Chasing Amy: Prohibition and the Infantilization of Addiction

Amy Winehouse was a sick young woman in desperate need of healing. Instead, we treated her like a misbehaving child. The result was another preventable overdose, and the loss of another remarkable talent. When will we learn?
Charles Shaw
27 July 2011

I did not know Amy Winehouse. I never met her, never heard any of her music, and was not a "fan." None of that seemed to matter when forming an opinion of her. What I did know about her was what I felt I was permitted to know, that she was a prodigious musical talent who, not surprisingly, had an even more prodigious penchant for substances, and her life was a 24-hour train wreck that was parsed out neatly in thoroughly unforgiving YouTube clips. 

This was pretty much the public face of Amy Winehouse that society obsessed over: the zoned out, stoned out girl with streaked mascara eyes, long stumbly bumbly legs, wild hair, an unabashed undoctored nose, and a mouth that was loud and defiant and unrepentant. Lost inside that societally-imposed archetype was a deeply sensitive being overwhelmed by her life, and thus, medicating her way through it.

This was the Amy Winehouse I did know, the Amy I didn't have to meet, because I had once been her. I knew this the first time I saw a video of her smoking crack in her Camden flat, shot clandestinely by someone she probably thought was a friend. There is a certain look addicts get who are in as deep as Amy was, or as I was back in my day. It's a combination of the thousand yard stare, and the Sicilian Look of Death, of total trauma, paralytic fear and rage, and of abject denial. 

It is the look of hopelessness that all addicts wear, a screaming neon sign for "Help!" which we, as a society, choose to ignore at face value, and instead, point at in condemnation. Don't be fooled, we haven't evolved as a society just because it's now politically correct, and rather profitable, to call addiction a "disease." Deep within us all, we as a society still castigate the addict as weak, immoral, lesser-than, bad

For reasons that have virtually nothing to do with public health or safety, the 50 year old US-led international War on Drugs has made certain substances illegal, thus creating the danger, insanity and violence of a Prohibition culture. And because of this culture, these substances, and anyone who touches them, are socially radioactive.

This is because, through Prohibition, we have criminalized addiction, and shoved (certain, but not all) drug users down into society's shadow class, relegating drug addicts and drug offenders to second class citizenry, with all the dehumanization that comes along with it. Once dehumanized, a certain Colonial attitude of infantilization is imposed upon them. Like children, the natives/addicts aren't capable of taking care of themselves, so we, their Betters, need to manage them. And the way our society "manages" addiction is to punish it. Prison, drug court, mandated rehab & psychiatric medication, homelessness, unemployability, loss of children, and generalized wide scale stigmatization and exclusion. 

On its face, this is madness. Do we punish someone who has cancer? Stomach ulcers? Migraine headaches? Bi Polar Illness? Impotency? So why do we punish addiction? From where does this despisment arise that in the wake of her apparent overdose has caused so many around the world to say, Amy Winehouse deserved to die! Deserved to die? Don't we reserve this sentiment for murderers and traitors? What does that say about the relative health and sanity of our society?

This attitude, and paradigm, has got to change if we are ever to get to a saner, more compassionate (and yes, potentially profitable) Post-Prohibition society. The first step, as Amy's friend, the British actor Russel Brand, wrote in the Guardian, is to end the criminalization of use: 

We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care. We need to look at the way our government funds rehabilitation. It is cheaper to rehabilitate an addict than to send them to prison, so criminalisation doesn't even make economic sense. Not all of us know someone with the incredible talent that Amy had but we all know drunks and junkies and they all need help and the help is out there. All they have to do is pick up the phone and make the call. Or not. Either way, there will be a phone call.

Addiction is not "a crime or a romantic affection," Brand concludes, "but a disease that will kill."

Let's speak frankly here. Prohibition is as guilty for the death of Amy Winehouse as her addiction. Because when Amy used drugs she wasn't just indulging, she was breaking the law. There's a huge social stigma behind breaking the law, and it usually means unwanted attention, fear, hiding and lying.

In The Exile Nation Project: An Oral History of the War on DrugsDr. Julie Holland, a psychatrist and emergency physician, explains that the hiding and lying of illegal and prohibited drug use leads to a pervasive feeling of shame, and that shame creates more of the intensely negative feelings and emotional states that lead to self-medication as a means of escape. This cycle is then reinfoirced over and over until it becomes hard-wired. 

"The way our drug policy is set up," she concludes, "it's turning us into addicts."

