Loving addicts, whether they’re Amy Winehouse or Betty Ford

In every discussion I’ve had about Amy Winehouse’s death, “saw it coming” seems to be the universal response, often communicated with cynicism and lack of grief. There even were a couple of websites running contests to predict her demise. On the other hand, people responded to Betty Ford’s death with nearly universal affection and admiration. Considering Proverbs says that the tongue can bring death or life, I wonder if pointing fingers at Winehouse not only fails to reflect the attitude of Christ, but also sends a message to the addicts in our lives.

Betty Ford and Amy Winehouse were addicts. Some addicts get sober like Ford, while others go into rehab but can’t stay sober, like Winehouse. Ford remained a recovering drug addict and alcoholic for 33 years until her death earlier this month. Whether she was using at the time of her death or not, Winehouse was an addict until the day she died. Addicts don’t stop being addicts. They remain in recovery.

For the former first lady and the popular singer it was impossible to deal with addiction in a private manner. Famous addicts become the butt of cynical jokes and endless public scrutiny. The sympathy or judgment from the public and constant exposure in the press has to be processed along with everything that goes with addiction and rehab.

bettyford2People cared about Ford and Winehouse and wanted them to stop poisoning their bodies. Ford’s family staged an intervention that worked. After she publicly admitted her addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol, she got clean and advocated to change public perceptions about addiction. She was instrumental in having it recognized as a disease and established the Betty Ford Center.

Winehouse wrote songs about her addiction. (“They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no no no…”) She did eventually enter rehab twice, but both times left before completing the program. While she had support, she also seemed to have people in her life influencing her to continue using.

Ford and Winehouse serve as reminders that addiction is a disease. In a moving tribute to Winehouse, recovering addict Russell Brand, a friend, wrote, “All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill.” I doubt that either of these women got up one day and decided it might be fun to become addicts.

Addiction is a creeping, insidious, devouring illness. It is full of lies. Each woman believed the lie that the behavior would end her pain because she legitimately needed relief and comfort. Recovery takes love and support, forgiveness and restoration on the part of friends and family. Even with support, walking through pain and waiting for relief is counterintuitive for people who use substances to feel better.

This sounds a lot like sin. My pastor is fond of saying that “everybody is a recovering somebody.” Winehouse and Ford became entangled in the sin of addiction. Both women needed deliverance and forgiveness and restoration. In I Peter 5:8, the enemy of our souls, the father of lies, is described as “a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.” As Christians we don’t want to participate in devouring, but in restoration. Amy Winehouse and Betty Ford were beloved by God. He didn’t want either of them devoured.

(Photo of Amy Winehouse courtesy of Rama/Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Betty Ford courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

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I find this extremely problematic.

Winehouse and Ford became entangled in the sin of addiction.

Addiction is no more a “sin” than cancer or diabetes. Attitudes that suggest that addiction is a sin rather than a disease lead to judgment against addicts—which makes them less likely to seek out help. 

We need to change the narrative about addiction in this country to the point where an addict going into rehab or an AA/NA program is seen in the same light as a cancer patient going into chemo. 

We wouldn’t dream of ridiculing or judging someone whose hair had fallen out from chemo or radiation treatment; our culture’s ridicule and judgment of high-profile addicts like Amy Winehouse when their addictions cause them to look like a wreck, give a bad concert, or lose a lot of weight is one of the reasons that addicts who aren’t rich and famous deny their addictions to themselves or others. 

They see us snickering at Amy Winehouse “behind her back,” so to speak, and they don’t want to be subjected to that same treatment by being out about the disease they’ve got and seeking treatment.

Addiction is the result of both sin and disease.  Both, not either or.  I agree that judgement does nothing to help them.  But to not acknowledge that addiction is the result of bad decisions (both by the person addicted and the people around them) is assume that addiction is deterministic.  Not everyone becomes addicted.  Addiction (in a somewhat similar way to cancer) would not exist without a fallen world.  

The biggest problem I think with getting more people involved in the recovery process is that addicts are hard to help.  They reject the idea that they need help.  By definition, addicts are more dependent on their addiction than on the people that are trying to help them.  Rich (or poor) addicts deny their addiction to themselves and others because they are addicted.  It is not because of ridicule or judgement.  Addicts are incapable of understanding their addiction.  Eventually some ‘hit bottom’ but that does not mean they are able to over come. 

It is ministry without a lot of returns.  Unfortunately the church, like most of the rest of US culture like ministries that ‘have bang for the buck’.  Addiction ministry will have more people that fail than succeed.  Most addiction will fail multiple times before they succeed.  They may never succeed.   Jesus does not evaluate on bang for buck.  Jesus evaluated on obedience.  If we are obedient, we will have more people that obediently serve those with addictions.

