This Saturday, I learned via a six-word text message that legendary singer Whitney Houston had died. Staring at the glowing screen of my Droid phone, my eyes filled with tears for the family who truly loved her, for her fans that still adored her, and especially for her daughter Bobbi Kristina.
The news of Houston’s death immediately brought me back to the call I received fourteen years ago this month informing me of my younger sister’s untimely death from a heroin overdose. To those of us who have been personally touched by the disease of addiction, we know all too well what it is like to watch a person commit suicide on an installment plan. Every morning you wake up wondering if this is going to be the day that you get the call that your loved one is dead. And no matter how much you try to steel yourself against what often seems like an inevitable conclusion, you are never really prepared for the worst when it occurs.
It has been reported that the medical examiner’s office has conducted Houston’s autopsy and is holding off issuing a cause of death until the results of the toxicology report come in during the next four to six weeks. Even if her death ends up being from natural causes, it is almost certain to have been at least partially attributable to Houston’s decades of drug and alcohol abuse.
As the years went by Houston spiraled into addiction and chaos, her musical gift often eclipsed by her personal demons. In her now infamous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer, what had been whispered about for years in the entertainment industry was finally laid bare for of all of America to see. Houston’s defensive tirade, “Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let's get that straight. Okay? We don't do crack. We don't do that. Crack is wack,” stunned an audience who believed that her personal purity matched the one of her voice. And in one slip of a publicist’s hand, Houston’s well-crafted image as popular music’s princess was destroyed, replaced by one marred with drug and alcohol abuse, and relationship dysfunction.
In the ten years since that interview Houston strove to reignite her career and failed, despite her best efforts. Her struggles with cocaine and alcohol are well documented, as were her attempts at sober living and repeated relapses into active addiction. Many people couldn’t understand how a woman as beautiful and talented as Houston could throw away her career for drugs and a bad marriage. Why, why couldn’t Whitney get clean and stay clean?
Addiction is a chronic disease and needs to be treated as such. According to Caron, the nationally renowned drug and alcohol treatment center, relapse rates for addiction are in the range of 40 to 60 percent, similar to those of Type 1 diabetes and hypertension, two health issues that ravage the Black community with equal fervor. Addiction is a health issue that is known to affect African Americans at higher rates than other races. In a study done by The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, it was found that approximately 12% of the total African-American population in the United States have used illicit drugs, and that African Americans have a higher drug abuse or dependency rate than whites or Hispanics.
Admitting that you are powerless over your disease is the first step to getting sober. As a woman in recovery from alcoholism for the past 17 years, I know how hard it is to break through your denial and admit you have a problem. Lasting sobriety comes to those who are humble enough to admit complete and utter defeat at the hands of their drug of choice. It also requires a complete change in lifestyle and for an addict to stay away from people, places and things that can trigger a relapse.
Typically addicts come into recovery when they’ve “bottomed out” professionally or personally. But recovery is difficult to achieve for those with money and fame, with its constant hangers on and “yes” men. Addiction is one of those things in which wealth and prestige will work against your best interests. If a person continues to wield power and influence in the world despite their addiction, it’s very difficult to let go of their ego’s inflated belief that they are too strong, smart, rich, or powerful to really be an addict.
It’s not just the addict who is in denial…often their family members and friends are equally invested in pretending that everything is a-OK when that obviously isn’t the case. To be clear: I am NOT saying that Houston’s family was in denial, or that they didn’t love her or ever confront her on her addiction. What I’m saying is bigger than any individual or their family…it’s about our attitude towards addiction as a culture.
The reality is that we are in complete denial about an issue that affects a disproportionate number of our brothers and sisters. Black people don’t like to talk about addiction or its often co-morbid disease mental illness until someone is locked up or six feet under. And because of personal shame and family pride, there are too many of us careening towards destruction while wearing the mask of health.
Instead of celebrating Houston’s life with Facebook “likes” and Twitter musings, we should use her death as an impetus to confront the issue of addiction in our own lives. If there is someone you know who is caught in its throes, take a real stand and help them face it. Let me be clear: it’s not our job to get them sober…that’s their job. It is our responsibility however, to stop pretending that Uncle Joe’s daily marijuana habit is just a habit, or that Cousin Barbara’s nightly ménage with wine and Xanax is just her way of getting some sleep. The bottom line is that we need to get honest with ourselves about what’s really going on and stop doing whatever it is that may be enabling their illness
"The greatest love of all" isn't just “learning to love yourself"…it’s loving another person when they’re messy and inconvenient. It’s loving them enough to confront them on their addiction… even if they end up hating you for doing it.
Sil Lai Abrams is EBONY.com’s Relationship Expert and the author of No More Drama: 9 Simple Steps to Transforming a Breakdown into a Breakthrough and a board member of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Follow her on Twitter: @sil_lai and connect with her on Facebook.