Did Whitney Houston want to die?

by Thomas Ellis, PsyD, ABPP on February 15, 2012 · 8 comments

in addictions,suicide

Fox TV personality Bill O’Reilly has encountered a firestorm of protest in defense of Whitney Houston following his provocative remarks about her death. However, he may have done all of us a favor by opening a door to discussing something on all of our minds.

Here’s what he said (as part of a general statement opposing efforts to reform drug laws):

Nobody takes drugs for that long if they want to stay on the planet. She follows in the footsteps of Elvis, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, and scores of other entertainment figures. The hard truth is that some people will always want to destroy themselves, and there’s nothing society can do about it.

If we filter out some of the harshness (and perhaps add names like Judy Garland and Joseph McCarthy), we might express this as a question:

Just as a healthy lifestyle reflects desire to live, doesn’t it make sense to assume that people with unhealthy or reckless lifestyles have a death wish?

While this brings us uncomfortably close to “blaming the victim,” one can’t help but notice something appealing about this perspective. It certainly gives us something to do with the anger we inevitably feel about poor decision-making by someone we cared about. And, conveniently, we note that the issue gets buried with the individual. After all, the problem was in the mind (soul?) of the deceased. Case closed. Better yet, as seen in O’Reilly’s remark that such will always be the case and “there’s nothing society can do about it,” we are forever excused from worrying ourselves, looking for ways to address other influences, whether social, psychological, biological or otherwise. Nope, not much you can do about human stupidity.

Must feel pretty crummy to Whitney’s family…

Here’s the fly in the ointment: Applying this mindset, we suddenly all have a wish to die. Certainly this includes all smokers and couch potatoes, who we know have shorter life expectancies. But even among us non-smoking, exercising, healthy-eating, seatbelt-wearing respectable citizens with good judgment, which of us adheres perfectly to our medication prescriptions? (Studies say less than half.) Who among us never exceeds the speed limit or occasionally takes a peek at our cell phones while driving? Doesn’t this point toward at least a hint of a death wish?

A death instinct?

Probably not. Sigmund Freud thought this was an intriguing idea and wrote at length about a “death instinct,” but eventually abandoned it as unsupportable. Suicidologists still occasionally talk about “indirect suicide” in the form of everything from unsafe sex practices to sky diving; but as we do so, we soon find that the construct of suicide itself evaporates, because it ultimately becomes identical to living itself.

A human agenda

A more reasonable idea is that we — all of us — have the same basic agenda to find happiness and manage physical and psychic pain the best we can. The fact that some get lost on this quest and end up destroying themselves in the process does not change the fact that the wish in most cases is not to die, but to find a path, at least, to a more tolerable existence.

By the way, here’s another problem with observations like O’Reilly’s: A circular explanation is one that loses meaning because it turns back onto itself. To wit: Why did Whitney do those unwise things, resulting in her own death? Because she wanted to die. How do we know she wanted to die? All together now … because she did all those unwise things!

Really, O’Reilly. We can do better than this. Scientific research over the past few decades has revealed a great deal about motivations behind unhealthy and self-destructive behaviors, and effective treatments have resulted. We still have a lot to learn, and we still lose battles more often than we would like. But stigmatizing and blaming the sufferers only impedes our efforts to win the war.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne Worth November 14, 2013 at 6:24 pm

I concur with Christi Peters, addiction is an equal opportunity disease, progressive and utimately fatal if not stopped. In truth, we all probably have some unhealthy ways of dealing with the stress of life and the resulting feelings and illness. Scott Peck had it right in “The Road Less Traveled” that begins with the sentence: Life is difficult! We need each other; takes a village.

James Genovese, LPC, LCADC October 16, 2012 at 2:21 pm

O’Reilly’s comments also betray an ignorance of the biological, social, and psychological aspects of chemical (and behavioral) addiction that is shared by many people, both addicted and non-addicted alike.

Maybe dismissing it as a death wish or a moral failure allows us to get our heads around what is really a complex, multifaceted disease.

The Factor may be a “no-spin zone”, but at least in this case it is also being a “misinformation zone”.

We in the mental health profession have an awesome challenge to use social media–e.g., your blog–to correct these misconceptions through education. Thanks for a great blog post.

Ed Spellacy February 29, 2012 at 12:30 am

Our Dear Lord gave Whitney a special gift that she passed on to our world with her great voice…. her “LOVE” for life and her family and friends.
Whitney acheived a great deal in her short life and gave alot of her life to our world and society. God Bless her inheaven, God Bless you Cissy and her entire family,,, weare certain our LORD will.

Wish Whitney was still here… her music will be forever.
Ed and family

Tracy February 28, 2012 at 8:08 pm

I appreciate the insight and it is a relief knowing that thier are ppl who understand as it was stated” a path to find a more tolerable existance”, and along that path there are things that bring one relief but can be long term harmful as well. The mental state of mind is a tricky little sucker, and no one chooses to feel sad, or hurt, or not GOOD Enough, or lonely even though there are ppl around you. Sometimes it becomes an everyday struggle to be energized and productive. And the negative feelings began to weigh you down even though you know wholeheartedly you are a kind mother and a wonderful wife with a loving soul. So yes, while I am not addicted to any drugs, I know what the path to finding everyday exeptance and happiness feels like. A little less jusdjement and a lot more compassion this world could learn from. I feel Whitney..I have been sad for her for a while…and I lift her family up wanting them to know that she touched so many in various ways and will be missed. I don’t blame her…I wish help had ocme sooner.

Ivy February 25, 2012 at 8:59 pm

In spite of the addiction- I LOVE YOU WHITNEY FOREVER!

Dee Henderson, MSN, RN-BC February 17, 2012 at 8:19 pm

I, too appreciate the perspective you brought to this latest tragic loss to addiction. Your comments reinforce the truth that, while the death of celebrities to addiction brings attention to those deaths, the scourge of addiction cuts across all lines and is a problem that could affect anyone. “There, but for the Grace of God, go I.” As clinicians and as citizens we all have to deal with people coping with addiction. As a society, we need to show compassion and determination to help those afflicted, not to impose judgment that can only drive them further into their illness.

Cheryl Buteaux February 16, 2012 at 10:43 pm

Great blog. I especially appreciate the human agenda paragraph where we “strive to be happy”. It reminded be of my favorite poem by Max Ehrmann, “Desiderata”. Searching for ways to cope is part of the human condition that is frequently challenged with both physical and emotional pain. It is sad that as we search for answers to these tragedies, some resort to blame. This is of course the easy way as you describe, as the course that may result in life sustaining coping skills takes far longer to master and comes with many ups and downs.

Christi Peters February 16, 2012 at 5:51 pm

I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this blog. Its an overused statement to say ‘no one chooses addiction’, but something I believe wholeheartedly. I’ve always felt Whitney’s grace to discuss publicly her private struggles with addiction was a big step in saying ‘this can happen to anyone’. If this talented, classy lady became addicted to substances, its an equal opportunity disease.

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