Now imagine the pressure borne down upon a celebrity of Amy Winehouse's stature, struggling with a very public addiction. How can anyone in her position find the peace and solace, or simply the space, necessary to heal? Addiction takes years to overcome, you can't just stuff someone in rehab for 30 days, and then send them back out on tour, and expect them to be cured. 

And here's the unspoken truth we know in our hearts. As a society, we certainly don't seem to mind over-indulgence. It's certainly ok to gorge oneself on an all-you-can-eat Vegas buffet, or internet porn, or credit cards, or Costco. But somehow, if we want to dull our pain and anxiety with non-approved stimulants and narcotics, or expand our consciousness with psychedelics, we're considered deviant, outside the norms. Yet, aren't these impulses all empirically the same? Aren't we, at our core, merely seeking to alter or transcend our state of consciousness?

What's emerging these days in response to the disciplinarian "disease model" of addiction and treatment is a new model that is neither strictly moral nor medical, one based upon an integrative or holistic understanding that encompasses mind, body and spirit, a Jungian view, one might say.

This new model, practiced by specialists like Julie Holland, Kenneth Alper, or Andrew Tatarsky, seems to be more of an amalgamation of biology, psychology, and cultural or societal influences. It deduces that the addictive process is an inherent coping mechanism that has gone out of balance.

These pioneers argue that what seems to prevent long term "rebalancing" is an institutional failure to understand or acknowledge the root causes of the imbalance. In other words, the "disease" model of addiction has scientists looking in the wrong place. The root causes of addiction are not just in genetics, or learned behavior, but also reside within the soul. 

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was the man who more than anyone else inspired the philosophy behind Alcoholics Anonymous. Jung viewed addiction as a spiritual ailment, what he called a "soul sickness," borne out of an emptiness that produced constant pain. Only by achieving a "spiritual awakening," which would reveal the root of one's pain and suffering, would one find a path to long term healing. This left the power of recovery in the hands of the addict, who had to seek out his or her deliverance.

Unfortunately, the other major influence in the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous was the militantly christian Oxford Group, who interpreted "spiritual awakening" as "find God." They removed the power from the addicts to heal themselves by first making them admit they were powerless, and then that only God could heal them, and that they had to "give up their will and their life to God" in order to stay sober. Rather than empowered, addicts were infantilized, and permanently handicapped.

Addiction--even the word itself--is a product of the modern era of industrialization, urbanization and advanced pharmaceutical technology. People decamped from the country to live in dirty, cramped, often violent cities rife with ethnic and religious conflict. They worked in miserable conditions inside mills and factories and slaughterhouses, stripped from the natural circadian rythms of the earth and thrust into a 24 hour Cartesian nightmare.

But one thing they did have was access to newly marketed high potency alkaloids in the form of tonics and other preparations that used powerful new drugs like heroin and cocaine to deal with the explosion of new neuroses that "civilization" was bringing to the world. Of course, all one need do it look at Jung's mentor, Sigmund Freud, whose perilous relationship with cocaine has forever left his body of work in doubt (have you ever wondered why he was so obsessed with sex, and mind you, this was back when the cocaine was pure, and not stepped on a hundred times).

This was a new kind of "drug problem" which led to the first global wave of prohibitionist sentiment around the Turn of the Century, eventually resulting in outright Prohibition. But the spiritual root of the problem, the pain that the potent alkaloid drug is medicating, is ancient, and has been with humanity since the beginning. In Jung's study of indigenous cultures, the shamans and medicine men he met along the way also knew of this "soul sickness," which they often treated with psychedelic plants such as peyote, iboga, and ayahuasca.

But unlike Jung, or the indigenous shamans, who believed this "soul sickness" could be purged, under Prohibition, addiction became a lifelong sentence. Under the dominant treatment paradigm in use today, an addict is always "recovering" and never "recovered." This is a psychological prison from which few escape. 

Orwellian irony, for sure, in light of the knowledge that for tens of thousands of years drugs have served to liberate. They liberate us from illness, from pain, and from the limited consciousness and awareness that is imposed upon us by our corporeal existence. Drugs are as natural to us as food, says Ronald K. Siegel, Professor of Psychiatry & Bio-behavioral Sciences at UCLA Medical Center in his ground-breaking book, Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances. 

History shows that we have always used drugs. In every age, in every part of the planet, people have pursued intoxication with plant drugs, alcohol, and mind-altering substances...almost every species of animal has engaged in the natural pursuit of intoxicants. This behavior has so much force and persistance that it functions like a drive, just like our drives of hunger, thirst, and sex. This "fourth drive" is a natural part of our biology, creating the irrepressible demand for drugs.

