Just one more hit
As news of Amy Winehouse's death continues to receive extensive coverage in the press, I can't help but listen more carefully to her music. Her lyrics say it all: words typical of any addict looking for a way to justify their struggle.
In Winehouse's 2006 hit Rehab, she gives a clear image of how she feels about rehabilitation; it's a waste of her time, a threat to her pride and perhaps most significantly, she feels she can get over the "black" times without help. "There's nothing you can teach me," she croons.
In earlier centuries, addicts were simply considered weak-willed, immoral beings. This is a view that we've carried with us into the 21st century, yet slowly we are working towards changing this perception.
Addiction is considered a chronic disease identified as a malfunction in the biology of our brains. Addicts seek out reward or relief through substances such as alcohol, drugs and other actions such as sex or gambling. Though some substances, such as heroine, are physically addictive, addiction itself is experienced mostly psychologically.
Himself a recovering addict, Russell Brand has become an advocate of the disease, doing his part to break the stigma surrounding addiction. In a post on his website about Winehouse's death, Brand wrote, "All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill. We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care."
Renée Shearing, an occupational therapist who specialises in addiction and mental health, agrees. "I believe that there is far too little compassion and understanding for the pain many addicts experience and only a focus on the pain that they cause," she says.
"In most cases, addicts are individuals who have at some point in their life experienced some level of trauma, and they began using substances as a way of coping. Often it is the only thing they know to do in order to cope."
Denial seems a strong instinct in most addicts. Shearing says that it is "the disease that tells you that there is nothing wrong". And even if an addict may want to stop, the idea of doing so can be frightening as it is a way that they cope with life.
Sadly, the more an addict uses their drug of choice, the more their self-control is eroded, reducing their own ability to take decisive control of their problem. So, though we talk about needing the addict to make the decision to get better themselves, it's often not as simple as that. Even though Winehouse had been advised by friends, family and her record label to get help, she would have none of it initially. In 2008, her father told media that his daughter would die "a very slow and painful death" if she didn't do something about her addiction, yet even then, Winehouse wouldn't budge.
Families do need to set appropriate boundaries in response to their loved one's addictions, even if this means washing their hands of them. Honesty from loved ones about how the addict's actions are affecting them can also help shake them into reality.
Someone going through addiction needs to experience the negative consequences of their habit in order to be motivated to change. "The pain of using needs to exceed the pain of not using in order for change to happen," says Shearing.
She explains that families of addicts should also differentiate between support and "rescuing". This means that we have to let the addiction run its course to some extent, while also being there to assist when the addict asks for help. She suggests that professional help is the best kind.