Friday, 29 July 2011

Amy Winehouse dies. Is the stigma about alcoholism partly to blame?

Today's verdict (26th October) on Amy Winehouse's death was shocking, but few had expected the post-mortem to tell them anything that they didn’t already know.  Recording a verdict of misadventure, St Pancras Coroner Suzanne Greenway said the singer had 416mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. As The Sun reported, 'the pathologist who conducted the post-mortem said at 200mg per decilitre (of blood), someone would lose control of their reflexes and 350mg was considered a fatal level'.

The Guardian summed it up at the time of her death: ‘the 27-year-old singer, who fought a well-documented battle with drugs and alcohol, was found dead at her home‘.  Singer, drink, drugs and early death.  The stories write themselves, or as Hadley Freeman more cynically wrote in The Guardian ‘Winehouse at last gave the media a collective orgasm of prurient crocodile tears by dying. At last we can wheel out those pre-written columns as we photograph her body being wheeled out of her house!’

Dad Mitch and Amy Winehouse at the 2008 Grammy Awards

And some trite stuff has been written.  Freeman warned journalists not to talk of 'inevitable death' and getting song lyrics into the title. But they did.  'The New York Post's "They Tried to Make Her Go To Rehab, She Said No No No" was as predictable as it was stupid'.  But overall the predictable prize goes, as Mary Anne Hourihan writes in the Irish Times, to 'the faintly damning phrases such as “tortured soul” and “poor creature”, and the stupid prize goes to the umpteen articles pretending that you only die of alcohol abuse if you are a druggie, 27 and a rock star.

Thankfully Amy Winehouse's friend Russell Brand, an actor and a recovered addict himself, has been there and done it.  Amy Winehouse is not the exception, he writes.  Very publicly she lived the up and down life of every addict, but in a moving tribute to his friend, Brand writes ‘When you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction you await the phone call.  There will be a phone call.  The sincere hope is that the call will be from the addict themselves, telling you they’ve had enough, that they’re ready to stop, ready to try something new.  Of course though, you fear the other call, the sad nocturnal chime from a friend or relative telling you it’s too late, she’s gone’.

What happened?  The Priory clinic had reportedly been warned by doctors earlier this year that Winehouse ‘won't have long to live if she doesn't dramatically change her lifestyle’. A source said: "It's the last chance saloon for Amy.  Doctors have come down hard on her because of the severity of her situation. It's a harsh reality but she had to hear it."  So Amy’s disastrous concert in June was a big clue that things weren't going well.  ‘When I saw Amy perform live’ says the Guardian’s Barbara Ellen, ‘she was shambolic, slurring and quite rightly booed offstage’.

Ironically Winehouse had apparently pretty well beaten her drug problem. As reported in Celebrity Now, her dad Mitch 'admitted Amy, 27, still struggled with her dependence on alcohol but had given up drugs 3 years ago. 'The doctors said it was impossible but she really did it,' said Mitch, 60. 'She was trying hard to deal with her drinking and had just completed 3 weeks of abstinence’.

It's an ordinary story about booze
Taking up the point that booze is really to blame, Anne Marie Hourihan in the IrishTimes wrote ‘In fact, alcohol is probably much more of a key player in this tragedy than we, the faintly respectable, would like to admit.  On her recent, abandoned, comeback tour, it was alcohol that her handlers were trying to keep her away from.’ And well they might.  The Health Research Board told us this week that 56% of Irish people now 'drink to dangerous levels'.  One in five people in western countries drink to excess, and more than 10% are alcoholics. Amy Winehouse is by no means the exception, she's becoming the rule.

Her struggle with alcohol was of course part of her art: the tortured chronicler of our own appetite for self-destruction.  Her best songs were the most honest,  including the self-written hits Rehab and Alcohol Logic. Which is why they meant so much to us. As alcohol blogger Eoin Cannon writes ‘What really places her at the center of the addict-artist discussion, is how explicitly her lyrics included the subject matter of escapist intoxication, destructive behavior, and regret.'.

That artistic connection with drink and Winehouse's refusal to hide her problem made it far too easy for the press to stereotype Winehouse as 'the real alcoholic'- a lie which lets the rest of us off the hook.  As Russell Brand put it, ‘not all addicts have Amy’s incredible talent. Or Kurt’s or Jimi’s or Janis’s, some people just get the affliction. 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’. And more to the point  'We need to look at the way our government funds rehabilitation'.

Hiding the problem
Another artistic recovered alcoholic, Wonderwoman actress Lynda Carter talked about her years of addiction to alcohol describing it as "like staring into a deep, dark hole that I thought no one would understand or still love me if I ever admitted it – or (if) the public ever knew about this very shameful part of my life.  My family suffered... and I was very good at hiding my problem."

Lynda Carter

So rather than distance ourselves from Amy Winehouse,  we, ‘the faintly respectable’, need to own up to the problem of our alcohol culture and above all end the stigma about alcoholism that prevents people getting help.  Scott Basinger, who heads an employee assistance program in Houston, Texas, talks about the stereotypes of addicted people that stand in the way of help: "What we know statistically is that 70 percent of people on alcohol and drugs are employed. The old concept of 'if you're an alcohol- or drug-dependent person, you're living under a bridge' is a horrible stereotype and prevents people from getting help."

One in five don't seek help because of the stigma
A big wake up was the first study to address the under-use of alcohol services, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology only last December, which found that ‘less than a quarter of people who are diagnosed actually seek treatment’.  This is chiefly because ‘people diagnosed with alcoholism at some point in their lifetime were more than 60% less likely to seek treatment if they believed they would be stigmatized once their status is known’.  And they do feel stigmatised.  Of 733 at-risk drinkers surveyed for a Journal of Behaviour study  86.1% felt that they had been stigmatised about their drinking by the community at large, and 48.9% even felt the stigma if they talked to a doctor about their drinking.

The collective hypocrisy of hiding the shame and burying the problem clearly isn't working.  Liver disease is now affecting more and more young people, alcohol-related hospital days are taking up 15% of the health budget and alcohol related cancer deaths are also rising.   As Anne Marie Hourihan concludes: ‘The death of Amy Winehouse was some quarters greeted with a sort of weary contempt.  The poor child, so full of talent, has become a rock and roll cliché’.  Cliche or not, the problem is not going away.

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