Home Celeb Watch On Whitney: Addiction, Grieving and Coping

On Whitney: Addiction, Grieving and Coping

by Erika Nicole Kendall


I’m willing to bet that you, much like myself, shed a healthy tear or two when you heard the news about phenomenal pop diva Whitney Houston’s passing. I’m not even going to lie – it completely ruined my weekend (me, me, me, right?) to know that someone whose music literally created my imagination (What? I can walk through a mirror and be wearing a sequinned gown and feather boa? Stop playing!), but it also hurt because we all knew she had been struggling in the past decade or so. Even though it is in incredibly poor taste to ask what happened, I was still curious.

A lot has been – and will continue to be – written about her bouts with drug and alcohol abuse, her tumultuous relationship with The King of R&B Bobby Brown (I can’t hate too much – Michael Jackson was The [Self-Proclaimed] King of Pop), and whether or not the former is due to the latter. Deep down in my heart, as I read all of these beautifully written articles, I can’t help but wonder if we’re focusing our attention in the wrong direction.

From what I’ve most recently seen, Whitney’s cause of death is officially “undetermined,” but the coroner apparently told her family that it could potentially be a combination of alcohol and prescription pills that allowed her to fall asleep in the tub and, well… we know the rest, unfortunately.

This speaks, loudly, to me. Not just because I can do the “I’m Your Baby Tonight” “choreography” in my sleep, but because I know how loose many of us are with prescription medication. I know how many people are, shall we say… hyper-comfortable with mixing their anti-anxiety medications with their “nightly glass of wine” as a “way to wind down.” I know what kind of market there is for those pills, and I know how many people are buying them on that black market and abusing them to “relax.” Those people will look at Whitney with scorn and disgust, because she was “an addict that never got it together.”

I’ve learned a lot about addiction over the years. As I’ve written about before, I approach my emotional eating habit as an addiction, and that was why I believe I’ve experienced so much success thus far with my recovery. I understand the inability to cope with something major in my life; I understand that moment when you find something – anything – that provides you with the ability to escape that painful reality and experience real, genuine, blinding pleasure instead; I understand how that something then becomes your regular “go-to” for whenever you want or need to experience any kind of pleasure in your life.

I also know what it’s like to have to escalate your use of your “go-to” because your mind and body become numb to it in your regular doses. You have to escalate your use because, since you know it helps you and makes you feel better, normal, even whole, habituation takes over and compels you to just keep going until you get that feeling, again.

It wasn’t cocaine, for me. It wasn’t gambling. It wasn’t sex. It wasn’t pills that could’ve turned my brain inside out. For me, it was regular old food.

For me, it was something that we need to survive. An act that people engage in, every day, was an act that I was abusing and using for means outside of that survival. I knew which foods to buy to get my fix, I knew which places to hide it so as to escape judgment and I knew that once I’d achieved my “high,” it was time to put the package down. I’d finally gotten my fix. No sense in wasting any “product.”

Addiction is about a dependence on a product (or action) for bringing a chemical response. Pleasure is related to the reward centers of the brain, which compel us to not only recognize items that bring us pleasure but seek out those items when pleasure is needed. Dopamine, a key component of the reward center, plays a big part in our ability to control our emotional responses to situations. In short, if you’ve relied on external sources to help you cope with negative circumstances in the past, it makes rehabilitation difficult if you haven’t developed alternative coping mechanisms.

That’s what’s so peculiar about someone who admitted to having a cocaine habit having drugs like Xanax on hand. Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, would help “calm down” or “keep calm” someone who struggles with coping with day to day function. It, honestly, looks like she went from using an illegal substance to cope to using a legal substance to cope. The legalities don’t make it any less problematic.

So many of us want to ask the wrong questions about what happened to Whitney, and any other person who suffers a similar fate. We’re hurt. We want to ask a thousand “whys.” We want to lay blame. I think the pain from that hurt is okay. I think it’s a necessary part of the grieving process. It’s the other two, the “whys” and the “blame,” that are a struggle for me.

When it comes to situations like this, I think it’s only fair to ask “why,” because we are human beings who learn from the missteps of our peers. We want to understand “how” so that we can, hopefully, help someone else. Our motives aren’t entirely altruistic – we want to save ourselves from the pain of losing another loved one – but it’s never been said that helping someone else can’t help yourself, too.

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As for blame, hmm… is addiction about blame? I don’t know, especially when we are talking about someone who has lost their life, already. It’s hard for any of us, on the epitome of “the outside,” to be able to diagnose blame because all we knew of Whitney, a mega star in the era of “no Internet” where the tabloid reigned supreme, was what People or Star told us… which, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t much. But in a hurt, blood-thirsty quest, we want to saddle someone – namely, her husband – with the eternal guilt of being the reason why she is no longer here. It just… I don’t know. It feels cruel to me.

