by Maxim W. Furek, MA, CADAC, ICADC
With stunning, glamorous looks and a voice that could soar with angels, she rose to fame. For a period of time she was America’s sweetheart, an individual with her feet planted firmly on the ground with solid faith and values. Whitney Houston’s life was a fairy tale come true. The international superstar won 22 American Music Awards, 30 Billboard Music Awards, and was a six-time Grammy winner. She sold more than 55 million records in the United States alone and made tens of millions of dollars with hits such as “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “How Will I Know?” She was the one who gave us that “searing, stunning” rendition of “I Will Always Love You.”
But that is not the way she will be remembered.
Around 2000, things began to come apart. Rumors of Houston’s drug abuse and erratic behavior swirled and the awards began to dwindle. African-American critics called her “Whitey Houston,” saying that she wasn’t “black enough.” The media reported her having a bisexual relationship with assistant Robyn Crawford (Browne, 2012). Houston would eventually enter several rehabs yet continued to abuse drugs. She was fired prior to a scheduled Oscar performance in 2000 as the public watched her continued fall.
In 2001 a sick-looking Whitney Houston approached the stage. She was thin and boney, weighing perhaps 97 pounds on a 5’7” frame. It was at the VH1 tribute concert for Michael Jackson. Her voice was strained and raspy, not the sweet, upbeat kid’s voice that nearly everyone fell in love with. She appeared “gaunt, unwell, anorexic” and “rumors spread that she had died the next day” (MSN.com, 2012). Supermarket tabloids exploited the star’s despair. WHITNEY’S DYING! IS SHE NEAR DEATH? They screamed, not out of concern and altruism, but to incite the masses lusting for more carnage. “I’m not sick. I’ve always been a thin girl,” Whitney retorted. She laughed at the charges. “Anorexia? No way,” she snapped.
During the infamous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer, Whitney Houston faced the TV cameras to talk about her new album, Just Whitney, but Sawyer wasn’t interested. Reiterating a tabloid headline, Sawyer rolled out the charges that Houston was in rehab for crack cocaine, that her habit cost her $730,000, and that she spent seven months living in her pajamas in a drug-induced state. Houston responded by asking to see the receipts. “I’m not addicted,” she said. “I have a bad habit.” It was a sad moment when a seemingly addled and impaired Houston responded to Sawyer’s tough, probing questions. Houston denied that she was addicted to crack: “First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Crack is cheap. I make too much money for me to ever smoke crack. Let’s get that straight, OK? I don’t do crack. I don’t do that. Crack is wack.” (Crugnale, 2012)
Steeped in denial and grandiosity, Houston spoke the distorted language of the addict. At that moment, the world saw her for what she was—a drug-addicted individual attempting to convince us otherwise. Things got worse. In 2007 her marriage to singer Bobby Brown ended. She staged scattered performances, some fair, some so bad that audiences walked out on her. She was called a “train wreck” and paralleled the sad misadventures of other members of an unfortunate group, including Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Anna Nicole Smith and Amy Winehouse.
Then, on February 11, 2012, the eve of the Grammy Awards, the not-so-unexpected tragedy struck. Houston was found submerged in the bathtub of her Beverly Hilton Hotel suite and paramedics unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate her. Houston died from drowning, but coroner’s officials said that heart disease and chronic cocaine use were contributing factors. The release of autopsy findings ended weeks of speculation about what killed the singer. Her drowning death was ruled as “accidental.” Several bottles of prescription medications were found in her hotel room, yet coroner’s officials determined they weren’t in excessive quantities. The toxicology report stated: “Cocaine and metabolites were identified and were contributory to the death. Marijuana, Xanax (alprazolam), Flexeril (cyclobenzaprine) and Benadryl (diphenhydramine) were identified but did not contribute to the death” (Oldenburg, 2012).
There was also some discussion about the form of cocaine that Houston was abusing. Crack cocaine is a dangerous central nervous system stimulant. The drug can cause heart attack, stroke, seizures or sudden death. Crack differs from powdered cocaine—a neutralized hydrochloride salt. Crack, processed from powdered cocaine, is the “freebase” form of the substance (NIDA, 2010). The process produces a rock crystal that, when smoked, creates intense feelings of euphoria. Although smoked crack enters the bloodstream rapidly, the high lasts only five to ten minutes and is followed by intense cravings. Whitney Houston demonstrated classic symptoms of cocaine addiction: malnutrition (caused by cocaine’s tendency to decrease appetite), problems with swallowing, hoarseness, irritability and irrational behaviors. Ultimately it was cocaine and Houston’s maladaptive lifestyle that caused both heart damage and death by overdose.
Although many mourned the loss of the lovely singer and appropriately expressed their love and sadness, others, reflecting anger and intolerance, castigated Houston’s memory with vitriol and suspicion.
