30 Days of Stuff: The Rules of Addiction

Let’s get one thing clear right from the outset: this isn’t a post about Amy Winehouse; it’s not a post about her death; nor is it a treatise on her lifestyle. It is, obviously, inspired (is that really the right word?) by her death, but it’s really about the subject of addiction.

Yeah, you probably worked that out from the title, didn’t you?

Why is this not actually about Amy Winehouse? Well, my opinion of Winehouse to date has really been a non-opinion. I don’t particularly like her music, but I don’t particularly dislike it either: if you put on one of her CDs I’ll neither get up to dance, nor will I get up to leave the room. In terms of what she was like as a person I’ve mostly gone along with the party line that she was reportedly a very talented artist who by all accounts was wasting her life. As such I don’t really feel overly qualified to write about her.
Anyway. She died. She had terrible problems with addiction. Those problems (presumably) killed her.

And I really don’t understand that.

So this is going to be me verbally going through a process of trying to understand addiction, trying to work out if I can go from this thought: “Amy Winehouse pretty much killed herself: not a question of if, but when…” to something perhaps a little more compassionate.

I don’t really have much of an addictive personality myself. I might have a few too many biscuits on occasion, but that’s just being greedy. If I don’t get my morning coffee early enough it’ll cast a pall over my day, but that’s just my little routine being upset. I’ll enjoy a beer or glass of wine after work from time to time, but if I find that it’s becoming a little too habitual I’ll just stop (see, I want to enjoy my beer, I don’t want to need it).

Words of wisdom

Luckily two articles this week have helped illuminate things a little bit for me. First there’s this post by guy_interrupted, which tells me that addiction is less about the high, and more about making the real world go away for just a little longer. I have to be honest, while guy_interrupted gives me a valuable (and, I have to admit, fairly revelatory) glimpse into the mindset of an addict he doesn’t really convince me that Winehouse was quite the victim he suggests. However, referenced in his post is a really great article by Russell Brand who, with typically charming honesty and an absurdly touching lack of sentimentality, tells me a little about society’s perception of addicts and how death doesn’t have to be the only way out.

Brand talks about addiction as a disease, and I’ve read the same claims more than once over the past few days. My immediate instinct on that one was to be cynical: it’s self-inflicted, therefore how can it be a disease? And yet lung cancer is a clearly a disease, and one that’s often self-inflicted. Well, the dictionary offers two useful definitions of disease:

a disordered or incorrectly functioning organ, part, structure, or system of the body resulting from the effect of genetic or developmental errors, infection, poisons, nutritional deficiency or imbalance, toxicity, or unfavorable environmental factors; illness; sickness; ailment.

any harmful, depraved, or morbid condition, as of the mind or society: His fascination with executions is a disease.

I think that makes it clear that we can talk about addiction as a disease. However, I will continue to discriminate between diseases that are self-inflicted and diseases which are afflicted upon the victim. One thing Brand suggests (at least in my interpretation) is that help was always available to Winehouse, all she had to do was accept it. I can only imagine how hard it must be for an addict/smoker/alcoholic to stay off the wagon, but at some level there’s always a choice: there’s a choice to have that first hit; to have another drink; to call someone for help. Don’t mistake that for judgment on my part; it’s merely partner to the thought that someone doesn’t have a choice to contract cancer, or to be born with MS, or to get hit by a speeding car.

Despite my continuing chatter about Brand’s article, it was that point in guy_interrupted’s blog post that’s really stuck with me: the point about addiction being (in one interpretation) a failure to deal with the real world, as opposed to a constant craving to get high. Now, this is going to seem a stretch, but one of the ways I can attempt to understand this is by comparing it to writing.

Bear with me…

Woes of writers

When you first come up with the idea for a story it’s almost always the best story you’ve never written. You hold onto that germ of an idea, you push the pieces of the plot around on your plate, you endlessly ponder the possibilities. In fact you do anything but write the damn story. Why? Because when the story’s in your head it’s the best damn story that anyone in the entire world has written ever, it’s the story that’s going to transform your career, it’s the one that’s going to have people saying: “Where has this writer been all my life? Every other book in the history of writing is now ruined for me!”.

But… if you actually write the story the real world intrudes: people may like it, or they may not; it may transform your career; but it probably won’t. People will continue to read Jane Austen. Despite that, you still know that the best, most sensible thing to do is to write the story (you can’t be a writer if you don’t write anything, etc, etc), yet sometimes you don’t, or you procrastinate until you’ve forgotten what it was that even got you excited about the story in the first place.

In other words, you do something detrimental to yourself because you don’t want to deal with the real world.

It’s a lame comparison: failing to write something on a page is a far lower level of fucked up than doing something that will destroy your body and mind, but it gives me a way towards understanding. I’ve got a way to go: I still find myself thinking that Winehouse always had a choice to either save or destroy herself, and the vast share of my sympathy goes not to her but to her family and friends. Still, I feel that the veil has been lifted a little. We’re conditioned to envy the life of a celebrity, to covet the riches, glamour and attention – but I’m willing to bet that unless you’re a profound egomaniac then it’s a miserable life where everyone wants a piece of you and no one wants to leave you alone. Under those circumstances, with enough money to buy yourself a temporary slice of oblivion, why the hell wouldn’t you?

I’m not going to say that Winehouse’s death is a good thing: it’s obviously not. However, if it produces a few more insights like Brand’s and guy_interrupted’s then there won’t be quite such a deep sense of futility to it. If someone suddenly sees a way of helping their brother, mother, father, niece, sister, best friend, colleague, then maybe a few more people will end up like Russell Brand instead of Amy Winehouse.