. Not sure why, but maybe they were too subtle for anyone to notice and intervene. Or maybe everyone was all comfy living in those altered states with her.

But those moments are happening right now for someone who's drinking way too many glasses of "dinner" wine or partying a little too often with things they should be avoiding. There's another crash up ahead for someone, -- some family, some heartbroken parent, spouse, friend, sibling, cousin or collaborator -- but we're so used to the state of altered states that we don't even know anymore when to push the alarm button. It's a cult we've accepted as a lifestyle and the Kool-Aid is literally killing us.

It's folly to suggest any kind of formal temperance in a world as soaked in the culture of indulgence as ours. Look what happened during Prohibition, and we don't even have those cool suits and fedoras anymore! But as we witness continued destruction, and watch as each younger generation marches unquestioningly toward the habit of attaching alcohol and/or drugs to most events in life, I will at least posit a challenge to parents: it is possible to raise a child, even in today's culture, who can experience life without the need for altered states. It can be done. In fact, it must.

Because as we watch another young, talented and troubled artist die, it behooves us to take a less casual look at our own attitudes and indulgences -- how we blithely pass those on to our children. It may not be a "cool" discussion, but it's worth some reflection, regardless. Because life can be hard, sorrows can be profound, inhibitions can limit, and cultural pressure can overwhelm. To rely on or accept the use of drugs and alcohol to overcome or accommodate is too easily the road to the edge of that cliff. We may not be able stop those we don't know from going over, but we can surely pay more attention and do everything we can to keep our own from ever getting close to the edge.