James, I realize that the word “sin” is a hot button for lots of people. It can be defined in a number of ways. I meant it as a “state of human nature in which the self is estranged from God.” 
If “the entire law and all the commandments” are encapsulated in “love your God with all your heart, mind, and soul and your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22) and “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) then every person on earth falls in the category of sinner and every behavior that counters this law of love is sin. Sin is a word that describes the condition of damaged souls and spirits. It is a word for behavior that reflects that condition. It’s not about breaking society’s rules, assigning blame, or stigmatizing people. I consider sin itself to be a disease of the soul. It is an insidious, destructive force that attaches itself to souls in various ways. Out of fear and pain people hoard money and possessions, strike out in anger, wrestle for power and control, boast, eat too much, drink too much, shop too much, use drugs, cut themselves, starve themselves, objectify the opposite sex, steal, lie, etc. etc. I don’t think the Bible places these behaviors in any sort of hierarchy. All these conditions need rehab. That is the attitude of mercy. Grace is all about rehab. We all need rehab in one way or another. That’s what I was trying to say.

Out of fear and pain people hoard money and possessions, strike out in anger, wrestle for power and control, boast, eat too much, drink too much, shop too much, use drugs, cut themselves, starve themselves, objectify the opposite sex, steal, lie, etc. etc.

Those aren’t the same thing as addiction, though. We don’t say that “out of fear and pain people have cancer,” or “out of fear and pain people contract malaria.” While we might understand those as results of the imperfection of nature, we would never suggest that they are moral faults on the part of the person who gets cancer or malaria, and we certainly wouldn’t engage in moral judgment against a person who has them. Addiction is a real disease like those diseases, a real medical condition like those real medical conditions—not a condition for which we use the metaphor of disease, like sin.

Like it or not, you are judging the acts you describe in that list, by describing them as sins, as things people choose to do. Addiction is not a choice. It is a condition that a person either has or doesn’t have. A person can choose not to engage in the acts or things they know they’re addicted to, but they can’t choose not to be an addict; I could get drunk continually for the next week, but the fact that I’d be able to sober up on day 8 without feeling an almost irresistible urge to get drunk again is a sign that I’m not an alcoholic, and couldn’t choose to be one.

To be sure, many of the things you list are also signs of other conditions for which we shouldn’t judge people—things like cutting oneself or anorexia are themselves conditions that are, if not in and of themselves medical or psychological conditions, signs of deeper-seated issues over which none of us is in any position to sit in judgment. But putting those things among sins like anger, boasting, and greed for power is just as inappropriate, I think, as putting addiction among them is.

But to not acknowledge that addiction is the result of bad decisions (both by the person addicted and the people around them) is assume that addiction is deterministic.  Not everyone becomes addicted.

One doesn’t become addicted to something. One either is an addict, or one isn’t. A strict lifelong teetotaler with an extremely strong genetic predisposition toward alcoholism might not know that they have the tendency towards alcoholism, because they’ve never tried it. However, that doesn’t mean any less that they have the disease of addiction within them. If that teetotaler, not knowing of his or her predisposition to alcoholism, decided one day to have a glass of beer with dinner—something that, in my opinion, is neither a sin nor a bad decision—that alcoholism would be likely to rear its head, and take this person to a place where they couldn’t control their behavior.

The fact that not everyone becomes addicted to a given substance is, in fact, more evidence that it’s a disease rather than a sin, because it places the onus for addiction not in the substance or in the choice to partake of the substance, but within the makeup of the individual. The fact that I can drink a beer and not have it spiral into a dangerous situation doesn’t say anything about my moral character; it says that I don’t have the disease of alcoholism, in the same way that my ability to eat an apple without having to check my insulin is a sign that I don’t have the disease of diabetes rather than a sign of my moral character.

I do agree, though, that the people around an addict can often be guilty of sin by enabling the addict or ignoring the problem, rather than confronting it; however, at the same time, as you mention, the addict ultimately has to want to treat their addiction in order to successfully start the recovery process, so there’s only so much the people around him or her can do.

Addiction (in a somewhat similar way to cancer) would not exist without a fallen world.  

I don’t disagree with this at all. It is a sign of the imperfection of the current world that addiction exists, just as with cancer or diabetes or any number of other diseases. But that doesn’t mean that those diseases are a sign of an individual’s sinfulness.

Ultimately I think we’re closer than this discussion would suggest; I agree that the church should be engaged in ministering to and helping those who suffer from addiction in working through and supporting the recovery process, whether or not it’s directly through the church. And it’s not a pretty process, nor will the people it brings into our doors consist entirely of those people that populate the pews of “respectable” churches. It’s likely to bring in broken people, people who are hurt and damaged and out of control over their own lives, people who will often face a long hard road with many setbacks to recovery.

