Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: Brené Brown

Amy Winehouse Dead Of Addiction At 27

I was driving on the turnpike last evening and saw there was a new text on my phone. It was from my friend P and it said:

I can’t help but the death of Amy makes me sad.

“Wait-wait-wait,” I said to my son. I kept my eyes on the road and passed him my phone. “Check the news on the Guardian app. Is Amy Winehouse dead?”

I mean we all knew it was coming. Russell Brand says so today. If you can get past some of the more deplorable and self-regarding turns of phrase (“I was becoming famous myself at the time and that was an all consuming experience”) and the missing punctuation (“Winehouse, but for her gentle quirks didn’t especially register”), you’ll find he has some smart and helpful points about Amy Winehouse and about addiction in general, one of which is: when we love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction, we await The Call. Either they’ll call to get help, or someone else will call to tell us they’re dead.

I didn’t by any stretch of the imagination “love” Amy Winehouse, but I felt connected to her in that we both suffered from the same deadly illness, and I was hoping against hope that she would get the help we all need in order to keep on living. But she did not.

I’ve already said a lot of what I need to say about Amy Winehouse. I believe her desperate need for approval drove her addiction and ultimately killed her. This is not a personal failing on Winehouse’s part. It is partly the distortion of reality that underlies the disease of addiction, and it is partly the cultural pressure put on women today. (Who knows how her family background played into it.) I can’t tell you how many women seeking recovery I’ve talked to who are plagued, absolutely PLAGUED, by the desire to be seen as perfect—physically, intellectually, emotionally. I understand this myself, having wrought untold hatred upon my body because of its unwillingness to conform itself into the contours of females pictured on magazines and in films. (Especially my breasts. I have hated my breasts. “You’re too unkind to them,” my husband has always said.)

In addition to alcohol and drug addiction, Amy Winehouse suffered from self-mutilation and anorexia, conditions which in their compulsive self-destruction are related to addiction and which demonstrate the hatred she enacted upon her physical body and upon her spirit.

“Now she can join the Twenty-Seven Club,” my son remarked. He hadn’t even read this—he just knew about it. Every 13-year-old today who is half-musical (my son is fully musical; he is a natural guitarist) knows about all the musician-addicts who have died at 27 as the ultimate consequence of addiction.

“They all OD’d,” he said.

“No, they didn’t, darling,” I said. “Cobain shot himself.”

My son “loves” Kurt Cobain. Nirvana ranks high on his playlist. No wonder: Cobain’s lyrics are smart and his musicality complex. His songs are dark, and teenagers are dark people, by and large. I harbor a bit of anxiety that my son might romanticize him and his choices.

“But he was high at the time,” he argued.

“Who knows if he was high at the time?” I said.

“He had no thoughts of suicide before he killed himself,” my son said. “I’ve read the biographies online. I’ve read the Wikipedia entry. They all said he never mentioned killing himself. It was the drugs.

It wasn’t the drugs,” I said firmly, feeling myself slipping uncontrollably into a motherly mini-lecture. “Drugs are not the problem. ADDICTION is the problem. Toxicologically speaking, drugs might kill people, but it’s the addiction that drives them to it. Drugs do not distort reality; addiction distorts reality. Kurt Cobain killed himself not because the drugs made him do it, but because addiction twisted his view of reality. Addiction made him think he couldn’t help himself; it made him think he wasn’t lovable, wasn’t worth anything; it made him think his feelings would never pass. Addiction is a disease that distorts reality. When we can’t see reality clearly, we end up working on incorrect assumptions and we do terrible damage.”

Sigh. Motherly lectures don’t work. I should know better. What I can do best is to let him see me living soberly today.

There’s a smart story in the Guardian about the lack of cultural understanding of what killed Amy Winehouse, which is the disease of addiction. Tanya Gold writes:

There is no meaning here, no wider parable about the relationship between addiction and talent … Winehouse was simply an alcoholic and drug addict who had no idea of her own worth or how to cure herself. … And she died for nothing because she thought she was nothing.

Well, nothing like another addict to understand an addict.

Brand says he was 27 when the folks at a particular rehab introduced him to the 12-step “fellowships for alcoholics and drug addicts . . . without which I would not be alive.” Gold mentions that “only the most enlightened doctors will recommend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, self-help groups that sometimes get results, although no one knows why.”

They’re starting to understand why. The research of people like Brené Brown (also a recovering addict) is showing that 12-step groups can help because telling our stories to others who understand has the power to break shame, and shame—not just for what we’ve done, but more importantly about Who We Be—is one of the key motivators that drive the deep fear inherent in addiction. We start telling the truth to other people like ourselves, and there is something about surrendering our truth, and being understood and accepted, that doesn’t just “suppress cravings” or help us pay bills/keep jobs/approximate “sobriety,” but that heals us.


Friday Roundup: Fear of Stigma Prevents Alcoholics From Seeking Treatment

The news out of Columbia University: People identified as alcoholics at some point in their lifetimes were more than 60 percent less likely to seek treatment if their perception was that they’d be stigmatized once they let people know about their alcoholism. So fear of stigma, the study concluded, was a potential explanation for how few alcoholics who really need treatment actually manage to get it (less than 25 percent).

The study was published in a November issue of American Journal of Epidemiology.

Additional findings…

People who are more afraid of stigma:

  • Men
  • lower-income people
  • people with lower educational achievement
  • Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks

People who are less afraid of stigma:

  • Women
  • Those married or formerly married to an alcoholic

A conclusion the researchers drew from these findings:

Closeness predicts lower perceptions of stigma.

The researchers call for national campaigns to reduce stigma and perceptions of stigma. They point out that evidence shows “stigmatizing attitudes” toward mental illness can be changed, but no national efforts have targeted alcoholism in particular.

This all seems to harmonize with some new work I’m discovering.

Brené Brown

Brené Brown, Ph.D.

Brené Brown, PhD, a research social worker who teaches at the University of Houston, has spent the past 10 years or so studying the dynamics of shame. “Stigma”—which comes from an Old English word meaning “to brand with a pointed stick”—means nothing more than “to mark with shame.”

“Shame” itself is an even more ancient word whose roots mean “to cover oneself.” Essentially, “to disappear” because of self-hatred. Exactly the side-effect I was looking for in painkillers. I wanted to numb out thoroughly, to Get Small, to disappear. The extra-added energy-boost was fun while it lasted, but even after that left me, I continued to use because I just wanted to Go Away. I was also afraid of the physical pain.

Brown, in her recent Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) talk, suggests that we are a numbing-out culture. We are so afraid to be vulnerable, to feel vulnerability, that we numb it out before we can feel it. We use anything: food, Internet, shopping, gambling, alcohol, drugs. She says:

We cannot selectively numb feelings. . . . So when we numb [bad feelings], we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning. And then we feel vulnerable . . .  And it becomes this dangerous cycle.

Brown says those who allow themselves to “soften into loving someone, to care about something passionately”—to be vulnerable—are the people who are more able to get help when they need it. Which is what these Columbia researchers are saying: Closeness predicts lower perceptions of stigma. People who have close relationships have less fear of shame and are better able to get help.

Listen to her talk this weekend. Makes me want to go back to grad school.

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