Amy Winehouse’s death leaves us wondering what drives celebrities to drink
By Ed Griffin-Nolan
No matter what the lab reports reveal, there is no mystery in the question of why Amy Winehouse died. The greater surprise is this: How is it that Keith Richards is still alive?
How is it that some of us are unable to pull back from the abyss while others seem to skate on the edge of self-destructive behavior even when the costs so visibly outweigh any perceived benefits? How is it that someone so talented that the world is begging for more of you seems hell-bent on transforming herself into someone else, anyone else?
Some day we may be able to regard Winehouse the artist separate from Winehouse the addict, and to view her musical legacy for what it is, but right now the spectacle of who she became sits front and center. And it frightens us. After all, she was still a kid. Winehouse died at age 27, and for the last four years we saw little of her creative side and mostly her outsized appetite for drug abuse and self-abuse (really the two are not all that far apart).
Dessa Bergen-Cico is an assistant professor in the department of public health, food studies and nutrition at Syracuse University. She teaches a course on substance abuse, which is growing ever more popular with students. In an earlier assignment she was the lead staffer for SU’s efforts at preventing drug and alcohol abuse by students.
I asked Professor Bergen-Cico how it is that four decades after Hendrix, Morrison and Joplin, three decades after Belushi, and two decades after Cobain, we still find ourselves staring in disbelief as rock stars and entertainment idols flame out right before our eyes. Have we learned nothing about addiction and abuse?
“Actually we have made great strides in the neuroscience,” says Bergen-Cico, an optimist who has looked at the data. “We understand how the primitive parts of the brain override the more rational parts of the brain in people who deal with addiction, and how that impulse can be too strong to resist for some.”
But for whom? There is a genetic piece to addiction, notes the professor, but still no simple clue to tell us who is most at risk.
As far as treatment—like the kind that Winehouse ridiculed in her 2006 hit “Rehab” with lyrics proclaiming “There’s nothing you can teach me” and “The man said ‘why do you think you here’ I said ‘I got no idea’”— Bergen-Cico says that the percentage of people who are still clean and sober after a year of rehab is still low, perhaps 25 percent. Hard to imagine that anyone would have heart bypass surgery if it had such a low success rate, but that is the sad state of the art in dealing with this puzzling and pervasive illness.
Does she think the death of Amy Winehouse will have an impact on students and their use of dangerous drugs? “It depends on what the toxicology report shows,” says Bergen-Cico. “If it turns out that a particular combination of drugs, say oxycontin and alcohol, contributed, then students might be more careful with that particular combination. If it’s not something specific, it probably won’t have an impact.”
And then it got really scary. In one of her classes, says Bergen-Cico, she does an anonymous survey asking about abuse of prescription drugs. The responses from students pressing handheld clickers indicates that 30 percent to 40 percent are abusing at any given time. The amphetamine Adderall is a special favorite near exam time.
Still, Bergen-Cico urges people who care for loved ones stuck in the cycle of abuse not to despair. Even if your kids roll their eyes (or in the case of Mitchell Winehouse, they diss you in a song), it’s worth the effort to put your concern into words.
“I can’t overstate the role that parents can play. Young people are listening even when we don’t think they are.
They kind of look at us with one eye open, and what you say will matter to them at some point. It’s kind of like sex education: Not talking about it doesn’t prevent young people from engaging in sexual activity, it just means they may not have all the information they need to remain safe. Talking about alcohol and drug use in a way that opens a conversation is a really important thing.”
Even if you’ve been known to dabble in a doobie yourself? Yes, says Bergen-Cico.
“You don’t want to go into great detail or glorify your own history of drug use, but you can be honest and say you made some choices that might not have turned out for the best. But keep the focus on what the children are facing.”
Sounds like good advice.
Unless your name happens to be Keith Richards.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary weekly in the Syracuse New Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JAMES RUTKEY ILLUSTRATION