‘Addiction Is Spiritual’

‘Addiction Is Spiritual’

LOST SOUL: Amy Winehouse in London on July 23, 2009, exactly two years before her death. (Photo by Shaun Curry/Newscom.)

This week, Amy Winehouse’s official cause of death was finally announced, three months after the singer was discovered dead in her London home on July 23. After initial autopsy results came back inconclusive, the coroner determined that Winehouse died from consuming an extreme amount of alcohol. According to test results, the 27-year-old singer’s blood alcohol level was five times the drunk-driving limit. Her doctor said the troubled star had resumed drinking in the days prior to her death, after a short-lived period of sobriety.

Besides being a talented artist, Winehouse was emblematic of the numerous celebrities today whose public battles with substance abuse are regularly in the headlines. By the end of her life, Winehouse’s struggles had stretched to the point of becoming fodder for jokes and riddles (“Q: What was Amy Winehouse’s biggest hit? A: Her last one!”). Sadly, our society has grown so accustom to addiction that we now laugh it off. But for those in its grips, it’s no joke.

We asked LaTonya Mason Summers, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based mental health therapist, to comment on the realities of drug and alcohol addiction and what we can do to help those affected by it.

UrbanFaith: After Amy Winehouse’s death, the Huffington Post featured a commentary by Rabbi Shais Taub which asked the question, “Was the World Powerless to Stop Amy Winehouse?” In other words, are there addictions so strong and pervasive that they’re beyond human understanding and control? How would you answer that?

LaTonya Mason Summers: The word choice is interesting here, and I agree: the “world” was powerless to stop Amy Winehouse. But it was the “world” that fueled Winehouse’s addictions. Not “world” in the sense of the “earth,” but “world” as defined by Winehouse’s frame of reference — the background, culture, and lifestyle out of which she lived. Addictions are strong, pervasive and hard to understand and control, but it’s even more difficult when one tries to stop addiction by their own strength and understanding. It is reported that Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning. Drug and alcohol abuse is a byproduct of something far deeper. Oftentimes, it’s a symptom of low self-esteem, unresolved trauma and abuse, rejection and abandonment, and mostly fear. We do a great disservice to addicted persons when we focus on their addictions and ignore the underlying problems.

We see so many celebrity drug and alcohol addicts today that our culture has almost grown cold and callous to it. For instance, before her death there was a website devoted solely to the question of “When will Amy Winehouse die?” We see celebrities such as Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan, Whitney Houston, and Charlie Sheen, and we make jokes about them. How does this affect our culture’s understanding of addiction?

When we have a culture entertained by reality TV shows, court and crime TV, and sensationalized Web broadcasting — not to mention today’s popular music — we can’t help but have a desensitized society. We are no longer afraid of or empathetic toward anyone or anything because we’ve been there and done that through TV and the media. So, why wouldn’t we have a “When will Amy Winehouse Die?” website?

Unfortunately, we live in a society that “dumbs down” addictions but tacitly gives a “thumbs up” to its portrayals. Remember when there used to be cautionary documentaries on drugs and alcohol, and on people who struggled with them? Now, we have reality shows that glorify dysfunctional behavior. No wonder we are ignorant. Understanding addictions is no longer newsworthy.

How do you counsel a person with a serious drug addiction? Where do you begin, and what kinds of things should family and friends understand as they’re trying to help that person?

I used to set up and run treatment programs for adolescent and adult substance abusers. I absolutely loved that line of work, but it was emotionally tough. After 11 years of doing it, I stepped away to work solely with mentally ill people. The public sees addicted persons as weak people who lack self-control and deserve every consequence they face. But can you imagine the level of shame, guilt, frustration, and hopelessness that those substance abusers felt by the time they got to me? Imagine having failed everyone, including yourself, family, friends, employers, and the legal system — not to mention God. I always started treatment by instilling hope and restoring the addicted person’s sense of worth. It was much easier to establish rapport, trust, and motivation that way.