Siegel closes with a trenchant assessment of Prohibition: "In a sense, the war on drugs is a war against ourselves, a denial of our very nature."

Perhaps we still shove addicts into our collective shadow because we're afraid of addiction and we're afraid of losing control, and as a means of reinforcing control in ourselves, we project this fear onto those who we perceive as having lost control, and thus, are in violation of the social contract and deserving of punishment. We warehouse them so we don't have to look at them, and thus, dont have to look at ourselves.

Or maybe its because there are fewer and fewer groups of people left to populate the despised underclass necessary to make the current economic and political system function, so the system needs to keep making up reasons to discriminate against others.

Or maybe its because some so desperately want to lose control, but can't because they're afraid, or feel imprisoned by their lives. How much of the vitriol directed against Winehouse, or any other celebrity in the throes of a public addiction, is borne out of projected jealousy at what the public perceives as a glamorous, trouble free life, full of play time and irresponsibility? Can this be why formerly free-thinking Baby Boomers and Gen Xers claim to "grow up and get past" the desire to smoke pot or have psychedelic experiences? To only admit to "experimenting in their youth?" 

It's more of that infantilization, which has been used as a weapon in the politics of Prohibition. The War on Drugs was launched by Nixon in 1971 as a means of criminalizing the dominant youth social movements of the day, who all openly advocated drug use as part of their revolutionary platforms. Forty years later, this same kind of drug use, and the same kind of politics, are trivialized as dangerous dalliances of youth.

Consider the madness of a comment a reader once posted in an article I wrote about psychedelic medicine: Oh sure I tried acid once...back in college. I'd never take that stuff today, though, I don't want to go insane. I grew up like most adults and discovered single malt scotch. 

Prohibition turned the kinds of eye-opening, consciousness expanding initiatory rites of passage produced by psychedelic compounds, into crimes. Rituals of trancendance and altered states that have been a part of humanity for thousands of years were driven underground, ridiculed as primitive and dangerous, requiring monitoring and supervision. But if you take a good hard look at it, there's no empirical difference between a Bwiti initiation ceremony and a North Detroit rave. However, only one of them runs the risk of being raided by a heavily armed SWAT team. 

When the media went after Amy Winehouse for indulging her "fourth drive," it was in the same manner, and with the same tone, that parents and teachers go after naughty children. And while Hollywood and the tabloid leviathan that it spawned loves a good train wreck, what it loves more is a properly penitant and contrite former bad boy or girl, who cleans up their act, toes the line, and stays on message.

For Amy Winehouse, there was no relief, because she was unrepentant. Thus the media chased her, and chased her, and chased her, hoping to catch her and shame her, as the late jazz great Charlie Parker once put it, "in the midst of her disorientation."

This sentiment was best captured in the notably moralistic overtones of this tabloid-style post on the pop-culture site, Scallywag.

On one hand the media reveled in the attention of another session of bad behavior, her fans adored her no matter and even her local neighbors, who had last seen her go on a drug purchasing expedition did nothing or very little to address this woman’s kinetic descent into self mutilation. But what could anyone do when the perpetrator insists on derelict behavior?

One could almost argue, the real art that this young woman had created wasn’t necessarily the music she had created, but the strange and obscene performance art piece she called her daily life. One can only wonder what type of morbid fascination the public had watching this woman again and again sink into self oblivion. But that perhaps was part of the appeal and expectation that one has of their stars. The idea that it can ultimately lead to a kind of capricious public death, or martyrdom hardly registers until we see the dead woman’s casket being hauled down the street and the world suddenly turns around and grieves violently as the final curtains of this woman’s life, performance comes to a close.

A very bitter close indeed…

We can stop this from happening. When those who are suffering are finally viewed with the compassion they deserve, rather than with the derision they receive. And when there is no longer any profit to be gained from their immiseration, then we will have taken that final necessary step to break the nefarious back of Prohibition, and move us slowly along into a saner, more rational world, one that would have helped Amy Winehouse and millions like her, instead of recklessly chasing her into her own grave. 

Charles Shaw is Editor of the openDemocracy Drug Policy Forum, Author of Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality, and Director of The Exile Nation Project: An Oral History of the War on Drugs.  He is co-hosting the upcoming openDemocracy symposium, "After the War on Drugs: Envisioning a Post-Prohibition Society," scheduled for September 16-17, 2011 in London, UK. 



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