I was saddened by the death of Whitney Houston. I watched the live telecast of her funeral on TV One and openly wept throughout most of it. As a daughter who knows the pain of burying a beloved mother, I wept for her daughter Bobbi Kristina. As a mother who never, ever wants to know the pain of burying a child, I wept for her mother, Cissy Houston. Kevin Costner’s moving eulogy made me wonder if he had been in love with Whitney when they made the film The Bodyguard. Watching the film on Lifetime, I noticed their palpable on-screen chemistry, and part of me wished that real-life Whitney and Kevin had enjoyed the fairytale romance that eluded Rachel and Frank in the film.
I’d mourned the loss of Whitney Houston – the beautiful woman in the gorgeous gowns whose voice was both powerful and effortless – long before her death. I couldn’t take Train Wreck Whitney, the Whitney of “Being Bobby Brown” and her bizarre 2003 interview with Wendy Williams. As Whitney’s voice diminished, Whitney seemed to diminish as well.
But as a woman who was married to an addict in recovery, who has family members in recovery and who has occasionally slipped down the wormhole of overuse myself, I have found some of the discussions of Whitney’s addictions and those of her ex-husband Bobby Brown more than a little ridiculous.
The recurring narrative about Whitney’s addiction goes something like this: Bobby got Whitney hooked on drugs. Whitney was self-medicating away her pain. Whitney battled her demons but in the end, she didn’t have the strength to conquer them. This narrative replays itself in story after story, but we have no idea whether or not it has anything to do with the reality of Whitney’s life.
I do believe some people use illegal drugs to treat undiagnosed mental illness or to deal with painful life experiences. I also believe that some people use because they just like to get high. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. A person might like to be high because it helps him or her deal with anxiety or depression. A person might also get high simply for the pleasure and enjoyment of getting high.
The pain narrative, when it applies, helps explain a lot about addicts and their behavior. Still, we can’t assume every single addict uses drugs to medicate away pain. All humans suffer pain in one form or another, at one time or another in our lives. Not all of us medicate – whether with alcohol, prescription drugs or illegal drugs – when we’re in pain. Some of us medicate for a while, and then stop. And some never stop. Addiction is a disease, but staying clean requires daily, sometimes hourly, effort. No amount of prayer, no amount of rehab, no amount of treatment can help a person stay clean if that person doesn’t choose to make the daily, sometimes hourly, effort to not use – and then get up and do the same thing all over again the following day.
Getting sober doesn’t automatically make a person better. If a person used to medicate away pain, he or she still may be in pain. Their undiagnosed mental illnesses may be worse without the drugs. Not using just means the person is no longer on drugs. The idea that Whitney would have magically transformed back into that beautiful, bright-eyed young woman with the clear voice if she had just managed to get and stay clean, though, is mere fantasy.
Take Bobby Brown as an example. Bobby reportedly has been clean and sober for years. Some reports claim he left his old family behind in order to do so. He has a girlfriend and more children. He’s back on tour with New Edition. Yet Bobby’s life is no crystal stair. He will forever be demonized as the man who ruined Whitney, regardless of what’s true.
We assume Whitney would still be alive and would have made a great comeback, if only she had managed stop using – but we don’t know. Since there’s no way to know, we can only treasure who and what Whitney Houston was, instead of mourning the loss of what might (and might not) have been.
All the speculation about Whitney’s life and death is unfair to the people who knew her and loved her the most. As fans, we should simply hold dear our memories of how Whitney Houston’s music moved and entertained us. Nothing else matters.