This week I watched a documentary about the brilliant and tragic Amy Winehouse. I’ve always been a fan of her music and, as a recovering alcoholic, I wanted to get a deeper sense of what led to her death from alcohol poisoning. Not surprisingly, there were people in this talented young woman’s path who had the opportunity to help – or harm her. And they did both. I’m not saying alcoholics and drug addicts are victims, but it is notable when following a person’s trajectory of self-destruction that they are often strongly influenced by people and events. In the rooms of AA they refer to “people, places and things” that can be triggers for addicts to do self-harm. The outside influences don’t create addiction entirely; a person who slips into self sabotage usually already has internalized beliefs about their value that sends them seeking relief through the numbness alcohol and drugs offer.
Ironically, Amy Winehouse’s hit single, “Rehab,” was pivotal to her rising success. Friends had been pleading with her to seek help before she declined too far. Like the song says, her response was “no, no, no” – and that was her father’s reaction to the idea of rehab, also. As a parent, learning this fact made me deeply sad. I started thinking about my early drinking days as a teenager. From the moment I took my first sip of alcohol, I was a binge drinker. The first time I got drunk, I could have died of alcohol poisoning at my friend Isabel’s sleepover in 8th grade when I woke up covered in my own vomit without a trace of a memory of what happened the night before. I was hungover (dehydrated) for 3 days, left alone in my room and repeatedly ridiculed by my Mom. This might have been a great opportunity to educate and support, I am thinking today, with 2,813 sober days. But alas, shame was the most useful tool my parents had – it had been “successfully” used on them throughout their childhood, so the tradition carried on with me.
The picture of me is from 2016, a year after I stopped drinking and declared myself “in recovery. If you look closely, I am wearing a crescent-shaped gold pin – a tribute to my all-girls Catholic high school in suburban St. Louis, Missouri. I happened to be driving back to St. Louis when I snapped this photo, thinking about my happy days as a student in what is consistently ranked Missouri’s #1 all female private secondary education institution. I was driving home to celebrate the life of a classmate who had recently passed away from cancer. She was a wickedly smart, quiet girl, I remember. And we shared a semester working together as a team in our school’s celebrated “mock trial” experience in Senior year civics class. We were the defense team and we lost. But not because Lori hadn’t worked her hardest doing research and writing legal arguments. I remember Lori doing most of the hard work and, because she was so introverted, happily allowing me to attempt to be the impassioned and deeply persuasive defense lawyer. Lori wasn’t angry with me when we lost, even though I felt I had let her down. All those quiet hours of research and work went down the tubes the minute my fast-talking opponent (who went on to become a lawyer) opened her mouth. I froze and stumbled. I was humiliated because it was one of the few things my Dad attended throughout my High School. He had been accepted to law school himself but never attended because of family obligations. As his 7th child, I was his last hope of producing a lawyer – and I really, really did not want to let him down. I don’t remember specifically drinking over the mock trial experience – but the message I internalized was that I did not have what it took to be taken seriously in any arena. I was 17.
You can imagine, carrying that heavy burden within oneself at such a young age, how the ensuing years unfolded. I went through periods of deep depression followed by binge drinking. But I could also go years without touching a single drop of alcohol. However, whenever I would return to drinking, it was always the same: binge drinking from the onset. I was 49 years old before I was ready to face the truth: alcohol was not my friend and removing it from my life completely was urgently necessary, for myself and my family. I hadn’t considered until age 49 that I wasn’t the only one affected by my drinking. They say addiction makes you selfish – but not in the “I’m going to be good and kind to myself and think only of my own needs” kind of way. Addiction made me numb and blind. Thank goodness, all the help I have received during recovery has helped me to forgive myself for it so I can show up for my family authentically (you know, with imperfections).
Driving back to St. Louis with only 1 year of sobriety, I was hoping to connect with the people who meant everything to me in my early days of high school. I was very proud of my sobriety and eager to celebrate Lori’s life in a safe community (emotional safety happens to be super important to alcoholics). But my High School Social Studies teacher had a different agenda. Instead of greeting me with warmth, she was eager to harshly remind me that I had shown up to a school function drunk (I absolutely wasn’t) and gotten away with it and that her husband, 35 years later, still spoke about it. Ah, there was the sting of that old familiar weapon: shame. Here I was, a grown woman with children and this long retired teacher used someone’s memorial service as an opportunity to slap me down. I have thought of the incident many times in the past 7 years, and I usually become angry, although I know I should either laugh about it or feel sorry for her for being such a self-righteous and petty woman she needed to take a cheap shot 35 years later. She did not know what I was fighting in 1982 nor what the path of addiction would do to me in the ensuing 35 years. She didn’t care, she just needed to scold and be right. And guess what, people! SHE WASN’T EVEN A NUN! The nuns showed compassion and grace. Shame, ironically, had not been the style of the Sisters of the Visitation I grew to know and love. So suck an egg, Mrs. What’s-Your-Name (fortunately, I cannot recall her name so I won’t be tempted to google her pathetic ass).
Last night my husband and I sat in our favorite neighborhood bar (yes, I can go to bars now and enjoy an alcohol free beer and not “awaken the beast” that wants to drink again) when 2 police officers walked in. My husband followed them with his eyes and told me there was a person sitting at the bar with her head down. The police awakened her and, when she realized what was happening, my husband tenderly said, “She’s crying now.” The police managed to help her stumble out of the bar as she openly wept in shame and God knows what else. “We don’t know what else she could have going on,” my husband said compassionately. I began weeping out of pain for her and still cannot stop thinking of her. It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t the first time this had happened. And I am damn lucky the same thing never happened to me. But I know it wouldn’t take much heartache and hard times to put me right back there. That’s why my heart aches with compassion for other addicts. And people who use shame can absolutely go straight to hell.
When the phenomenally talented Amy Winehouse died at age 27 from alcohol poisoning, she had experienced brief periods of sobriety followed by dark relapses (listen to “Back to Black” – it refers to a relationship she was addicted to in which she believes her only choice without is to go “back to black”). I think it’s the urgent neediness an addict feels when faced with reality is what gets me. In those brief moments leading up to an alcoholic’s first doomed drink, we truly believe that this time it could be different – the warmth of a numbing drink could actually give us what we need this time without harm. Amy must have thought that as she took her last drinks. And the young woman in the bar last night probably never guessed her evening would end being escorted by police into custody. She just wanted momentary relief from her suffering.
Today, as I reflect on the incident with Mrs. Told You So in 2016 that caught me off guard and produced profound shame, it stings far less than the clarity it gives. Now I know how to comfort and protect that bright and beautiful young woman who believed she didn’t have what it took to succeed. Now I know I’m truly at home with myself, however imperfect I may be. I wish Amy Winehouse had had the opportunity to live 57 years like me. And I pray the young woman from the bar meets the right people and lives into a time where she can find peace and comfort somewhere gentler than a barstool.