I've never particularly understood Amy Winehouse. The fuss, I mean. She was very talented, but the attention paid to that took a distant second to the attention paid to her problems. I mean this in the most respectful and non-judgmental way possible, but the woman was a total train wreck. One of the reasons I end up digging into the lives of a lot more men than women here is that for some reason, women don't seem to be allowed to be famous for being clever unless they are also completely dysfunctional.

It's not usually very interesting. I've dealt with way more dysfunctional people in my life than I ever wanted to -- including, sometimes, me -- and there's not really a lot of variation. Most people who torpedo their lives repeatedly will do it the same way every time. Everyone, from children all the way out to the odd serial killer, who lies about who they are or what they're up to is hiding the same damn secret, which is that they want to avoid whatever reaction they think the truth will get from everyone else. It gets old quick.

Winehouse seems not to have been a terrible person. My assessment of people is not always in line with the standard. Most notably, weird interpersonal behavior has to be very weird for the Uncanny Valley effect to kick in and make me start wondering what's going on. (I have a perfect 0.0% hit rate in spotting which of my friends are on the autistic spectrum.) I have to watch you interact with someone else before I can figure out what normal people probably think of you; consequently, I put a lot of stock in 'the measure of a man is the company he keeps'. Winehouse was a good friend of Noel Fielding, who is hands down one of the nicest media figures I've ever run across, and who has limited to non-existent patience with dickish behavior, at least in front of cameras. Her other friends, I don't know anything about, but a rather high proportion of them burst into tears when asked about her, even years after her death. Whoever she was, a lot of people miss her very badly.

Her art makes me uncomfortable. I find it difficult to watch, in the same way I find it difficult to watch the latest few rounds of Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes films -- she is very sick, and everybody knows it. All of her vocals sound drunk or high to me. This may have been intentional; she was imitating the style of a lot of famous jazz singers, who typically were drunk or high when they cut records. But I also have yet to see a single music video or live performance where she moves like she's all present and accounted for. She is terribly thin in all the clips. The wig looks as if it weighs as much as the rest of her; I assume the ends are tatted and unbrushed because that's her look. 'Method acting' is most charitable conclusion I can come to.

"Rehab" gave me the willies even before she died. I don't think it's glorifying drug and alcohol use; if you watch the video, it's pretty clear the idea is that she's fucked up and the people trying to push her into rehab have a point.

A lot of people seem to think she was bipolar or borderline. I don't know enough about her that didn't come through crap tabloid reporting to comment. It seems to have been an open secret that she had some sort of eating disorder -- bulimia is the one I see cited most. None of these things preclude being a decent, likable person. I realize that most of the really famous candid footage of Winehouse is of her staggering around in a singlet and her colossal wig, shouting vulgarities at the paparazzi, but frankly if those vultures swarmed me as much as they did her, I'd probably do the same thing while stone-cold fucking sober. There are other clips of friends doing things like trying patiently to get her to go inside her house and go to bed, and she actually doesn't seem to be all that combative -- just incredibly shitfaced.

Many of her friends are upset that she obviously had problems and "no one saved her". They seem genuine about it, but of course, everyone always is; it's a common sentiment among people who have lost a loved one to personal issues that our society sees as a mental or moral sickness, rather than accident or physical illness. The hard fact of it is, you can't save someone who doesn't want to be saved. I see suggestions that she might have gotten something out of having someone try to save her, but that's different from wanting to change, or wanting to have something magically reach in and change you from outside.

There's another hard fact here, one that upsets people even more than not having a remote control for their suffering loved ones, and that is that 'problems' are not separable from 'person'. I want to yell at the TV every time I watch one of my endless series of true crime shows and see a parent come on the screen explaining that their missing daughter couldn't have taken that many drugs because it "wasn't her". Yes, it was. Yes it fucking was. All of the factors that made your daughter take all those drugs are things that were always there, in her temperament and personality. They were not new things that were magically induced by the presence of heroin, or cocaine, or alcohol. This is not a case of demonic possession. You cannot force anyone to go back to acting the way you want them to by discarding elements of their personality you don't like. They're not taking drugs to piss you off; they're doing it because something about the interaction of their personality and whatever situation they're in makes drugs the most appealing way to deal.