God forbid I say this, but oftentimes the families were more sick than the addicts. In fact, family members would wind up on my couch before the addict would. Family work is important in substance-abuse treatment, because the family members can make recovery hard. They help too much. Their helping sometimes hurts the addict. When my patients had toxic families, I’d send my patient to a treatment program in another city or state so they could get better.

Over the summer, former NBA star Jalen Rose was sentenced to 20 days in jail for drunk driving. Some wondered if the treatment was overly harsh because he was a black celebrity, since others have gotten off easier. Do you think jail time is an effective way to steer people clear of destructive behavior involving alcohol and drugs?

In my experience working in the court system as an advocate for my clients, the courts made it worse. The punishment given rarely fit the crime. The probation officers were inconsistent. The judges sent mixed messages by punishing minor crimes with maximum sentences and vice versa. Jail time is punitive, and punishment does not work when the drug or alcohol use is secondary to something else. Addicts don’t mind punishment because they typically feel useless and worthless anyway. That kind of punishment affirms what they believe about themselves. However, I am not saying they should not suffer consequences for drunk driving, drug use, etc. I am saying that offering them rehab while they’re incarcerated might yield greater results.

What kinds of miracles have you seen in your work with people battling addictions?

LaTonya Mason Summers

Goodness, the stories I can tell. I’ve had a hand in imparting into the lives of addicted persons who are now pastors, business owners, and even addictions counselors. I had a 15-year-old girl whose parents brought her to me as a last resort. She had refused other counselors, and I assumed she would do the same with me. After I asked her parents to leave, the girl opened up to me like a book. (It wasn’t because of anything special that I said to her, but other professionals simply had failed to remove the parents.) The girl was a cocaine user and held me by her confidentiality rights, so I could not tell her parents. We made a pact that if she stopped using I would keep her secret. I cannot tell you the anxiety I had for weeks thinking something would go wrong. I collaborated with her physician to drug test her weekly to ensure the girl’s abstinence. After three months, her parents called thanking me for my help. The girl had returned to a healthy weight, her appetite had been restored, and her mood had improved. Today (four years later) she is a successful college student studying psychology.

Among the celebrity success stories that stand out are Robert Downey Jr.’s eventual victory over substance abuse. It only came after several stints in jail and a long, public battle. What kinds of things contribute to a successful road to recovery, and when do you know that someone is legitimately recovered?

My biggest weapon is instilling hope. I do this by challenging the addicted person’s mentality and perspective. I am a cognitive behaviorist, which means I help change the way people think. I do not know what works, as I have often thrown up my hands on clients who later recovered. Then I have lost clients whom I thought had arrived. All I really know is, pray hard in each session. I ask for God’s help. I ask Him to give me the words to say, and I hold on to Isaiah 50:1-7, believing I am called as a therapist.

I honestly don’t know when a person is legitimately recovered, as I believe it’s a lifelong process. Like those of us who are not addicted, we have our own lifelong battles — we try to stop lying, cheating, stealing, yelling, cursing, overeating — everyone has a Goliath they must face. And can any of us say we’ll ever arrive in this world? From my perspective, messing up is just as much part of the recovery process as getting it right is. And, if you get it right all the time, how do you know you’re recovered?

Is it possible to effectively treat addiction without addressing the spiritual aspects of the problem? 

Absolutely not! I’ve had to learn how to minister without saying “God” and “Jesus,” so that I can reach everyone. However, I know how to make others want what I have. I was mentored by a man who told me, “I may not be able to make a horse drink the water, but I should be able to make him thirsty.” And that’s the approach I take in therapy. I see myself as sowing seeds, believing someone will come behind me and water them, and eventually increase will come.

Addiction is spiritual. I believe an addict’s zealousness can be indicative of the great calling on his life. He just needs to move that zealousness away from destructive behavior to purposeful, life-giving behavior.

LaTonya Mason Summers is the founder and executive director of Life Skills Counseling and Consulting in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the cofounder of the NC Black Mental Health Professionals Alliance, which aims to educate African Americans about mental health issues and wellness.

