I was very sad but not surprised to hear about the death of Amy Winehouse at 27. Whatever the circumstances this week, it’s fair to say she probably spent too much of her life surrounded by god-awful yes-people and hangers on bearing as many courtesy wraps and pills as they could carry. If I was 15 years younger and hanging with that particular crowd instead of other ones, I might even have been one of them.
But I am reading endless judgement both from those that have no idea about addiction, and those who claim to ‘know’. Actually, addicts get an even worse write-up than the merely mentally ill. People with depression get enough abuse from people who call it ‘self indulgent’ without the layer of intoxication on top causing an extra layer of us-and-them superiority from those who think they are a million miles from the average junkie.
Someone at work said earlier, ‘Hopefully Amy’s death will send a message to young people about drugs,’ but this kind of death never does. Even among the filthy fingernails and missed toilet bowls, if you’re open to it, there is glamour. When you’ve got a drug head on you, there is nothing more marvellous and wonderful than taking possession of a small packet of whatever chemicals, and opening it among the scattered mess of the previous session.
Coffee tables, mottled with sticky rings from hours of wineglasses, overflowing ashtrays full of dog ends, some broken open and resmoked, smeared mirrors, rolled notes, tinfoil. All against a backdrop of music and shouting, cackling, doorbells going and doors slamming. It’s a constantly self-replenishing last supper whose landscape only changes with the light, going from night to morning and back again, the earth’s slow sleeping breath behind the spinning heads. There are days when oblivion can’t come fast enough. Getting comatose is common and welcome. When you find a drug you like, it’s like a miracle.
These are well-documented states of mind. But still no one knows what to do with addiction. It isn’t just a disease. It’s more complex than that. It begins with a behaviour. And if it is an illness, is it physical or mental? No one’s quite there yet, although neuroscience is on its way.
Many of us have made poor choices in life. When I first got intoxicated I was reaching out for something. Could a living human being have walked into that role? Perhaps, but sometimes the people we need the most just don’t manifest for us. You can’t expect another person to save you. And when we’re on a downward spiral, we tend to repel the good people who are all around us if we could only see them. For years I was certainly a magnet for people who mirrored my worst traits. Drugs are more reliable than people.
The death of anyone at 27 is tragic. But look again. If it was diabetes, Crohn’s or say, a heart condition that was making her behave that way, for example, at the almost unwatchable gig in Belgrade in June, Amy would have been rushed to hospital. And similarly, if she had previously been diagnosed ‘merely’ bipolar or schizophrenic, and carried on like that on stage, she might even have been sectioned and it might even have saved her. For a while anyway.
I say again. No one knows what to do with addiction. There is a strong puritanical streak running through our society. Lots of people think they are different to, and better than, junkies, that they lie on the opposite end of a spectrum of indulgence. And yet these same people might drink, smoke, be unable to go without coffee for more than an hour, (and talk about it all the time), or constantly fall in love with people who abuse or neglect them, and this is seen as acceptable.
Twitter has been on fire with ranting about the selfishness of addicts. In fact, the word ‘selfish’ means something different to everyone, to the point where it becomes meaningless. And ‘tortured artist’, said sarcastically or not, is a cliché; lots of people are tortured who don’t have a creative outlet. Close up, addiction is an ugly thing, but it’s really, really time to stop referring to ‘abuse’ of drugs.
Could anyone have helped Amy? I don’t know. Perhaps an infinitely patient and self-sacrificing partner who gave her unconditional love. But perhaps even that wouldn’t have been enough.