I was sad to hear the news of Amy Winehouse's death. Sad that a life had been cut short so young. Sad that a raw and rare talent would not develop any further. Mostly sad for her grieving parents facing one of the worst pains a human can endure: outliving their child.
I had assumed that this response would be fairly universal, so in my naivety I was shocked to read comments, some from friends, implying that her death was deserved, self-inflicted, or that somehow because she was a celebrity and an addict, her death wasn't even a tragedy.
I find this lack of compassion very hard to understand. I can only make sense of it by putting it down to ignorance. Ignorance, thankfully, is curable. Here is a very short blog post* to make absolutely no difference to that ignorance because no-one will read it, but one which will make me feel a little better for having written it.
When a person becomes addicted to something, whether that is to a substance like alcohol or drugs, or a behaviour like gambling, sex or self harm, it is in simple terms, a coping strategy. A way of self-medicating against some kind of pain. It is not simply a case of someone choosing not to say no to something naughty but nice when they really ought to, like a greedy child who keeps eating too many sweets.
Let me help you to stand in the shoes of an addicted person. Imagine the thing in your life that brings you the most comfort and peace. The thing, behaviour or person in your life that helps to make things feel OK for a bit. That thing will necessarily be very precious to you. That is your coping strategy. If your strategy is harm free then you are blessed. Not everyone has access to those things though, and some of those things are not powerful enough to do any good for some people.
Now imagine or remember the most painful emotional thing you have ever experienced. Mix that feeling together with your greatest fear. Multiply it by maybe 10 (or more if you've lived a fairly charmed life) and then imagine it's a permanent feeling that won't go away.
What will you do to help make that feeling less horrible for you? I'm guessing you'll reach for that trusted thing, behaviour or person. I'm guessing that won't solve the problem but that it will bring you some comfort. It'll make the pain a little more bearable. It might numb that feeling a bit or help you to forget it for a while.
Now imagine that whenever you used that thing (hugged that person, bent that ear, read, listened, ran, whatever) you experienced some negative pay-off. It wasn't as bad as that awful feeling but it was still significant enough to be concerning or debilitating in a way that made your friends concerned about you.
So your friends tell you that you have to give up your special, comforting thing. You try because you know your friends are right, but the trouble is they don't understand how terrifying it is when that feeling comes back. That horrible pain that won't go away. They don't understand the courage that it takes to face that feeling is more than most people will have to muster in a lifetime, and that that courage has to be taken every time you say no to that comforting thing. Every time, you are having to be brave enough to face your most terrible fears and feelings, and there is no-one that can do it for you.
People spoke of Amy (and others like her) as having a choice to say no to her addiction. Some choices are harder than others. Yes, there is some weakness involved in not saying no, but do you judge the lamb in the jaws of the wolf for being weak? How many wolves have you had to fight?
I don't know what Amy or any other addict was numbing or hiding or self-medicating. Often the addict doesn't know themselves. We can be fairly sure though, that if we have never found ourselves needing to cut, shoot-up, gamble until we have nothing left or drink ourselves unconscious, then we have probably never felt the things that those people are afraid of facing.
To that, our response should be gratitude for our own blessed lives, sheer admiration for anyone who has the courage to say no to the comfort and yes to riding out the pain, and compassion for those who weren't brave or strong enough to make that 'choice', when we have never had to test our own courage that way.
Oddbabble: They tried to make her go to rehab but she wanted to concentrate more on working with children for the time being.
*It is of course not a comprehensive study on the complexities and variations of addiction, but rather an exercise in teaching compassion by seeing things from the inside through creative means.