Is It Better To Burn Out or Fade Away?: A Two-Sided View of Addiction, Death and Public Reaction
This weekend, we lost another one in the same way we lose all the rest. But this one was a little different. While the death of Whitney Houston to some manner of drugged state was just as foreseeable as, say Amy Winehouse’s, people were less shocked. It was as though we as an entire society knew this was coming. As though, just like every newspaper had a pre-written obit, we were all ready with our videos and Kevin Costner jokes.
The thing is, while the public reaction to this loss has been mildly more respectable than Winehouse’s “that junkie had it coming” type of response, it hits with the dull thud of a foregone conclusion. We’d written her off. Not unlike with Michael Jackson, the hardest core of fans can lament a dawning comeback, but there was no comeback to be had. She was finished.
Is that worse?
Society’s understanding of and reaction to addiction has long fascinated me. I’ve hinted before at my own experience, vague references to some big story in my past. For this one, I wanted to bring in that past, that story, and get his thoughts on the matter. With that, I give you my husband, John.
For about six years, I was a functional pill-popper and a barely functional stoner. I was not a functional alcoholic, which was my biggest downfall. And those were just the big ones. For all intents and purposes, I was a garbage can.
For someone who is addicted to a substance, whatever that substance may be, that substance, that feeling, becomes your reason for getting up in the morning. It was my life. And when I didn’t have that, I had nothing but the desire for more. It was the first thing I thought of, the last thing I thought of. It was my best friend.
In the thirteen-plus months of sobriety (complete clean sobriety - sadly, Whitney’s was not) following rehab and treatment, I’ve become a husband and homeowner, I have a job counseling troubled kids, I’m working on my master’s and I’m going to be a dad (it should be noted that, technically, people in recovery aren’t supposed to make big life changes in the first year of sobriety. Oops.) Things are going well. If my book ended right now, my ending would be a happy one.
So, what makes me different from the rich and famous?
In the example of Whitney Houston, aside from the aforementioned riches and fame, maybe it’s public perception. Or the presence of one at all. For the past decade or more, Whitney Houston was just above nothing to no one, a minor cautionary tale and some infrequently released pictures of a skinny yelling woman. Now, to some, she remains a joke; to others, she is now a martyr. I, as a recovering addict, see her as neither, and I admit that I have felt an embarrassingly cool nothing for the past few days. Because, as callous as it may sound, this is what happens to addicts. They get better, or they die. Some diseases don’t get cured; some people don’t get better. This is the only ending.
Let’s be honest: was Whitney’s reputation ever going to recover? Was she ever going to have that great comeback? Or was this it? Maybe if she’d gotten sober, things could have gotten better. But what if she’d gotten sober, and that didn’t change things? Would it be back to addiction all over again, sinking further into the joke she’d become?
And, as someone who spent six years as the punchline, I can categorically say that, yes, people see addicts as a joke. They’re fun, the way people thought it was fun when Whitney yelled “hell to the naw” at Bobby, or the way people thought it was fun when I was stumbling around at 4am talking gibberish because I was too drunk to form words. But when they’re not finding you amusing, they’re finding you sad. And not sad in a “I feel sorry for this person way” but in a “you’re a pathetic waste” way. And you learn quickly that these are the only feelings most people have for you. They laugh and they pity. There’s really not much else. And, up until Sunday, that was what people had for Whitney. It’s not until there’s no more hope that people realize what was lost. Then things are sad in the other way.
It would have been great to see someone like her sober up and have a good, long life. But stories like that are rare. Stories that end just like this are the norm. For the famous and non-famous alike.
The loss of anyone, whether it comes as a complete shock or can be seen coming from miles away, is sad to someone. There are always those left behind; family, children, fans. But, in the world of celebrity, a career can only go so many ways: it can end, or it can last. But the ones that last is a very slim slice of the pie. And in music, even more so. And even those whose careers last, they tend to do so only to the most devoted audience, with days reaching millions far behind them. Speaking in terms of career only, was death the best thing that could have happened to Whitney Houston?
People have often wondered where Kurt Cobain would be today had he lived. Would he have kept making music, continued on as this poet touching our lives forever? Or would we have turned on him by the mid-’90s, with any shred of love completely dissipated in favor of judgment and pity?
Maybe, the problem isn’t always just the famous lifestyle of sex, drugs and a world of yes. Maybe it’s us. Maybe no person can, or should, live forever with the whole world against them. We are cold and unforgiving, with only the very rare and certain getting through.
So, I’m sorry we saw you as a joke, Whitney. You deserved better, and we wish you could have been better.
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