Crime reporter Nancy Grace charged that Houston had been murdered. “I’d like to know who was around her, who, if anyone gave her drugs, following alcohol and drugs, and who let her slip, or pushed her, underneath that water?” Grace said on CNN. “Apparently no signs of force or trauma to the body. Who let Whitney Houston go under her water?” (Garcia, 2012). Houston’s family echoed the same inflammatory charge. Whitney had been killed! Interviewed on CNN’s Dr. Drew Pinsky show, Leolah Brown, Bobby Brown’s sister, accused Ray J, Houston’s boyfriend of being responsible for her death by providing the singer with cocaine. Pinsky “immediately noted that he could not verify the accuracy” of Brown’s accusation.
In his article titled “It’s sad when celebrity deaths are hot topics,” Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom observed that, like Pavlovian dogs, talk shows recruited “self-help authors or performers with drug experience, not because they cared about Whitney Houston, but because she was a hot topic” (Albom, 2012). Political commentator Bill O’Reilly was eager to provide “expert opinion” regarding the celebrity: “Whitney Houston killed herself . . . You don’t spend $100 million on (drugs) not wanting to kill yourself. So why aren’t we telling the truth to young people in America?” (O’Reilly, 2012).
Houston’s death took on political overtones. Calling Houston “a daughter of New Jersey” and a “cultural icon,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered U.S. and state flags flown at half-staff on all state government buildings. That tribute met with immediate Internet outrage from those demanding even more blood. The pervasive argument asked: “Why should a deceased drug addict be recognized instead of the military’s men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice?” But Christie questioned the logic that “because of her history of substance abuse that somehow she’s forfeited the good things that she did in her life” (Garcia, 2012).
The GOP presidential campaign used the superstar’s death as another polarizing sound bite. During a CNN interview earlier this year, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum contended that celebrities such as Houston are “the royalty of America,” setting a poor example by their drug use.
Clearly there was more to this story than social privilege and poor role modeling. Houston was an individual grappling with her own personal struggles. Underneath all of the glamor, glitz and acclaim, she was just like us— another human being searching for acceptance.
At Houston’s funeral, held at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, Kevin Costner, her co-star in The Bodyguard, said that the singer, despite her beauty and success, was insecure and yearned for approval. “It’s a tree we could all hang from—the unexplainable burden that comes with fame. Call it doubt. Call it fear. I’ve had mine, and I know the famous in the room have had theirs” (Moody, 2012).
Newsday opinion writer Anne Michaud summarized the issue without hesitation, observing that “what doesn’t kill women—or men—in abusive relationships, can cripple them for life. Think of Whitney Houston, recently dead of an assumed drug overdose, who became hooked on drugs during an allegedly abusive 15-year marriage. Abuse, drugs, self-loathing—they can be a toxic mix” (Michaud, 2012).
Inside Edition correspondent Jim Moret agreed. Speaking on The Doctors TV program Moret said, “The problem with celebrities is that they’re surrounded by enablers . . . if she’s drinking, as it appears she was, night after night, and often in the morning, and she’s being taken to the different clubs. Why? So these people can get comped on their bottle service and be seen with a celebrity. That’s the problem. I’ve talked with people who have treated celebrities, who pay doctors $50,000 a month, on retainer, to get whatever they want whenever they want, and that is a huge problem. Prescription drugs are a big issue, but add celebrity and alcohol to the mix and it’s lethal” (The Doctors, 2012). Moret’s position reflects an adage long heard in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, that “every addict has at least ten enablers surrounding them.” In this case, among the enablers were those who were able to benefit directly from Houston’s celebrity status, both financially and socially.
Maria Puente explained the disparity between rich and poor: “What actors, singers, athletes, even CEOs have that regular people might not have is more access to drugs, more time to indulge, more money to pay for the addiction, and often a horde of enabling hangers-on who are financially dependent on them and thus more motivated to supply substances for them” (Puente, 2012).
Addiction impacts on the rich and poor equally, yet the pathway to sobriety is somewhat different for celebrity addicts. They are stalked and scrutinized and examined 24 hours a day by relentless paparazzi and media. In a sense they have made a pact with the devil, trading anonymity for stardom and fame. They are not allowed to get clean and sober behind closed and private doors.
As we attempt to make sense of this tragedy, we are left with scores of unanswered questions. Was it Whitney’s fault and can we rightfully assign responsibility to one in the throes of addiction? Given her treatment history, was the treatment community at fault in any way, and, if so, where was the sacrosanct continuity of care, the proverbial safety net?
Whitney was the goose that laid the golden egg, and her salivating followers, greedy hands outstretched, knew it. But where were Whitney’s true friends? Where were those who should have confronted, intervened and supported her recovery? She was surrounded by hordes of sycophantic enablers, none of whom had her best interests at heart. Whitney Houston died of her own hand, yes, but she also died at the hands of those who worshipped her, used her and then ultimately abandoned her.
Unfortunately that is how she will be remembered.
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