A banner on AOL, a headline at People.com; TMZ pounced on it tout suite and before long the news was pinging, bouncing, trending and threading itself all over the place. Young, talented, troubled Amy Winehouse was dead. And as we regretfully acknowledged this untimely but unsurprising death, there was a queasy sense that on some level we’ve become inured to this whole thing, the repeated Death by Drugs & Alcohol scenario that’s played out time and time again over the years. We’re used to it. We expect it. We read the stories of rehab and DUIs and bad behavior slobbered all over hell and back and start counting the days until that banner pops up announcing the tragic end. We feel a pang of something sorrowful and human, Twitter lights up, we write tributes on Facebook, people gather at a Hollywood star if there is one, but the script has lost its gut-punch. There’s a casualness to our response, one tempered by the weary understanding that regardless of lessons that should have been learned, our cultural, cultlike attachment to the State of Altered States is a pull more powerful than life itself.
We’re willing to die for it. We’re willing to get in our cars and drive drunk. We’re willing to party like it’s 1999 and swallow designer drugs despite knowing little about them and what they may do to our particular bodies. We’ll shoot crap in our veins or throw it down our throats with reckless abandon and a little whiskey chaser. We’ll overdo pain meds, downers, uppers, in-betweeners; we’ll even pretend to have cancer so we can get that medical marijuana card and puff our way to blissful stupidity (yep…heard that story). We’ll lie, cheat, steal and get downright low to get high. We’ve got whole wars waging on behalf of its commerce, we’ve got uptown buying from downtown, and the line forming around our blocks gets longer every day. Anything, dear God, anything but to actually feel, actually experience, the state we’re actually in.
Why is that? When did we stop being able to endure Life As It Is without the panacea of drugs or alcohol? Why are we so incapable, intolerant or unwilling to deal…and take some pride in doing it clean? When did it become an epidemic, this need to be ANYWHERE BUT HERE?
Certainly the urge has existed from time immemorial and there were Huns, Visigoths, early Egyptians and probably a few Renaissance Men who fell victim to their own Meadian overdoing. Frankly, after watching The History Channel I have no idea how anyone got through those winters without a flagon or two! But the world has changed; the conditions and demands are different, our lives are buffered by comforts, medicines, enjoyments and even nutrition those earlier citizens did without. We have therapy and encounter groups, church counselors and trained mentors; AA, NA, and every other kind of A you can think of. We’re deeply educated on the insidious damage drugs and alcohol can inflict on our brains and bodies, our ability to function and feel authentic emotion, and we’ve seen enough destruction to logically be dissuaded from the love affair. But…no. Like that battered wife who can’t leave the abusive husband or the cult member who blindly embraces without question, our passion for Altered States supersedes all sense of survival and self-worth. It can beat the hell out of us on a daily basis and yet we’re still in, ready to come back for more.
And I’m not just talking about the falling down, car crashing, rehab recycling, life destroying, tabloid worthy addicts and abusers. I’m talking about that family member who can’t imagine a dinner, a celebration, hell, an evening, without enough wine to get mumble-tongued and incapable of remembering the table conversation. I’m talking about the band mate who insists on channeling Jim Morrison despite the fact that it’s been so done even the notion is an embarrassment. The friend who insists on buying rounds all night but can’t sit and enjoy a conversation because they’re too loaded to make sense. The high school kids who persist on getting precipitously high on Prom Night, or the parents of those same kids who slip fake IDs in their wallets so they can get their booze without bugging Mom and Dad. I’m talking about the college kids who are literally chomping at the bit to fight for their right to party till they puke. Whoopee. We pledge allegiance to the cult…
I was at a dinner party recently when the hostess began filling the requisite wine glass at my seating and I gently indicated, “No, thank you.” She looked at me with incredulity, followed quickly with a wink that presumed, “Oh, I see…you’re in the Program,” a tacit misunderstanding to which I replied out loud, “Thank you, I just don’t drink.” “Really? REALLY!?” she repeated. Really. This was so unsettling to her that later she again attempted to ply me as if hoping the passage of time since the hors d’oeuvres and salad had altered my thinking. It hadn’t. Finally, during the sipping sherry portion of the evening, she sat next to me as I enjoyed my Perrier and sincerely wanted to know how I could possibly enjoy a dinner party without the assistance of good wine. “I mean, it’s just so wonderful with dinner and of course a nice liqueur afterwards…I’m not sure why anyone but an alcoholic would make the choice not to,” she pleaded her case. I calmly explained that alcohol gave me migraines and therefore I’d simply decided to discontinue the indulgence. “My God…don’t you miss it?”
No. I don’t. Not to say a perfect Margarita on a hot day doesn’t sound fabulous or the bubbling sweetness of a good glass of Champagne wouldn’t be appealing, but I don’t miss it. Putting aside headaches and the calories I’m needfully avoiding, and despite the clear and persistent imperfection of my life, I don’t feel an urge to alter it by artificial means. Well, sometimes I do but I’ve decided that’s not an option. I’d rather be alert and present, able to remember in the morning what people said the night before; wits at the ready, no spinning rooms or pounding temples to wrestle with. I’d rather fully experience a moment than squint through blurry eyes pretending to catch the drift. And, frankly, I’ve come to take some personal pride in my ability to endure, to laugh, tell a good story, be engaged, or act as crazy as I want all by my little old uninebriated self. My mother used to say, “You don’t have to drink to have fun” and she’s right.