The Inevitable Amy Winehouse

The Inevitable Amy Winehouse

FALLEN STAR: Amy Winehouse, dead at 27.

Amy Winehouse emerged on the pop-music scene not so much like a rising star as like a falling one.

In “Rehab,” the hit song from her 2006 breakthrough album, Back to Black, the singer let us know upfront what we were in for if we decided to become her fans—a maddening, chaotic, troubled ride. But her soulful and honest voice, and the potential we heard there, left us no choice but to listen, appreciate, and hope against hope that she would eventually shake her well-publicized demons and rise to the brilliant promise of her talent.

But it was not to be.

The report of the British singer’s death today at 27 was not unexpected, but it still jarred us, like the earthshaking blast of thunder that trails a violent lightning flash. On Twitter and Facebook, update after update expressed a sort of resigned shock. “I knew it was a matter of time,” wrote one commenter. “I’m surprised she lasted this long,” said another.

Another popular Winehouse song found the singer declaring, “You know that I’m no good.” Like “Rehab,” it was a prophetic moment of self-disclosure that felt like both a defiant proclamation and an eerie plea for help. The lyrics — “I cheated myself, like I knew I would” — resonated with many of us who, like the apostle Paul, struggle with the reality of our sinful natures.

“I do not understand what I do,” said Paul. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

For Amy Winehouse, the struggle was with drugs, alcohol, and bad relationships. For us, the addictions might be different, but we have felt the strain nonetheless.

There’s so much in Ms. Winehouse’s tragic story to explore. In some ways, her brief career was the most convincing anti-drug campaign to hit pop culture. Or, maybe everything that needs to be said was already said during her descent.

The initial reports said Winehouse’s cause of death was unexplained. But no explanation was really necessary.

This Week’s Pendulum

This Week’s Pendulum


1 U.S. POLITICS IS THE REPUBLICAN PARTY HOLDING AMERICA HOSTAGE?

So many headlines and news stories are focused on whether or not it is Rep. Weiner in the tweeted picture, the odds that Palin’s bus tour could “accidentally” end up in New Hampshire on the same day as Romney’s big announcement (the odds are 1,700 to 1 by the way) and former Sen. John Edward’s indictment, that our debt ceiling issue is being overlooked! The Treasury Department is saying the U.S. may begin defaulting as early as August 2. And while many people are confident that the U.S. will not miss payments, this fiasco certainly doesn’t reassure creditors of our financial stability. In fact, a lack of faith in the U.S. economy can result in another financial crisis. Even more concerning is why the limit hasn’t been raised yet: Republicans want the legislation to include measures to reduce spending (i.e. cut Medicare). On Friday, June 3, 2011, House Speaker John Boehner stated, “House Republicans met with the president, urged him to change course,and to work with us on our plan for new jobs and economic growth in our country.We hope he’ll take us up on our invitation.” If their “invitation” isn’t accepted, the Republican Party might just resort to putting a horse’s head in President Obama’s bed.

2 WORLD MUBARAK MAY BE EXECUTED FOR PROTESTER DEATHS

Last week, the Egyptian prosecutor’s office announces that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will go to trial in criminal court for injustices against the Egyptian people and deaths of protesters. On January 25, he allegedly orderd police to fire at protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Mubarak could be executed if found guilty.

3 ART TIM BURTON’S EXHIBIT IS A TWISTED FANTASY RIDE

Tim Burton, the eccentric filmmaker behind Alice and Wonderland, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissor Hands, opened his exhibit last week at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The exhibit takes a tour through Burton’s career comprised of 700 hundred mobiles, drawings, figurines and other pieces of art.  The exhibit even includes sketches from his days as an artist at Disney. For Burton fans (like myself), visiting this exhibit is a must! It will be at the LACMA through October 31.

