Which Rehab Did Amy Winehouse Say No To?

Trigger warning: addiction, eating disorders.

I should have gone to see Amy, the documentary about the late British singer Amy Winehouse, alone. Winehouse is my favorite artist – followed very closely by Beyoncé. Where Beyoncé inspires me and compels me to step fully into my Black girl brilliance, Winehouse lights a candle that shines a dull light on those cracks I try to cover up. Lyrically they both call me to respect my own truths: with Beyoncé, it’s the truths I want to share with the world; with Winehouse, it’s the truth of messy, raw emotions and demons that I’ve fought against silently. I need them both, for sure. But with the imperfect power of Winehouse’s voice, I am always moved in a way that Beyoncé only evokes sometimes. The connection I feel to Amy Winehouse is based on a sense of shared struggle that is so personal – and painfully intense – that I should have known that the camaraderie of friends, one of them I didn’t know very well, would be an intrusion during this outing. They wouldn’t be able to comfort me, not this time.

And for the record, it’s true that as I watched edited clips and testimonies of Winehouse’s life flash before me, I was plagued with a sense of sadness and an overwhelming anxiety as I anticipated the inevitable moment that framed her death. But I didn’t cry until the end, amazing given that I sometimes drop a tear in the car when one of her songs plays on my shuffle. I cried in the theater last summer mainly for the same reason I cried on July 23, 2011 – I wanted Amy to beat addiction. I wanted that for her more than anything, because it would give me hope that I could too. Re-watching coverage of her death, caused by alcohol poisoning, was devastating, even more so than it had been 4 years earlier. Amy Winehouse struggled with multiple addictions, but only a couple of them got the attention they deserved. I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that maybe she would still be here had the people who loved and cared for her took all of her addictions as seriously as they did her battle with drugs and alcohol.

For United States fans, Winehouse’s struggles with drugs and alcohol were a prominent part of her iconicity from the moment she burst on the scene with “Rehab” in 2006 (a song in which she melodically refuses treatment for her alcohol use). A highly publicized overdose in 2007 confirmed rumors that she was also using drugs, initiated by then husband, Blake. But the film revealed that alcohol and drugs weren’t Winehouse’s only vices. One of those things was her battle with bulimia. Footage of a teenaged Winehouse calling herself a “pig” during a meal and testimonies about her eating large amounts of food and then throwing it up were ominously placed in the documentary. But it was an issue that was precariously danced around. I’m not even sure that the word bulimia was used as much as it was merely suggested – an unfortunate ailment taking a backseat to more pressing concerns.

On the other hand, her tumultuous relationship with Blake was a focal point of the narrative in Amy. Framed as the shady character that introduced Winehouse to serious drugs like crack cocaine and stuck around for the financial stability and access that she was able to provide, Blake was just as unshakable as liquor was. According to their own accounts, Winehouse’s friends and family understood the levels of dysfunction in their relationship, the intensity of her attraction to him, and how they negatively affected her life and career. And even though they all considered how Winehouse’s life might improve if she was no longer emotionally attached to Blake, I don’t know if they recognized the deeper implications of their relationship. I don’t want to diagnose or impose labels on Winehouse or her relationship, but what if she, or her loved ones, understood this codependency as a symptom – as opposed to a cause – of deeper emotional issues? What other outcomes could have been possible if Blake and Amy’s relationship was considered as more than fanatical love and lustful wiles?

I don’t think that Amy Winehouse or those around her were willfully ignorant or neglectful of the impact of this combination of afflictions. Rather, I think that they could have been operating on a common assumption — especially toward women, who are oft assumed to be naturally obsessive about food and body image, and less in control of their emotions — that eating disorders and co-dependence aren’t addictions that can be just as dangerous and fatal as drugs and alcohol. For example, it’s possible that had Winehouse’s bulimia been treated, her body could have received more of the nutrients and strength it needed to tolerate the damage she was inflicting with drugs and alcohol. Or had she committed to having a healthier relationship, and considered that she may need help with co-dependence, she would have realized that she didn’t have to engage in harmful behaviors in order to connect with her partner. There are treatment and program options that address these issues and it breaks my heart to think that Winehouse wasn’t able to take advantage of them.

Western ideas, fueled by individualism and intellectual superiority, do not leave a lot of room to openly discuss or empathize with addictions that do not take the form of essentially poisonous substances. We should have the willpower to maintain a healthy relationship with food. We should be smart and strong enough to avoid dysfunctional and emotionally unhealthy relationships. But that’s not how addiction works. In the case of Amy Winehouse, her addiction to drugs and alcohol were fed and flamed by other addictions in a manner that was ultimately lethal.

I made a decision a few months after seeing Amy to get help for my addiction. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, I hope that you have the support you need to take them seriously and get help.

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Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

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