After the death of Amy Winehouse this past weekend, I read an article by Russell Brand, posted on his personal website, that really spoke to me. A former addict himself, Brand traveled in the same circles as Winehouse and knew all too well the cycle of addiction that she suffered from and how the fame machine could chew up and spit out an already-vulnerable person. In his article he talks about the way we as a society stigmatize addiction and how people like Amy Winehouse and others who have died from their addictions end up being mocked or ridiculed for succumbing to something very real and completely uncontrollable.
The way we look at, treat, and talk about addiction in this country is somewhat sickening. It is ironic how judgmental our society is about the disease, considering that we are bred to have addictive personalities in every facet of our lives – the media, our leaders, and our peers all urge us to become addicted to cigarettes, to food, to alcohol, to television, to obtaining the perfect body, to sex, to video games, and everything in between. We are a nation of excess, and we’re steered from birth towards an obsessive-compulsive need to have more and more and more of whatever kind of lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed. So many of us are addicted to reality TV, or Facebook, or caffeine, or cigarettes. We all have addictions we cannot shake, from the smallest ones to the most dangerous. And yet that very same addictive society is the quickest to judge those who fall victim to their own addictions.
Celebrities and “normal people” alike have a raw deal when it comes to addiction. Your average everyday Joe or Jane Doe will become addicted to a substance, most likely at a young age, and oftentimes, instead of having the resources and support system to begin treatment, they’ll more likely end up being arrested and shuffled through the jail system over, and over, and over, a process that will cost hundreds of taxpayer dollars and do nothing to rehabilitate the person. As it stands, most rehab treatments cost significantly less than the average cost to incarcerate someone for drug-related charges. Despite this, we still jail first-time offenders for incredible lengths of time, costing taxpayers dollars that could be spent elsewhere, and doing nothing for the rehabilitation of the offender. Once they get out, they are much more likely to offend again, and their cycle of addiction will continue on and on, with most getting incarcerated multiple times, typically until they commit a felony that warrants a prison sentence or they end up dead from their addictions. And to think – if we could just send all first time offenders to rehab just once. They wouldn’t all succeed, but imagine how many might have had very different lives.
Celebrities, especially musicians, are often dead in the water the moment they become famous. Record companies and executives are said to be very shrewd and callous in the way they deal with their artists. Oftentimes musicians are encouraged to develop drug and alcohol habits, and people are hired to cater to their every whim. Drugs, alcohol, and other vices are bought and paid for by the label to keep their artists happy and producing work. In the case that those addictions lead to the demise of the artist, well, the record company benefits from that, too. They just release posthumous albums and compilations to “celebrate” the artist’s life and work and watch as the money piles in from grieving fans. Case in point: Michael Jackson. If an artist is falling down a slippery slope of drug and alcohol addiction, and they haven’t worked in months or years, they are costing the record companies money. It is so much more profitable for them to die a premature death so that record sales will surge again. It is cynical truth, and more than likely will be the case with Amy Winehouse, as we watch her album go to #1 on iTunes and wait for the inevitable posthumous releases.
Her death hadn’t even been announced on all the major news outlets before the snark began all over the web. “She shouldn’t have said no, no, no to rehab” seemed to be the most popular (and unoriginal) response. “One less addict in the world, good riddance” was another comment I saw. Even the major newspapers were jumping on the bandwagon and turning this sad, premature death of a talented young woman into a farce. No doubt many U.K. news outlets must have been on “death watch” for years, with pre-written obituaries about Amy ready to print at any time.
Alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases. Anyone can be afflicted. Celebrities, politicians, religious figures, men, women, teenagers, the elderly. It is a non-discriminatory affliction that can take hold of anyone. We would never think to chastise someone suffering from Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s, or to say, “One less diabetic in the world” when someone succumbed to the disease. So why do we treat our fellow men and women who suffer from addiction so horribly? Why do we feel that their lives are expendable? Is it so we can kid ourselves that we’re somehow stronger, better than they are? To feel that we are indestructible while they were weak? Or are we just a society of straight-up assholes?
I have seen friends struggle with various addictions over the years. I have watched loved ones “slip up” again and again, having that one drink after months of sobriety, swearing it would just be the one, and then falling head over heels back into the alcoholic cycle. I’ve seen peers incarcerated for drugs, trying to get clean, to get their lives right, and simply not being able to stop. I’ve seen friends lose their children, their jobs, their marriages, over their addictions. I’ve listened to doctors tell family members, “If you do not stop drinking, you will die,” and then watch them crack open a beer hours later. Do I think those people are just weak? No, I do not think that. I think they suffer from a disease, one that is harder to break than you could ever imagine, unless you’ve been there. A disease where your brain tricks you into thinking you can quit at any time, a disease that will kill you unless you can get help from a trained and knowledgeable outside source.
Amy’s biggest hit chronicles her resistance to go to rehab. The album sold millions and made record executives rich. Do you really think they wanted her to get better, when her reputation as a complete and total train wreck was making so much money for everyone?
To quote Brand’s poignant and experienced words: “All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill. 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.”
I hope, perhaps in vain, for a world where we treat people with addiction like they are something other than sub-standard, deviant humans undeserving of love and support, who don’t even deserve to have their death mourned.