But the ultimate aim of the church isn’t to be “respectable” or to have it easy—it’s to model God’s love for each and every person, no matter what diseases they suffer from. We should no more shy away from supporting our brothers and sisters who are recovering from addiction, than we should from supporting our brothers and sisters who are undergoing chemotherapy.

Yes,it is true that both of these women were addicts,but one survived and the other did not.Amy died at 27 while Betty Ford passed in her old age.
One needs to look at why this happened.Amy is now on the long list of popular musicians that have died early.Jimi Hendrix,Janis Joplin,John Bonham,Jim Morrison. All suffered from excessive substance abuse.
But what drove them into the extreme?
Betty Ford,like the above musicians was a rebel.She spoke out against her husbands political stance.This must have taken a toll on her.
Did she turn to substance abuse to deal with conflict? Luckily she had a
positive family to give support.
Many top top rock stars live a lifestyle where drugs are easy to get.Sometimes their managers keep them supplied with them.This keeps them on tour constantly so they can make more money and get rich.
They do not have the support factor that Betty Ford had.
Like a good doctor,you have to look for the root of the cause.
Very cool essay topic you have here!!!!!

Although this was a very well-intended article (as so many of the articles I’ve seen her passing), like so many of them I have read so far, it is missing a VERY important factor which led to her addiction.  Depending on your source, Amy was either Bi-Polar or Manic Depressive.  Either one of these conditions is treatable with medication.  Amy refused to take the medication that would have allowed her to lead a “normal” life… If you read about BPD, you’ll see she has all of the classic signs of the disorder.  A lot of people with BPD sadly end up taking their own lives… without treatement, they often turn to substances such as drugs and alcohol as their medication and way of escaping the pain that her mental illness caused her…  If she had only taken medication to help her condition, I believe she would definitely still be with us today… may she rest in peace.

“One doesn’t become addicted to something. One either is an addict, or one isn’t.”
I have to respectfully disagree with this statement to a point.  Yes, there are people who have a genetic predisposition to addiction and I do agree with this.  But there are some that do not and can still become addicts.  A lot of this has to do with their skill set and coping mechanisms.  I am a recovering addict.  When I was in my 20’s, I drank and partied a lot, but never struggled with addiction.  Addiction doesn’t always start after a week of drinking heavily….it’s a pattern over an extended period of time that results in a chemical change in the body.  After going through two serious car accidents, I was prescribed narcotics for legitimate pain for a period of over a year.  While I didn’t realize it at the time, the drugs were also numbing my emotional pain from being raped a couple of years before, and eventually I couldn’t tell the difference between the types of pain the drugs were treating.  By the time that I realized what was happening, I was addicted and taking 10 percocet at a time several times a day…not because of some “high” but because I had to keep increasing the dose over time to get the same relief and to stay out of withdrawal.  I did not have a genetic predisposition to addiction, but it was all about how I coped with what was unfolding in my life.  I think that scenario plays out a lot.  As I talk with women and hear their stories, it is much more common than we realize.  Another thing to understand is that people with mental illness are at a much higher risk of becoming addicts for the same reason….it’s the only way they know how to numb what is happening.

I agree that it is incredibly difficult to deal with addicts who are using because they are very good at manipulating, lying, and deflecting things…they will steal from you and have no conscience…they will do anything to get a fix.  I’ve been there and it is scary to think about some of the things I did.  But you are also right, that as the church we need to meet people where they are at rather than sit back in judgment.  We may not be able to help everyone and more people will relapse than succeed, but Jesus gave us the example of pursuing the one lost sheep and I am a testament to His grace and mercy and love and can sit here 7 years later clean and sober only because of it.

This is a great & interesting topic. I have read some very good points on all sides. I would say that while there is a metaphysical factor, there are also choices involved. If you discover you are an addict, you may choose to pick up that glass or pipe or cigarette or substance or what have you, or you may choose to walk away or call a friend or leave. If you have cancer you may choose to be positive & active, contemplate treatment, learn about your condition, or lay down & let it consume you. If you have diabetes you may monitor your diet and/or use insulin properly, or you may choose to ignore that there is a problem & partake in what may be normal for some but risky for yourself. Some afflicted people certainly do have it much harder than others, and everyone has varying degrees of support & resources. It is a sad thing when any struggle seems to be overwhelming for someone. Addiction is frequently one of those issues. I have experienced it personally, I know others who have, and I see from a further distance situations such as the one that prompted this discussion. It’s tough. It involves the physical body, the spiritual realm, the mental battle field and the emotional aspect, as well as the individual’s world and anyone included in it. It’s far from the only problem that is so all encompassing and is so rampant in this world. It’s ugly & brutal. It’s life on earth. It’s good to be aware of, discuss, and stand up & do something about it.

Thanks Jb I am a recovering Alcoholic and Christian and this article is RICHT ON!;)

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