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Amy Winehouse's Killers: Her Talent as Fierce as her Heartache

The Wall Street Journal, Jul, 27, 2011

Her addictions killed her. That was the consensus that quickly formed following the death of 27-year-old Amy Winehouse, the British soul singer whose body was discovered in her London home on Saturday. Autopsy results released Monday were inconclusive. But friends recall her drinking massive quantities of alcohol in the days leading up to her death.

"It was only a matter of time," said her devastated mother, Janis Winehouse, upon hearing the news. Her daughter's last five years had been soaked in vodka—and much more. There were canceled shows, hospitalizations, brief stints in rehab, and suspected domestic violence. In June, the star's European tour was discontinued after she staggered incoherently through a concert in Belgrade.

So few will be surprised if the coroner eventually rules Amy Winehouse's death to be alcohol or drug-related. But attributing her demise to addiction is a regrettable oversimplification of what went wrong.

The culture of stardom feeds erratic behavior. Managers insulate their famous (and profitable) clients from the consequences of their behavior and tolerate lapses for which the rest of us would be held accountable. As for Ms. Winehouse, her talent was as fierce as her heartache. She won five Grammys in 2008, three of them for Best New Artist, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year. A number of Ms. Winehouse's handlers reportedly did try to get her long-term professional help. But as a music critic for the Irish Times put it this weekend: "The music industry is predicated on a 'sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll' image and, artistically speaking, the more bruised and battered the star the more authentic and resonant the music is—or so the thinking goes." The tabloids obliged, trumpeting every outrageous step the talented musician took. And her fans loved it.

Massive substance use like this is almost always symptomatic of deeper and broader problems. It was no secret that Ms. Winehouse spent years in considerable psychic pain. She struggled with depression in her teens, reportedly suffered bouts of anorexia and bulimia, and was said to be excruciatingly shy. "The more insecure I felt, the more I'd drink," she said in 2007.

As her friend, British actor Russell Brand, observed in a tribute on his website: "The priority of any addict is to anesthetize the pain of living to ease the passage of the day with some purchased relief." The insight comes from personal experience: Mr. Brand went to rehab for heroin addiction and quit in 2002. He was then 27, the same age that Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix died.

The American actor Robert Downey Jr., once a poster boy for excess, summed up the desire to use in a different way: "It's like I have a loaded gun in my mouth and my finger's on the trigger, and I like the taste of gunmetal," he told a judge in 1999, in one of a series of drug-related arrests.

It seemed only a matter of time before he'd meet a horrible end. But in 2003 he entered rehab and decided to change his life. He imposed upon himself a regimen including voluntary random drug testing and 12-step meetings.

Messrs. Brand and Downey made a commitment to change themselves. Ms. Winehouse would not. "They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, 'No, no, no,'" she sang in her catchy, award-winning song "Rehab." It might have only been a matter of time before she said "yes." In the meantime, the singer danced on a razor's edge.

Four years ago, according to the British press, she suffered two overdoses after bingeing on a combination of crystal meth, heroin and cocaine. News stories reported prolonged seizure activity both times. Combine this jolt to the brain with the neurotoxicity from chronic use of alcohol and methamphetamine, and the capacity for self-control erodes even further.

This kind of vicious cycle can be interrupted with long-term care, but voluntary treatment is often not enough. Civil commitment or proper court-ordered care can keep self-destructive individuals protected long enough for them to figure out new lifestyle strategies and to treat psychiatric conditions, such as depression or bipolar illness, if present.

It is extremely arduous to train oneself to make better decisions and to manage—or, better yet, relinquish—the desire for the stimulation, oblivion and danger that drugs provide. But celebrities like Russell Brand and Robert Downey have done it—as have millions of other addicts. In academic circles, the dominant framework for understanding addiction is to look to the brain. "Could Neuroscience Have Helped Amy Winehouse?" asked a psychologist in Psychology Today. Yes, she said, invoking the possibility of a dopamine-boosting agent. "New research suggests [addiction] may be a brain problem that science can eventually solve."

Yes, her brain chemistry was certainly part of the picture. But reducing Amy Winehouse's tragedy to a case of substance abuse or neurobiological disruption distracts us from the deeper suffering that alcohol and drugs are so often intended to salve. Tackling it can be very difficult, but it's the key to salvation for others like her.