I get especially angry over this last one. I don't know if I'm uncommonly insightful or just accidentally in the right place to see this or what, but I am well aware that every single thing I have issues with is exactly the same as some element of myself that I like and use every goddamn day, only turned up to 11 and with the knob broken off. The overload that sometimes makes me crawl into a hole and pull the hole in after me is caused by the exact same thing that makes me super-sharp and observant when the input is not jacked so high it clips. My wonky hip, back problems, myopia, and migraine headaches are fundamentally caused by the exact same mutation that made me almost literally two-thirds leg, gave me a ridiculously wide vocal range, and lets me do crazy-bendy things as a dancer.

I veto proposals for blanket treatment of these things for the same reason Amy Winehouse apparently did: If you completely shut down everything that ever gives me trouble, you would completely shut down me. I want to hit things whenever I hear someone talking about mental illness or disease or addiction as some kind of creeping bogeyman stealing in from outside, that you're supposed to wrestle with for the rest of your life, lest it take over. This is madness. More to the point, I can't think of a better way to set someone up to fail, over and over again, until the day they goddamn die. 'You're broken and we can't do anything about it, but you're still obliged to pretend to not be broken every waking minute of your life. You're also not allowed to use any of the coping mechanisms you've worked out for yourself anymore. Here are some official doctor-pills you are allowed to use, but since you're not allowed to buy them for yourself, you'll have to come back to us and assure us that you still agree that you're broken to get more, understanding that we have the power to decide you don't need them, no matter what you say, and take them away again.'

Yeah, I don't have a lot of respect for most rehab programs either. They're useful if you've decided that paradigm looks better than the one you've been following, but that also depends on you internalizing someone else's idea of what 'functional' means, which strikes me as not altogether different from internalizing someone else's idea of what it means to be 'beautiful' or 'well-behaved'. Forcing someone into rehab generally just teaches them how to lie well enough to get out of it again.

I get the feeling that Amy Winehouse -- and others like her -- could not be 'saved' because what other people think 'saved' means is not what it would have meant to them. There is a persistent delusion that the approval you get from other people when you manage to make yourself behave as they expect you to will result in happiness, or something close to it. For a lot of people, it's probably true. For other people, it's not. I'm not saying ethanol poisoning is a great choice, but when the options given to you boil down to 'be yourself to death' or 'live as another personality, which other people have picked for you', it doesn't look so irrational anymore. There is a great deal of well-intentioned psychological cruelty perpetrated against people whose priority is not 'making everyone else's life easier'.


  1. "They're not taking drugs to piss you off; they're doing it because something about the interaction of their personality and whatever situation they're in makes drugs the most appealing way to deal."- This line hit home for a situation one of my friends is in.

    1. The thing that nobody ever acknowledges is that nobody ever starts out going 'well, there are loads of better ways to deal with this, but I might as well start out with drugs anyway'. When they started taking the drugs, that was the best way for them to deal with whatever was going on. Maybe it's not adaptive now -- hell, maybe it stopped being adaptive the second after the first hit wore off. But the first time they did it, they did it because they assessed the situation, took stock of themselves, and decided that at that instant, changing their brain chemistry was their best option. It is the exact same process people go through when deciding whether they want to try antidepressants, or tranquilizers, or antipsychotics, or anything else that affects the way you think and perceive the world.

      Anyone who thinks that someone who takes drugs is doing it knowing that it's a "bad decision" is not taking everything into account. They may do it knowing you think/society thinks drugs are a bad decision, but there is obviously some other factor going into their choice that overshadows that one, and leads them to do it anyway. You can try to manipulate their environment to change the weighting on some of these factors -- you can apply emotional pressure by telling them about their prospective death; you can assume they care what you think and try to pressure them by telling them how disappointed you are; you can urge them to change housing or friend groups to alter the social dynamics of their lives; you can convince them to take something like legal methadone instead of illegal heroin to eliminate the problems of running into law enforcement, or something like disulfram or suboxone, to prevent their substance of choice from altering their brain chemistry in the way they want anymore. But you cannot forcibly change the outcome of their risk assessment. It involves personal factors that you have no control over, any more than your friend has control over whether you worry for them.

  2. Another incredibly astute post that knocks it out of the park. I agree with you so much on your positions here regarding these matters. I especially agree with your arguments regarding how the things that drive us to do 'bad' things are intertwined with the rest of who we are and that they need to be considered in that context. Thank you for your very insightful post.


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