4 MUSIC RIHANNA GETS REVENGE FOR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN NEW VIDEO ‘MAN DOWN’

Rihanna’s new video may cause controversy due to her very public history of domestic violence, but perhaps for her, it’s just therapy. In the video, Rihanna seems like an innocent girl going through her island neighborhood, talking with locals, and drinking coconut milk. But things go awry when she visits a steamy nightclub and the man that she dances with all night follows her into a dark alley and forces himself on her. Though the video has stirred plenty of controversy, thanks primarily to Rihanna’s sad history with men, it offers a valuable lesson. When we play with fire, our innocence can be quickly robbed.

 

5 EDUCATION PRAYER OUTLAWED AT SAN ANTONIO GRADUATION

Last week a federal judged that a high school graduation at edina Valley High School, in San Antonio, Texas, could not pray during the ceremony and could not use the words “invocation” or “benediction.” Americans United for Church and State, represented by Ayesha Kahn, counted this as a victory and Kahn stated that, “the district (had) been flouting the law for decades.”  Students were allowed talk about their faith in a speech but not allowed to say “amen,” God bless you,” or have the audience bow their heads.  I don’t know where the Christians were in this debate, but one hopes they will step up and express their concern and take a stand for the religious freedom of future matriculants.

6 MONEY STATE REVENUE REACHES SURPLUS, AND STILL NO PEACE

States across the country have unexpected surpluses from increased tax revenue, but still cannot settle on budgets. Pennsylvania alone expects to close the year with $500 million in surplus, while California received an unexpected $2.5 billion in tax revenue. States that have this additional revenue have found a new problem when settling the budget. Some have proposed that they should use the money toward areas that have been neglected due to budget cuts like education and social services. Others propose that states should save the revenue as cushion for an unpredictable economy. What do you think?

7 TECHNOLOGY MAKE A SECOND INCOME WITH IPHONE CAR RENTAL APP

GETAROUND may help you get some of your gas money back in this harsh economy. It’s a social car sharing service where you use the iPhone app to rent out your car to others in your neighborhood for a fee. The service provides hourly and daily rentals that a renter can search by car type. Depending on the condition and make of your car, you’ll be able to rent out your car for a more pricey fee. Expect to rent at anywhere from $5/hour for a ’98 Honda Civic to $50/hour for a Tesla Roadster. It’s a brilliant concept, so long as some heavy legal work is done to protect the renter. As a city dweller, I’d definitely give it a try.

8 TV DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL HIGHLIGHTS BLACK DIRECTORS

On Tuesday, June 28 at 8p(ET/PT), BURN:The Evolution of an American City will premiere on the Documentary Channel. The award-winning film is directed by Harold Jackson III and tells the story of the worst recorded race riot in American History: The Tulsa, Oklahoma, Race Riot of 1921. The conflict lasted for 16 hours with aerial attacks, mobs, and martial law. It left 10,000 residents homeless, 35 city blocks destroyed, and many dead. The Documentary Channel will feature the film as a part of its Black Documentary Cinema, which spotlights Black filmmakers the last Tuesday of each month.

   

 
9 MOVIES TARAJI P. HENSON PLAYS TOUGH-LOVE  GOLF COACH IN ‘FROM THE ROUGH’

From the looks of this preview, it will provide much of what you’d expect from the headline. A mixed group of boys from different backgrounds come together to find purpose in their lives through an unlikely golf coach. I doubt there will be any surprises from the story line, however, the film may capture a few surprising performances. I’d still give this film a view due to its potential to inspire and perhaps even steal our hearts like The Great Debaters.

 

10 CELEB MEET THE BLACK, 15-YEAR-OLD AMY WINEHOUSE

I’m not quite sure what image 15-year-old Dionne Bromfield is going for just yet, but with a voice like Billie Holliday and Amy Winehouse (the sober version), this girl is about to be a game-changer. Step back blue-eyed soul, here comes a sista from the UK that has a long career ahead of her. She released her debut album, Introducing Dionne Bromfield, in 2009 through Amy Winehouse’s record label. That album featured all cover songs. This year, Dionne is making her debut with original material. Her single, “Yeah Right,” released in January and was a hit in the UK.  It’s only a matter of time before she spreads like wildfire in the US. Check out her new web series, “Down with Dionne,” and her video for “Yeah Right” below!