I can already hear some saying, “Oh, for God’s sake, some of us like the buzz. Some of us need it to get loose. And there’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine, a cold beer, a toke or two once in a while. Get off your high horse.” To which I’d reply: “You’re right, of course there isn’t and I swear there’s not a horse in sight, high or otherwise.” Honest to God, I get it. It’s fun to drink, I used to do it. Go for it, enjoy it, experience it with gusto. But we all understand that while there are many who enjoy and imbibe with considerate moderation, there are many others, way too many others, who do so to the point of stumbling, glassy-eyed intoxication …and on a regular basis. Some of them are my extended family. Some are friends. Others are people I work or collaborate with. Most are unaware of how obvious their Altered States are, deluded enough to think they’re fine when everything about them is off-kilter and discombobulated. They don’t realize how slurred their speech is or how odd their heightened and uncharacteristic emotional state has become. They don’t grasp how those not imbibing find little to enjoy about them in that state. Mostly they don’t accept how dangerous they are, to themselves or others.
As for drugs, well…how to explain that? Never a personal indulgence of mine but after years in rock and roll and still more with highly-strung folk of every stripe, I’ve witnessed its drama more than I’d like and it ain’t never pretty. For the casual user it comes with an excused partaking akin to the wine-with-dinner crowd. But for the abuser – the Amy Winehouse, Chris Farley, Michael Jackson, John Belushi, Our Family Doctor Who OD’d On His Lunch Break, My Cousin Who Won’t Stop Destroying Her Life types of the world – there’s either a deep, dark hole of pain and anguish that needs regular and repeated filling OR their self-indulgent compulsion to alter their state regardless of health or welfare trumps all other considerations, including survival. Pain or need. Stupidity or self-indulgence. Immediate gratification or self-destructive tendencies. Somehow any and all of these demand to be fed and, for some, compliance is at the risk of career and family, slavishly repeated through lives truncated by the physical, mental and emotional damage inflicted, ultimately leading to the edge of the cliff and right damn over.
We mourn Amy Winehouse – certainly her family and friends feel a deep loss – and yet I have to wonder, how did she get to that edge in the first place? There was a starting point, some point way back before Top-40 rehab ditties when it was still a dabble, still a changeable thing; when her Altered State was just nights here and there, moments out of many, before it became a permanent residence. Not sure why, but maybe they were too subtle back then for anyone to notice and intervene. Maybe everyone was all comfy living in those Altered States with her…
Those moments are happening right now for someone who’s taken to drinking way too many glasses of “dinner” wine or partying a little too often with things they shouldn’t. There’s another crash up ahead for someone; some family, some heartbroken parent, spouse, friend, sibling, cousin or collaborator. It’s coming, without a doubt, but we’re so used to the State of Altered States we don’t even know when to push the alarm button. It’s a cult we’ve accepted as a lifestyle and the Kool Aid being swallowed is literally killing us.
It’s folly to suggest any kind of formal temperance in a world as soaked in the culture of indulgence as ours. Look what happened during Prohibition and we don’t even have those cool suits and fedoras anymore! But as we witness continued destruction and watch as each younger generation marches unquestioningly toward the habit of attaching alcohol and/or drugs to most events in life, I will at least posit a challenge to parents. It is possible to raise a child, even in today’s culture, who can experience life without the need for Altered States. I know because I have one of those. And he has surrounded himself with others of those. Friends with whom he’s made a pact to stay sober and clean almost as a rebellion against cultural pressure and the lemming-like impulse of peers to overindulge without thought or question. These kids I’m talking about made this decision independent of parents (though, admittedly, example had some impact) and these kids are as cool as any: smart, good-looking, athletic, socially successful and highly motivated. They have as much or more fun than the indulgers and they do so with clear heads and authentic emotions…certainly they feel better in the morning! Somehow this particular group came into their adolescence whole enough of spirit and clear enough of purpose to find life palatable, endurable; enjoyable enough to live it sober. That may change over time; they may discover the allure of the buzz or the pleasure of that good glass of wine at some point, but even if and when they do, they will likely be fine. Because they have already determined the value and pride of sobriety, of solving their own problems, assuaging their own hurts, and enduring their inevitable disappointments, clear of mind. They’ve learned to thoroughly and fully enjoy life without the knee-jerk response of celebratory inebriation. It can be done. We can teach that to our children. In fact, we must…
Because as we watch another young, talented, troubled artist die from the effects of her drug and alcohol use, it behooves us to take a less casual look at our own attitudes and indulgences and how we blithely pass those on to our children. It may not be a cool discussion – I’ve had people roll their eyes and launch into how in Europe and South America people drink from the time they’re children and maybe if we didn’t restrict our own so much it wouldn’t be a problem, blah, blah, blah, and all I can say to all that is: this ain’t there and for whatever reason, too many of ours aren’t doing it well, verboten or otherwise. Seems worth some reflection, some adjustment. Because life can be hard, sorrows can be profound, inhibitions can limit, boredom can creep and cultural pressure can overwhelm. But to rely on or accept the use of drugs and alcohol to overcome or accommodate is too easily the road to the edge of that cliff. We may not be able stop those we don’t know from going over, but we can surely pay more attention and do everything we can to keep our own from ever getting close to the edge.
Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.