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?
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.