Neither addiction – nor succumbing to it – are a result of a bad husband. I know this because many a woman who married a man who developed an addiction have left him. Neither addiction – nor succumbing to it – are a result of being from Newark. (A part of my initiation into being a New Yorker is taking pot shots at Jersey. Methinks I’m not so good at it, though.) Neither addiction – nor succumbing to it – is the fault of the people around an addict. Why? You can’t be around a person twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and you’ll never know what they’re doing when you’re not there.

To me, rehabilitation involves “intervention” for a reason. It’s a reminder that you have reasons to live. You have a life to fight for. You have people in your corner who support you. There is satisfaction in life just as valuable as – if not more than – your addiction. Intervention is much more than that, too, but the underlying point is that it serves as a jumping off point for them realizing that the fight needs to be within them, and no one else. Just like I keep talking about the “come to fitness” moment? It’s a lot like that. Maybe a “come to sobriety” moment.

I guess, in all of this, I’m crushed by the lack of empathy… but I’m disturbed by how easy we write this off as the “misfortunes of a drug addict,” as if our ‘other’ addictions are more noble. Be it sex, cocaine, alcohol, gambling, shopping, food, video games, Internet or whatever, abusing it (and choosing to continue to use it) after being educated about the negative effects is dangerous. An addiction to shopping may not turn your brain into swiss cheese, but it ruins your life just the same. An addiction to video games – using them as a vessel for escaping reality and deriving pleasure – may not result in death but it, too, can ruin your life. Your prescription for your Xanax might be legal, but if you’re using it in an unhealthy fashion, it’s still something to consider. A BGG2WL reader said it best on twitter: “some of you can’t even put the cookies and chips down; I don’t even wanna know how you’d handle cocaine.”

It’s a natural part of grieving to have questions and feel pain but, to me, our best bet is to use this as a time to check ourselves, even remind ourselves that we are not infallible, ourselves. Ask ourselves, how do I cope? Do I use an unhealthy practice to cope? Do I cope in a way that could ruin – or end – my life? Am I being honest with myself in regards to how I handle stress? Am I thinking it through or am I hiding from it and letting it build up? Those were key elements to me understanding my own addiction, and questions that I constantly ask to keep myself in check. I am all too familiar with the reality of addiction: all it takes is being caught in the perfect storm with no umbrella, and I like to be prepared.

It’s unfortunate that Whitney’s legacy carries this enormous and painful history, but at least we know that now, the weight is off of her shoulders. We would be wise to check the weight accumulating on our own, as well.

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Drea February 16, 2012 - 1:25 PM

I applaud you…couldn’t have said it any better, especially the Newark part 😉 (born, raised, and still here). Thank you for that. May she rest in peace.

BFly February 16, 2012 - 2:32 PM

AMEN! My sentiments exactly…….

Verliz February 16, 2012 - 3:28 PM

“some of you can’t even put the cookies and chips down; I don’t even wanna know how you’d handle cocaine.”

Excerpted from On Whitney: Addiction, Grieving and Coping | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

I said pretty much the same thing. It’s easy to spout off and pontificate about “Don’t do drugs”, and “this is you, this is your brain on drugs”… etc.. but how many of us have ACtually come face-to-face with drugs.. how about coming face-to-face when we’re rock bottom with infinite cash, sources and options? Nope.. not that many, huh?

Lethal Astronaut February 16, 2012 - 3:55 PM

What you said about legal drugs really rang true for me.

I went on a girls road trip to a concert in a neighbouring city last year, and was stunned to learn that, of all my friends in the car, I was the only one not taking antidepressants.

I’m not saying for an instance that any of my friends are addicted – I don’t know and didn’t ask the particulars as it isn’t my business – but I *will* say that when you have a car with six healthy, 30-something women in it, and only one of them isn’t taking drugs, there’s a really big problem in society that we aren’t talking about.

I do think that GPs are overprescribing, I think medical companies are todays socially acceptable pushers, and I think what we’re seeing are the results of a fragmented community. And I worry about the longterm effects on our bodies, our community, our families and our environment when the drug residues are flushed down the toilet in our urine and out to sea.

Whether a drug is legal or not seems to make very little difference on whether it can destroy a person’s life – Whitney Houston is just the latest celebrity testament to that. I think, as a society, it is time we started asking the hard questions and facing some hard decisions in an effort to help those who really need support. Because the drugs just aren’t solving our problems – if they ever did.

Danielle February 16, 2012 - 4:26 PM

Erika, this is a beautiful post. Very well said.

