Addiction, Mental Illness and Disrespect in American Culture

Yesterday,  Amy Winehouse died.  Her death was probably drug related since the singer suffered a long-term addiction to various substances – heroin, crack/cocaine, crystal meth and alcohol if I remember correctly.  But I’m too sad to Google it.  Not because I knew Amy and feel the grief of a lost loved one.  Rather, I’m sad about how our society views addiction and, similarly, mental illness.

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It’s very easy to criticize people from the comfort of your right mind.  Winehouse‘s death reminds us of her arrests, her bedraggled appearance, her inappropriate public behavior, and we unilaterally judge all of those things as though they’re purposeful.  American culture doesn’t accept anything other than Manifest Destiny, that people are sometimes powerless to control themselves in extenuating circumstances.  So, “it was the drugs”, or “addiction is a terrible disease” don’t really sit well with our bootstraps society.  Similarly, we don’t really understand or accept the trauma or pain that often drive people to drug use in the first place.

I’ll admit that I’m not an addict, or at least I’m not addicted to chemical substances other than the ones prescribed to me by my friendly neighborhood psychiatrist.  But I understand the pain behind the addict’s behavior, the inability to regulate difficult emotions to the point of just wanting them to go away.  I’ve met plenty of addicts in “Double Trouble” meetings, where mental illness and substance abuse intersect.  Some attendees sought out drugs and alcohol to escape abuse or poverty – tangibly horrible circumstances.  Others I met started using because their brains just couldn’t process garden-variety horribleness (yeah, I know that’s not a real word) like rejection or loneliness and needed a little something to take the edge off.

The inability to handle, to control our feelings and behavior is antithetical to living in the United States:  here we learn that effort is always rewarded with success; that tired, poor, huddled masses can attain freedom; that self-determination is the greatest of all values.  America disdains anything less than absolute self-regulation and relegates lack of self-possession as shameful and inappropriate.  The fact that we’re all really hiding something, or hiding from something for fear of being judged as “less than” feeds our obsession with watching addicts crumble.  Well, at least addicts who are famous.  Only through impersonal lens of celebrity and the external comforts it brings can we level the unbridled criticism we’d like to heap on ourselves.  We look at addicts like Winehouse and Whitney Houston and wonder how ordinary people with such extraordinary talent can fall so far so fast.  We don’t understand how people with money, comfort, careers could possibly be unhappy enough to escape from reality.  And we hold tight to a secret fear: if the material success that I want doesn’t lead to happiness, what’s going to happen to me?

Witnessing the ravages of mental illness brings out the same covert fear in people.  I don’t mean really seeing what mental illness does to a family or an individual because that’s real shit.  I mean witnessing the behaviors that mental illness engenders:  anger, social withdrawal, crying jags, self-injury, unpredictability, irritability, depression, homicide, suicide.  We judge people like Charlie Sheen, or Maia Campbell (who I’ve written about here) because their behavior doesn’t make sense to us, doesn’t square with the American Dream of fame and fortune that we think cures all.  We can’t see the internal struggle so we pass off the behavior as intentionally “bad” and dismiss the perpetrators as “crazy”.  They can’t hold their shit together, they must be weak or lazy – how very un-American.  Then the comedians, the talking heads, the social media voices jump on the bandwagon and we build a culture that holds actual, suffering humans at arm’s length.  No wonder I write this blog under a pseudonym.

So today, I’m hoping and praying for people wrestling with their demons – be they chemical or psychological or even material – to find some peace.  And for the rest of you to find some compassion.

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