I've been staring at Amy Winehouse's signature for weeks. After reading the liner notes toLioness: Hidden Treasures
, Amy's third and final record, I wanted to know more about her. I wanted to get beyond the string of horrific photos, sad last performance videos and nasty "is anyone surprised she died?" commentary. I searched for an image of Amy's autograph and came across "love, Amy" somewhere in the vast Internet, and held onto it for safe keeping. Dealing with Amy's death was hard.
I will never know Amy. Like anyone else who appreciated her from a distance, I only knew Amy through her music. She struck me in the same way Liz Phair did -- she told stories without fluff or patheticism. She shared things women in pop music generally don't reveal in song: She was a cheater. She was lonely. She was not always strong, but she stood by her man. She drank. She smoked. She regretted a lot, but was also unabashedly fearless of being socially un-lady-like.
I was never much for "Rehab," but it served as the entry point to Back To Black, which, after only two or three listens, was added to my list of greatest albums of all time. What I did like about "Rehab" was, even as a mirror to Amy's real life, I found no irony in the lyrics. It was just a song written in the honesty of the moment by a person struggling with the decisions and judgements other people made about her lifestyle choices.
In a culture enamored with watching the free fall of human failure, there isn't much in the way of celebration when (or if) an addict makes the step toward recovery. Intervention would have nothing to dramatize if it was a show focused on actual recovery -- the glamor comes in the vomiting and screaming and tearing apart of families. The sensationalism comes from one person struggling to understand the cycle of their body, mind and heart and the substance that has come to speak for it.
When Amy was found dead in her apartment on July 23, 2011, it was one day after I silently celebrated my own fifth year anniversary of sobriety. I had made it beyond the "27 Club" -- not that that there is such a thing for average recovering addict -- but I also made it to 28, 29, 30, and 31. Amy did not.
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My heart ached for someone I didn't know. My heart ached for her and the way her addiction was treated, as if Amy's death was an "I told you so" moment for our pop culture-obsessed world. A death like Amy's was like an ultimate celebration of failure - it felt like the general attitude toward the situation was less of an "if" and more of a "when." If she had managed to come through her own addiction, would there have been a triumphant celebration of Amy's recovery? I don't think so.
In "For Amy," a piece written by Russell Brand about his friend's death, he said, "We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care."
More than that, we need to review the way society treats addicts, not as just addicts, but as people. Amy Winehouse's death wasn't a punch line -- it was a searing reminder that not all humans are perfect. Even if an addict has the support and resources needed to get the perceived care a rehabilitation program could provide, they also need something else: To be given a break.
Amy Winehouse was just like any other person who has lost a battle with addiction. Her death is a reminder that we can and should be kind to each other, even when we aren't able to understand why it is we do what we do to our own bodies.