Heather February 16, 2012 - 5:22 PM

Love your blog, so inspirational! 🙂

Brianna Leigh February 17, 2012 - 10:08 AM

Thanks for quoting my tweet in your article! I was just tired of seeing tweets mocking her struggles, people saying that they would have done differently in her shoes when they themselves probably have their own vices too. I saw the same thing when Amy Winehouse died. I wish people would just have some empathy…they need to realize that everyone is DIFFERENT, and just because you think you’d be able to handle everything life throws at you doesn’t mean everyone else can. It doesn’t make you a better person–None of us are perfect. I’m preaching to the choir though. Have a nice day everyone!

Niki February 17, 2012 - 10:10 AM

“I guess, in all of this, I’m crushed by the lack of empathy… but I’m disturbed by how easy we write this off as the “misfortunes of a drug addict,” as if our ‘other’ addictions are more noble. Be it sex, cocaine, alcohol, gambling, shopping, food, video games, Internet or whatever, abusing it (and choosing to continue to use it) after being educated about the negative effects is dangerous.”

I have been preaching this all week! Especially after my SIL said, “Couldn’t she get it together for her daughter?” I said, “if only it were that easy for all of us to do the things we SHOULD do.” The fact that something can be legally ingested (food, pills) doesn’t mean it’s not addictive.

Whitney death completely ruined my weekend too and her funeral is going to be tough to watch too.

Beautiful post, Erika.

vintage3000 February 17, 2012 - 11:32 AM

Beautifully written and made me think a lot. Before I came to your site this morning I was thinking about the time I took an anti-depressant to relax, and then had the bright idea that a glass of merlot with it would REALLY help. All I did that night was worry about how drugs and alcohol in my system would affect me so I ended up stressing more, which was probably a good thing because I vowed to never do that again.

But I have always joked about my horrible sweet tooth which is definitely another kind of addiction with other long term effects. Yesterday my co-worker told me about finally paying off her $30,000 credit card debt, and she used to see shopping binges as therapy but now she knows better. I did not understand why she would spend $1500 on a purse. And I also don’t understand how, as a teenager, I often ate doughnuts and fruit juice for lunch and not even realized how I was damaging my body. A lot of us have different weights on our shoulders, I am so sorry Whitney carried hers for so long. But you’re right Erika, I have read more about addiction this past week. This tragedy is causing a lot of self reflection, I think.

Angie S February 20, 2012 - 1:42 AM

Sequins and boa? For me it was the curly wig with the headband. So much so, some people called me “Whitney”. Thank you for your insightful and honest blog. People are quick to judge another’s addiction and fail to see how theirs is killing them – whether it’s tv, video games or ding-dongs. And although we know certain addictions kill and certainly saw Whitney’s downward spiral, we hoped and prayed somehow she’d find her way out. Her death although surprising wasn’t completely unexpected. Yet it still has wiped me out. Because with life there’s always hope. Now for her there is none. But for others with addictions we hope there are lessons to be learned – for the people with the addictions and the people who love them.

Thank you for your wisdom.

mddiva35 February 25, 2012 - 10:28 PM

Kudos to you for sharing. This was a great post. I do have to comment about the part where you state “Neither addiction – nor succumbing to it – are a result of a bad husband. I know this because many a woman who married a man who developed an addiction have left him.” Her marriage to Bobby was a co-dependent relationship fueled by the drugs. It is difficult for addicts to not return to their addiction after rehab if they return to environments where addiction has prevailed for so long. This could go both ways. At times Bobby may have been sober but Whitney wasn’t and vice versa so the addiction returned. Irregardless,we all have to find peace and a better way of coping for ourselves outside the use of drugs of any kind, illegal or legal. I hope that Bobbi Kristina will turn her life around and learn from her mother’s death. I wish for her to became an outstanding healthy young woman and live as close to a glorious life as her mother.

Erika Nicole Kendall February 26, 2012 - 1:13 AM

You are absolutely right. I completely agree.

CurvyCEO August 13, 2012 - 1:44 PM

Beautiful post! And you’re absolutely on point – let those of us without sin cast the first stone. I know in my case, it is absolutely a food addiction. It hit me one day shortly after Amy Winehouse’s death. I was getting onto an elevator and thought to myself, “I’m so glad *I* am not an addict.” Then it smacked me in the face that I am indeed! My substance of choice just happens to be legal and will kill you slowly, not quickly. I actually am doing a lot of internal work — and trying to find other things (things that don’t harm my waistline or my wallet) to ease stress and such. It’s hard, but the fact that I’m no longer experiencing a “high” from eating junk is a big help. Now that I’m more in touch with my issues, those cookies just aren’t hitting the spot the way they used to….

Sidebar comment: I now have “I’m Your Baby Tonight” on repeat in my brain. *lol*

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