Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Response to a reflection on Amy Winehouse
British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse died four days ago at the age of 27. She had been struggling with drug and alcohol addiction for some time. The star's troubles were well-known to the public, due to the the volume of media and paparazzi coverage.
The author of an opinion piece recently published on Yahoo! News presented a thought-provoking question -- a question, in fact, that was also the title of the piece: "Remembering Amy Winehouse: Will addiction overshadow talent?"
Well, will it?
I can't say that I know very much about Amy Winehouse, having never listened to her music. Still, I can appreciate the question. To me, it opens up an even wider field of inquiry -- one that deals with general societal attitudes and norms regarding drug and alcohol addictions.
Few of us would seriously deny that there is a stigma toward substance abuse in our society. And, of course, their should be; but I would venture to say that equally few of us tend to recognize the concurrent stigma toward substance abusers.
It's not my intention to excuse people who abuse drugs and alcohol. One must make the choice to start using (except, perhaps, in the cases of infants who are born with the consequences of their parents' addictions), and people must want to change their lives. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that while this is certainly possible, it's not anywhere near as simple as we would have it.
Dr. Gabor Maté, in his book "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction," writes about Dr. William Stewart Halsted, a major pioneer of modern surgery. Halsted's time predates the War on Drugs, which took off in the early part of the 20th century. Halsted, according to Maté, "was an opiate addict for over forty years." During those forty years, "he did stellar and innovative work at Johns Hopkins University, where he was one of the four founding physicians."
Please don't misunderstand me: Neither I nor Dr. Maté are suggesting that Dr. Halsted was able to do such great work because of his addiction. That's not the point. Rather, this example shows that drug addicts can make meaningful contributions to society if they are not shunned, stigmatized and maligned.
What I wonder is this: How many people knew about Dr. Halsted's addiction? Surely it could not have been the subject of media frenzy. Contrast this with Amy Winehouse and others, whose forays into substance abuse and/or struggles with addiction are clearly in the public eye, and whose addictions come to define who they are. Let's face it: Once addictions become publicized, people don't forget. Whatever contributions stars make to the entertainment industry (or elsewhere, for that matter), it seems they are doomed to be the butt of crude humor, criticism, and derogatory slurs ("junkie," "drunk," etc).
We don't want to hold or encourage positive or lax attitudes toward substance abuse, and I do hope that Winehouse's unfortunate death serves as a warning to young people about the very real dangers of drugs and alcohol. At the same time, we shouldn't foster attitudes that label those who struggle with addictions unredeemably evil and/or "messed up." This can only exacerbate and keep them trapped in the troublesome behaviors into which they have fallen.
Hard to imagine anything more counterproductive than that, isn't it?
To read the Yahoo! News opinion piece, click here.