Same Script, Different Cast: Whitney’s Death Should be a Wake-Up Call About Addiction

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Whitney Houston’s untimely death was very sad but the true tragedy is the reason for it. Addiction is a huge problem in this country and it needs to be addressed in more meaningful ways.

LLike many others, I was very distressed to hear about the death of Whitney Houston. She was such a beautiful, stylish and talented woman. I have many fond memories of listening to her music, watching her videos and seeing her movies. Whitney meant so much to so many. A lot has been said about the misfortune of her death and that is indeed true. Whitney never should have died so young or with so much unfinished. Bobbi Kristina shouldn’t be without her mother and Cissy Houston should never have had to bury her child. However, while Whitney’s death was heartbreaking, the real tragedy was what got her to that point.

Although the official report of the reason behind her death is still forthcoming, the rumors are that it was drug- and alcohol-related. Unfortunately this is not surprising. Whitney apparently struggled with addiction issues for many, many years and went through several stints in rehab. She fell off the public radar, unable to perform because of the toll alcohol and drugs took on her body in general and on her lovely voice in particular.

Regrettably, Whitney is far from alone in having substance abuse take away the life that she wanted. In a cruel irony, the title of one of her more popular songs seems to sum up the story of addiction: Same Script, Different Cast. We’re constantly reading about celebrities who lost their lives due to drugs and alcohol abuse. Such a list includes people like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Janis Joplin, John Belushi, Jim Morrison, River Phoenix, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, Chris Farley, Anna Nicole Smith, Jimi Hendrix, Judy Garland, Dorothy Dandridge, and John Bonham. I could actually list a whole lot more famous people who, along with the millions of others who aren’t celebrities, have been sucked down into the hell that is addiction, but you get the point. Addiction affects a whole lot of people. A 2010 national survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that over 22 million Americans suffer from alcohol or drug dependency. Let me repeat that: over 22 million people are addicts. We must understand that addiction is horrible and it does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race or socioeconomic status.

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As a family psychologist, I see the negative outcomes of addiction all the time. In fact, I don’t think you can see families without addressing addiction issues, whether they are marriages destroyed by substance abuse, family members heartsick over their inability to help a loved one or children of all ages dealing with the fall-out from an addicted parent. And let me be clear here and say that addiction encompasses a lot of things, from alcohol and drugs to workaholism, sex, shopping, food and gambling. While the ‘drug’ of choice may be different, the process of addiction is the same. The outcome is the same too: it’s devastating.

Given the prevalence of addiction issues in our country, I’m always surprised by the level of ignorance that surrounds it. I’m constantly telling people that addicts aren’t just homeless vagrants living under bridges but instead are people you know and love. Addicts are neighbors, students, business executives, community leaders, teachers, friends and, of course, family members. You won’t always know who is an addict because you don’t have to indulge in your drug of choice every day to be one. Addiction isn’t necessarily about the frequency of use but is instead about the process of it: the rush that it gives, the difficulty in moderating behavior, the reasons behind using (specifically the numbing of emotion), the way it affects thinking, the consequences people will endure in order to keep using. In fact, science is just catching up with what the treatment community has known for years in that they now have studies showing that addiction alters your brain. This biological basis to addiction is one reason why recovery is so difficult.

Another reason recovery is so tough is that our culture tends to ignore or dismiss the problem. We do with addiction what we do with a lot of other illnesses: we blame the victim. Yes, there is a personal element of responsibility to addition. No one is forcing anyone to bet large sums of money, continually cheat on their partner, work 15 hours per day, buy that 10th pair of shoes or drink a 12-pack of beer every night. People are in control of their own behavior (which allows for change) but we tend to overlook the role of our culture in all of this.

I could make a case for the accessibility and cultural promotion of any of the addictions but alcohol is the easiest example. It’s everywhere. We hang out in bars, socialize with coworkers at Happy Hours, are encouraged to drink by restaurant servers, and run smack into alcohol at sporting events and most parties, formal or otherwise. It’s kind of hard to avoid. For many people, the availability of alcohol is much like taking a toddler into a toy store and then expecting her not to touch everything she possibly can.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t let alcohol be accessible (and I’m certainly not advocating a return to Prohibition — that didn’t work then and it won’t work now) but instead am suggesting that we take more responsibility. For example, instead of allowing rehab centers to be so ruinously expensive, we could develop more affordable and effective models of treatment. As it stands currently, most people cannot pay for a stay in rehab. Even if they can, it often takes more than one stay for it to work. Whitney herself was in and out of treatment several times and it never stuck. This is not to say that treatment doesn’t work; it’s more that it’s not able to be comprehensive enough. Most people cannot step out of their lives for more than 30 days and, if we’re talking about brain changes, 30 days isn’t nearly long enough (and some programs aren’t even that long). Consequently, treatment needs to be much more systemic and comprehensive. The community needs to be involved. Family members especially need to be included at a much greater level than joining a few meetings.

However, while it is very important, I don’t think treatment is where we should solely focus our efforts. After all, once you need treatment, the problem is already firmly established. Consequently, where I think we need to work more is prevention. We need to figure out what leads people to use excessively and then come up with ways to deal effectively with those triggers. We also need to create more awareness of what addiction is, how to recognize it and how to avoid it. Our current models of awareness and initiatives like our so-called “War on Drugs” just aren’t working. A more widespread model of mental health prevention could be helpful with that issue. Another thing we could is work on destigmatizing addiction so that people in need of help won’t be too ashamed to seek it. If we can catch the problem before it becomes too ingrained, we have a better chance of treating it successfully.

In short, we need to have a much longer and more in-depth national conversation about addiction and the ways to prevent and treat it. Addiction needs to be taken seriously and not be covered by the national news only when another famous person loses their life. They deserve more than that and so do we. Addiction affects us all, not only in the ruined lives of addicts but also in increased business and community costs (rising healthcare costs, lower productivity, higher need for police), the crime related to addiction (murder, drunk driving, theft, vandalism), the crowded prisons because of ineffective drug laws, and the negative impact of knowing and loving an addict.

During her life, Whitney Houston gave us some beautiful music and memorable artistic endeavors. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for her family and her legacy if her death gave us a meaningful push to start dealing with the problem of addiction? That would indeed be something worth singing about.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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