Back to black and back: mourning the death of Amy Winehouse

by Roger Verdon on July 26, 2011 · 6 comments

in addictions,grief

Fans gather outside singer Amy Winehouse's London home

Once again we hear about one of our young gods dying. Singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse was 27 when she was found dead, the same age as Janis Joplin so many years ago, both great voices stopped too soon.

Amy Winehouse’s music was a testament to rebellion, to female independence and to the twisted and tangled troubles often found within the complexities of love. For an artist, pain and suffering can be a path that leads to all sorts of lessons of the heart, and to lucrative and telling songs that speak of heartbreak. Great if you’re an artist with a healthy outlet, rough if you’re just a plain human being. Some people live life so high and so fast they burn out once they hit a certain stratosphere.

Amy, alcohol and my mom

Amy Winehouse was special to me because I was familiar with her struggles and always rooted for her to overcome her addictions. I grew up with alcoholism, but in her sixties, my mother somehow gave up alcohol and began baking bread and took up quilting. Quilts! This is a woman who was raised in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and I never saw her bake so much as a cookie. I found quilts hard to fathom. Yet, it was true. No more booze. Just like that. She later gave up cigarettes, too. To me, this was a magnificent example of how the human spirit can overcome its own demons, and more importantly, how recognizing the problem as your own is the first step in defeating it.

Interventions and enablers

I had fully expected Amy Winehouse to defeat her demons, and I damned the circle around her for letting her die. Yet, I once had a chance to get my mother off booze and I stumbled. My father called a family meeting, and we had an intervention. He wanted my mother to leave and was looking for a unanimous vote from my sister and me. My sister is tougher than me in many ways; so she voted in the affirmative, but I couldn’t do it. How was a 12-year-old boy supposed to vote his mother out onto the street? Of course, I learned later that my father was trying to make a point, but since I hadn’t read the script in advance, I gave all the wrong answers. So mom stayed at the house and continued to drink. I now know I was an enabler who might have acted differently and changed the course of my mother’s life much sooner. Or not.

This is the mindset I brought to Amy Winehouse. Her friends could save her. If they loved her, they could save her. Yet, we know this is not true. Individuals with addictions have to grow determined first and then they can get help. Keep in mind that Amy’s first album was released when she was 19 years old, a phenomenal achievement, and a vulnerable time to experience the intoxications of wealth, fame, love and heartbreak.

The road to rehab

Amy Winehouse in concert

Most of her songs were written by her, which offered her fans a glimpse inside her life. “They tried to make me go to rehab/I said no, no, no.” And yet she did go to a clinic and still could not find the fix she needed. This is not a criticism of the clinic. A patient has to accept his or her role first. It doesn’t matter how good a clinic is—if an individual does not become a part of the treatment, then there’s little anyone else can do.

Janis Joplin was the first celebrity who died that I cared for deeply,  and I remember how hearing the news rocked me. And now Amy Winehouse. Both women were 27, with world-famous unique voices, both full of rhythm-and-blues heartbreak, jazzy verve and great pop lyrics.

Alcohol has its place. Nothing wrong with it. But we moderate our consumption the same way we moderate our feelings, unless we can’t. My mother couldn’t. She drank despite the threat of being tossed out of her own house. She drank despite how she hurt the people around her. All these years later, I still quiver when I hear ice cubes being placed into a glass.

Amy Winehouse was rich, famous and troubled. Her lyrics are telling. Just as Aretha announced that she would have R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and we knew she meant it, Amy Winehouse celebrated a tortured view of love, something I thought was a measure of her low self-esteem. It made for great songs, but hard for living:

I cheated myself,
Like I knew I would
I told you I was trouble,
You know that I’m no good

When Janis died, I was quick to criticize the people closest to her for allowing her torment to get her so wasted she wound up dead, without a friend to intervene. I had a similar reaction to news of Amy Winehouse’s death. Then I recalled how I had failed my mother in many ways, and how she failed me, and yet eventually rose above her addiction and defeated it.

Being clear about responsibilities

We can’t be responsible for holding an addicted person to account. We want them cured. But they don’t share our timetable. They are often not ready yet to understand where they are and how much better it is not to be ruled by liquor or drugs or love or greed.

Our responsibility is not to bludgeon our loved ones with criticism over their addictions. Our job is to remind them from time to time that they are loved and if they loved themselves or wanted to, they would find help. Our job is to remind them that it is up to them to get help. It’s their job. That is the first step.

I tend to like the female singers – Aretha, Norah Jones, Alicia Keyes, Adele, great and unique voices with firm points of view. These are women who are doubly attractive to me. They have succeeded in a man’s world and they are the real deals; their music is not manufactured. Their music reflects the guts of life, the drama and passion of love.

In addition to their music, I am attracted to these singers on another level. In my little fantasy, I ask myself that along with loving their work, could I see myself sitting with any of them over a margarita at poolside dressed in my favorite Tommy Bahama shirt talking about life in general? Are you kidding? Yes, to all of them. A margarita is a happy drink and enjoyed by happy people. Healthy people can enjoy indulging in one. Yet, I could never have had that pleasure sitting with Amy Winehouse. How could I? I’ve learned that lesson. I don’t enable. I would walk away. It’s the least I can do.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Alan Altman August 11, 2011 at 4:19 pm

To express so eloquently the depth of emotion contained in the piece is a true gift. I agree on so many points you hit, yet would not be able to find the words to express it in such a powerful way. Thank you, Roger.

Vicki Lovin July 28, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Thanks for expressing your personal perspective on Amy Winehouse. Your interest to see her succeed is heartfelt. I wish you two had shared a dialogue.

Julie July 27, 2011 at 12:46 pm

“Once again we hear about one of our young gods dying.”

Do you think that considering her “a young god” might be one reason she was overwhelmed? Celebrity worship is the largest religion in America. And, you know, she was only a 27 year old woman.

Lynn Heiligenthal-Showalter July 26, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Well said! I am going to print your article for my colleagues to read at the VA Mental Health Ckinic. We see many with this affliction although they may not be the singers like Janis or Amy they are medicating themselves from other demons.

Willow July 26, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Roger, your commentary was well written and I thank you for sharing a personal side as well. I was absolutely sickened to my stomach when my husband called and told me about Amy. I am a huge fan of her music and was extremely saddened to hear about her death. As a therapist I find it both frustrating and heartbreaking seeing someone struggle, but your words are true. We often have to hold the hope for them until they can see it themselves and more importantly want the help themselves and I mean this for everyone suffering with a mental illness. I try and take the opportunity to speak with them individually and in groups to ask them to assess where they are with their “readiness” to address their issues. I think it’s the least we can do along with constantly letting them know we’re here for them, we have resources for them when they are ready, being honest with our observations of them and offering feedback of how their behavior affects us. Thanks, again.

SJ McKinley July 26, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Beautifully written.

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