The Tragedy of Amy Winehouse

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Behind her sultry gaze lurks a troubled mind that many would have given anything to save. (Ross Kirton)

Behind her sultry gaze lurks a troubled mind that many would have given anything to save. (Ross Kirton)

They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said “No, no, no!”

When “Rehab” was released in 2006, it nigh instantaneously became the signature song associated with singer Amy Winehouse. It was the first single released from her second studio album, Back to Black. Nobody knew it at the time, but that album would come to define her career. Not only did it contain other smash hits such as the titular “Back to Black” and “Love Is a Losing Game,” but it was also one of the last albums she would release.

As it turned out, Amy Winehouse was destined to join the ill-fated “27 Club,” a nickname given to the oddly large pool of talented musicians who were lost in their prime. And while she did go to rehab in 2008, it is now difficult to wonder if the sentiments expressed in her hit single weren’t partially responsible for her fate.

Now, slightly less than a month before the four-year anniversary of her death, we would like to take a moment to celebrate the life of Amy Winehouse, and to question where things all went wrong. For just because her life and career have ended does not mean that she cannot continue to inspire us. We simply must remain open to the inspiration found in her story.

The Life of Amy Winehouse

Like many addicts and alcoholics, Amy Winehouse lived a colorful life before her addiction completely took hold. (Jake Chessum)

Like many addicts and alcoholics, Amy Winehouse lived a colorful life before her addiction completely took hold. (Jake Chessum)

Amy Winehouse was originally from London. Music runs in her family, as her uncles on her mother’s side played jazz for a living. Her father’s mother also sang, and her father used to serenade her with Sinatra tunes when she was young. This had a great impact on her when she was growing up, to the extent that she began studying music and dance when she was as young as nine years old. She even briefly showed an interest in rap music. There are rumors that she was expelled at the age of 14, although both her father and her headmistress at that time have stated that she simply changed schools.

Whether or not she was expelled at that age is irrelevant. What is now known, thanks to the new documentary Amy, is that she was already an extraordinary singer by that age. In fact, the entire first half of the documentary is reportedly aimed at showing how a young Amy Winehouse developed into the star that she would eventually become. In one segment, she can be seen singing “Happy Birthday” with a depth of skill that is simply out of this world for a young girl of just fourteen years.

Given her immense talent at such a young age, it is perhaps not too surprising that Amy Winehouse managed to sign with a record company when she was relatively unknown aside from a few live gigs which were performed on a regular basis. The record companies knew that they were onto something with the young talent, to the extent that they even tried to keep her existence a secret until they were able to sign her. She was young, attractive, entertaining, and her music was far removed from anything being put out by the average pop star.

By 2003, when she was still quite young, Amy Winehouse had released her first studio album. Entitled Frank, the album showed off her jazz roots. Her bluesy vocal style aside, the album also showed off her skills as a songwriter. Her lyrics, as well as the general tone which drove them, were lauded by critics as they compared her voice to the likes of Macy Gray. But it wasn’t comparisons to other artists that drove the success of Amy Winehouse. No, what allowed her to stand apart was the fact that she managed to sing with a classic jazz style that somehow brought out the true originality of the words she was singing. The studio had arguably taken a gamble by hiring such a young musician who was so different from the pop singers who regularly top the charts. Their gamble had paid off.

By the following year, Amy Winehouse was nominated for awards as Frank went platinum. She became known for the single “Stronger Than Me” that year, among others. Over the next couple of years, she would release the single for “Pumps,” as well as the aforementioned “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good,” the latter two of which showed up on the 2006 album Back to Black.

After Amy Winehouse released Back to Black, her career took off more than ever. She began touring more frequently, and she became especially well-known for her signature hairdo, a beehive-style weave inspired by girl groups of the 1960s such as the Ronettes. While some of her music began to take on its own style, she still honored her jazz roots through certain projects such as “It’s My Party” for the Quincy Jones tribute album. She was such a powerhouse in the music world that it wouldn’t have been outlandish to wonder what she was going to do next.

Unfortunately, there was to be no answer to that question. When we stated earlier that Back to Black was one of the last albums she released, that was somewhat misleading. Her last album was Lioness: Hidden Treasures, containing some original songs as well as classic covers such as “The Girl from Ipanema.” But this was not released until December 6, 2011, months after her death. Her career only lasted nine years, and she only released two studio albums if you don’t count her posthumous release. That may not sound like much, but if anything it should underscore how influential she truly was to have achieved such widespread success.

Her Struggles with Addiction

Like many addiction-related tragedies, the story of Amy Winehouse is filled with sudden ups and downs amidst a steady pattern of decline. (Dean Chalkley/NME/IPC Media)

Like many addiction-related tragedies, the story of Amy Winehouse is filled with sudden ups and downs amidst a steady pattern of decline. (Dean Chalkley/NME/IPC Media)

The year before she released “Rehab,” it had already become evident that Amy Winehouse was struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. Not only was she using quite heavily at that time, but she was beginning to demonstrate classic signs of addiction such as extreme and sudden weight loss. This culminated in her management team requesting for her to seek treatment at a rehabilitation facility. She would eventually change companies, but she was initially somewhat open to the idea. She reportedly asked her father what he thought about it, and he told her that he didn’t think she needed rehab but that it wouldn’t hurt for her to give it a shot.

According to the singer herself, she justified her drinking as the remnant of a troubled relationship, and left the rehab facility within a quarter of an hour. This story has upset her father through its portrayal in the documentary Amy, which he believes to misrepresent his side of things. From his perspective, she was a young girl who occasionally binged but did not drink every day. He did not see her habits as signs of alcoholism. He thought that it was just an example of kids being kids, and didn’t think that rehab was necessary at that time.

