The Strange Lessons of Whitney Houston's Addiction

Drugs turned a superstar into a joke. Only in death did she become a superstar again.

Drugs turned a superstar into a joke. Only in death did she become a superstar again.

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AP Images

Weird. I added that single-word sentence to a text I sent alerting someone about Whitney Houston's death Saturday night. I'm not sure why I thought it was weird. Drug addicts die for any reason or no reason at all, fairly frequently. And after Miss Houston had spoken of herself in the royal first-plural to Diane Sawyer in 2002—"We don't do crack"—and made it clear that she was either still using or just loony, it should have been plain that she was too far gone to ever be normal again. And still, her death was weird. Coming so many years after the height of her spectacle of crazy, Whitney Houston's demise felt like a weird afterthought to all the other weird.

Obituaries have referred to Houston as a "cautionary tale." For Jennifer Hudson or Beyoncé maybe—though Jay-Z is nothing like Bobby B. But are the rest of us in any position to profit from Houston's example? It's not like her life or lifestyle represents anything like what even most drug abusers experience: fortune and fame amplify everything. (I know the Twelve Step cant insists that all addicts are the same, but back in reality, that just isn't so.)

There is something both lopsided and inevitable in that the media and the entertainment industry that has been (understandably) ridiculing Houston's behavior for at least a decade—with an extra bright gold star to Maya Rudolph and Saturday Night Live—is now mourning her unapologetically. In fact, they are mourning her competitively, everyone trying to out-sad the commentator in the next swivel chair. But what else can anyone do? Mourn her ironically? Or not at all? Laugh at Being Bobby Brown and the fact that she forgot to pay the bill on her storage space for so long that finally the contents were auctioned off? Addicts are simultaneously tragic and hilarious. That's just how it is.

As the high-octave Mariah Carey and the high-drama Adele prove, big female voices, while relatively rare, do in fact come along every few years in the recording industry. We even ooh and aah over Christina Aguilera's ability to hit the notes. I have lost count of the number in my lifetime of young and pretty singers that have been excessively and insanely described as operatically trained or as if they were coloratura sopranos. Yes, Houston's gospel-choir background gave style and soul to The Voice. But Houston was unique for another reason: Her singing was brilliantly adult, but her mien was so young and just so lovely. She was a Seventeen cover girl—and it mattered that it wasn't Vogue, that she was dewy instead of drop-dead gorgeous, that she was beautiful in a pretty way that made you love her more. Houston's guileless perfection wasn't just part of her image; it was the whole thing. She was an American sweetheart, perfect for the "Star Spangled Banner," and it's true, no one has ever done it better.

The trouble for the public with Houston's drug addiction and all that occasioned it was that the thing that made her special—the beauty that seemed to run deep, that seemed to bespeak a genuine sweetness and innocence—turned into a crackhead ugly knowingness. Yes, it ruined her voice, but the real problem was that it ruined her.

Which is what drugs do.

When I was in the rehabilitative treatment center—what the AA Big Book calls the hopper and what's commonly known as rehab—the statistic that was thrown around was that one in 35 addicts will get and stay clean and sober. Since I haven't used for nearly 14 years, I shudder thinking about the other 34 people. But I've always been told that if you are careful and can get a consistent supply of heroin, like many old blues musicians, you can live to be a very old junkie. Alcohol is mean and ugly and leads to a lot of sleeping at the wheel, but with an accommodating family and an enabler or two, people find all kinds of ways to booze around for a lifetime of drunken hijinks and lowliness. Cocaine is too exhausting, so you either quit altogether or switch to something quieter. And, of course, there are the vast majority of drug addicts who in one way or another—in car accidents or not-accidents, by accidental and non-accidental overdose, or simply because they live badly—are killed by addiction. Often it's later rather than sooner. Houston is not weird at all.

And maybe this is a cautionary tale. But not in the way the eulogizers mean. It's a warning of how very alone we all are. That's not really news, but what is easy to forget is how close to the brink some of us are. Think of Houston by herself in a room at the Beverly Hilton in the moments before she died, having no idea she would be remembered so gloriously, because kind words about her have hardly been spoken publicly in years. As for the people close to her, maybe they were irresponsible, maybe they were sick of listening, maybe they were busy, maybe they didn't hear the phone ring, maybe they gave up long ago—and really, who could blame them? It's a terrible tragedy of life that a person only gets her due in death—and we all know that you can't be a guest at your own funeral.