Or: Is it Amy Winehouse’s own fault that she’s dead?
Although the official cause of death has yet to be stated, it’s fairly certain that Amy Winehouse’s demise is the result of her unfortunate problems with hard drugs and alcohol. Already, I’ve seen wars break out on pop culture forums about how much sympathy she deserves — whether others deserve the blame for not helping her enough, whether it was her own fault for not facing up to her demons, or some middle ground or otherwise-nuanced view.
The central argument for the former tends to revolve around the idea of Amy Winehouse’s addiction. The line of thought runs something like this: “Because she was addicted to drugs, she can’t really be faulted for what happened. Nobody ever stepped in to help Amy Winehouse, who had to face her disease of addiction on her own.”
Addiction is an abstract concept referring to an overwhelming drive to partake in a behavior. Addiction is distinct from compulsion, which is the literal, physical inability to decide not to participate in a behavior. Someone with compulsive twitching, for instance, cannot stop the behavior through an act of will. Someone who is said to “compulsively drink” because they are addicted to alcohol is quite different: such an act is “compulsive” only in the sense that a “sick economy” actually possesses a disease. In other words: conflating addiction with compulsion is a linguistic error. And certainly, being abstract concepts, neither are diseases.
Addiction is not a thing. It manifests itself in goal-oriented behavior, which is ultimately a choice (by choice, I mean: we do it because we want to). We can spare ourselves from the consequences of the addictive mindset by opting out of participating in the desired bad behavior. It doesn’t make it easy: it can, in fact, be a hellish nightmare to fight the urge. But there is no reason that an ‘alcoholic’ can’t simply choose to put down the bottle. There’s no cosmic decree mandating that the cocaine user go through with another deal. In other words: strictly speaking, addiction as it is popularly understood is indeed a choice.
This is not to dismiss the difficulties faced by addicts, but rather to cut through linguistic clutter that obscures the issue. It does not follow from my argument that addicts should not be treated with compassion and understanding. In America, we have a tendency to shun and blame anyone who can’t prove that they aren’t fully irresponsible. This is sad and unfortunate. People make bad decisions all the time, and we should always be willing to assist someone who demonstrates the honest initiative to turn their life around. The media cycle is cruel and vicious, making it even more difficult for high-profile addicts: we mock and spit upon celebrities who find themselves in this situation and then act surprised when their self-destructive cycle becomes ever more vicious.
Amy Winehouse’s own commitment to bettering herself was mixed. She reveled in her problems, turning them into something quite lucrative: ironically, the song she’ll be best remembered for is about her aversion to getting help. A judge once declared her to be honest about her intent to become clean, but that was years ago. The people around her didn’t always have her best interests in mind: whoever let her perform her final shows wasted out of her mind should feel utterly ashamed of himself. But there’s little evidence that she did anything but accept the image of herself as a tragic addict. And that was up to her. She had to truly, honestly want to get better — and I’m not quite sure that she was ready to face up to that. Nobody can “step in” to impose “treatment” upon an unwilling participant. As she sang in one of her songs: “I can’t help you, unless you help yourself.”
Her death is tragic and unfortunate. It’s a case of an all-too-human personality who made some terrible lifestyle decisions and dug a hole that she couldn’t quite get herself out of. But she is not, strictly speaking, a victim. She is best seen, I think, as a cautionary tale about what happens to people who embark down the treacherous road of hard drugs and drinking — you don’t always come back.