In 2006, the same year that “Rehab” was released, the star talent began to spin further out of control. She hit a fan square in the face for questioning her marriage, and she even turned her violence against her own husband during the same incident. In a later interview, she attributed the incident to her drinking. In her words: “When I’ve been on the booze recently, it’s turned me into a really nasty drunk.”

The next year saw even worse troubles for the singer. Not only was 2007 the year that Amy Winehouse and her husband were arrested and charged with drug possession in Norway, but she also had to call off some of her professional engagements when she overdosed on several drugs including alcohol, cocaine, ketamine, ecstasy and heroin. She stated in an interview that she thought she had reached her end, and she also admitted to the press that drugs were not the only problems she had been facing. She had also been battling depression, and had been hurting herself as well as succumbing to eating disorders. It became clear that Amy Winehouse was besieged not only by addiction, but by a number of co-occurring disorders as well.

In 2008, things started to come to a head. Amy Winehouse was found guilty of common assault, and spent the night in jail as a result. She was also suspected of possessing illegal narcotics, although nothing could be proven for certain. The worst part, however, was that both of these incidents took place after she had already entered rehab. People began to question whether or not her two-week treatment had done her any good. Her father, now more alert to the state of his daughter’s condition, tried to have her committed against her will. On top of all this, paparazzi claimed to have seen cuts on her major appendages, leading to suspicions that she may have reverted back to her previous tendencies of self-harm.

For a while, it looked like 2009 would not be as bad. While Amy Winehouse was accused of assault, she was ultimately found not guilty. However, she was then charged with assault again later that year when she allegedly tried to beat up a man who asked her to change seats as a result of her rowdy behavior during a performance for which she was in the audience. While her behavior seemed to indicate otherwise, she stated in 2010 that she was three years sober. Whether this is true or not, she certainly seemed healthier for a time.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Despite taking Librium (a medication common taken during detox to fend off alcohol withdrawal), she did not undergo therapy and suffered major periods of relapse. This ultimately led to her death due to alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011. Although she had reportedly stayed clean from drugs since 2008 as she had claimed the year before her death, her addiction found a new method of execution.

What We Can Learn from Her

To many, she was a star. But to at least two people, she was simply a daughter. (Dean Chalkley/NME/IPC Media)

To many, she was a star. But to at least two people, she was simply a loving daughter. (Dean Chalkley/NME/IPC Media)

Due to some of her legal issues, it is doubtless that there are those who think of Amy Winehouse as a reckless and abrasive personality. But to her mother and father, she was a smart, funny, and unique individual who was simply troubled by a disease that she could not control. If you look around the internet for articles from 2011 reporting on her death, or even articles on the documentary Amy (which releases this Friday, July 3), you will most likely find people in the comments section spouting the belief that she deserved to die for failing to control herself. But would they ever have the guts to say something so brazen to the family she left behind?

The death of Amy Winehouse, or of any addict or alcoholic for that matter, is a tragedy. And the most tragic of all circumstances is that no sense can truly be made of the ordeal. Blame cannot be placed. It is not a matter of identifying one thing that she could have done differently, or one person who could have helped her come to her senses before it was too late. If alcoholism or addiction were so simple, then they would certainly have been eradicated from the face of the planet back in the 1930s when Bill Wilson banded together a group of alcoholics in Akron, Ohio, for the sole purpose of helping each other overcome their common disease.

This is why Mitchell Winehouse, father of Amy Winehouse, has every right to be offended at the perceived implication that Amy makes him out to be a part of the problem. Did he enable her, when he said that she didn’t need rehab? Almost definitely. Should he have staged an intervention to fight the problem earlier on? Probably. But he knew not what his daughter was facing.

Every day, loving parents turn a blind eye to the plights of their children out of sheer hope that the signs of addiction are little more than a run of fun-loving behavior. They tell themselves that non-addicts and non-alcoholics are not immune from the occasional bender. His suggestion that she at least talk to the people at the rehab facility was more than some parents have done. And when he saw how truly out of control his daughter was, he tried to have her committed. That can’t be an easy decision for a father to make, and it’s regrettable that so many parents have to make the same heartbreaking decision every day. These parents are unsung heroes to their children, even if their children do not always appreciate it at the time.

The other major issue with the case of Amy Winehouse is that she appeared to suffer from a number of co-occurring disorders, but would not consent to therapy in the final years of her life. As a result, we may never truly know the extent of her troubles or how she might have been helped. Without proper treatment and a solid plan of recovery, abstinence from drugs is only a very small part of the equation.

The point is that Mitchell Winehouse cannot be completely blamed for his lack of understanding when it comes to addiction, nor can he be completely pardoned for potentially enabling her early on. Likewise, Amy Winehouse herself cannot be completely blamed nor pardoned for her lack of self-control. Addiction is a baffling disease. It pits the user against themselves. Amy Winehouse stated in 2010 that she had woken up one day in 2008 and simply didn’t wish to do drugs anymore.

Amy Winehouse once said that she was not alcoholic, but rather manic depressive. In the same sentence, she noted that her very statement had the sound of “an alcoholic in denial.” This sort of circular thinking is just one example of the toll that substance dependency takes on the mind. And while abstaining from drugs didn’t hurt her, the entire process of recovery must be undertaken if there is to be any hope of avoiding a tragic fate such as hers.

Amy Winehouse is just one of many creative and original individuals lost to the world as a result of the crippling disease of addiction. That’s why we’d like to remind you, less than a month before the four-year anniversary of her death, and mere days before the documentary tribute to her life is released in theaters, that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. If you think that you may have a problem, or that someone you love may be struggling, then we are here to help. Please don’t delay.

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