Some of us understood too well what killed Whitney Houston
By Kate Moos
Kate Moos is executive producer, national news, for American Public Media.
Whitney Houston died at the age of 48 because, we surmise, she took too many prescription drugs, drank too much alcohol, and so passed out and slid underwater in the bath tub and drowned. It was an uncomely death for a power singer of such winsome looks and emotional range, regardless of how we feel about her very public and sordid path of self-destruction.
Houston used drugs because her brain told her to use drugs at a very basic and elemental level, prior to language, prior to will. Her brain told her that drugs would be better than love, better than food, better than sex. Better than a trip to Italy or a picnic on the beach, or a hug from her daughter, better than breath itself.
Your uncle in A.A., the woman in the cubicle next to you who started heroin at art school, the surgeon who pinched Fentanyl, and I know all about this. We know all about the obsession and the craving and the terrible shame and discouragement of relapse. But somehow, eventually, we got better. We found a way to string our days and weeks and finally months and years of abstinence together until they turned into sobriety. For today, we no longer experience the desire to drink or use. Tomorrow we start all over again. "Hang around for the miracle," is one of those well-worn recovery axioms that alternately cheer and irritate the faithful. Long-term sobriety is the miracle.
The day Whitney Houston died, I got a call in the afternoon from a friend I'll call M. In the 15 years since I've seen her, she's lived through periods of sobriety, stints in psych wards and years of relapse on alcohol and every street drug in the world. When I knew her in rehab she was beautiful, in her early 20s. She had some scars from various drug-induced mishaps. Things have always gone from bad to worse for M. It's like watching a skier fall down the mountain, her deathly descent slowed here and there but never halted for long. Several years ago, in the course of one of her calls, she told me she had married an over-the-road truck driver and lived in a two- story house with a picket fence circling the yard. She was happy and proud; she wanted me to share her happiness. In the same breath she confided that her husband was a jealous guy and put a gun to her head now and then. In an alcoholic's world, that can seem like a reasonable trade-off.
M. drunk-dials me maybe once a year and I'm never sure how much she remembers of our talks. I don't mind. In fact, I keep my land line in part so people like M. can find me. "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," she told me. "I had to jump off a second floor balcony, and broke both my feet to pieces." I didn't ask for details. Was it a drug deal, or some maniac on crank run amok? Whatever scenario led to the leap, it doesn't really matter.
M. had almost 12 months of sobriety two years ago, she says. She was the miracle at a local women's meeting, and then she met a man who was also in early recovery and after awhile they relapsed together. Now she's living on disability. Nothing in the sequence of M.'s life story seems to change, an observation that could be made of every alcoholic, and a fact she is perfectly aware of. M. says she's drinking less than before the accident, drinking only on weekends and in the same breath, she says "the only thing that will come of me drinking is an institution, jail, or death." It's another recovery line we both know so well, it comforts like a favorite old song.
The first step of 12 step recovery requires us to admit that we are powerless over alcohol and our lives have become unmanageable. Some of us figure out how to keep drinking for years while doing the first step only halfway. We admit we're powerless over alcohol, but not the unmanageability of our lives. "I'm an alcoholic!" I'd whimper, or sometimes roar, on my way to that night's blackout. I still believed my life was under control. Until one morning I woke up shivering and hung over and knew the jig was up. That was the day I agreed to go to rehab, where recovery began. I couldn't drink anymore, and I couldn't stop drinking.
M. and I met originally at Hazelden, the center for treatment and recovery in Center City, Minn. We were both assigned to a unit called Dia Linn, Gaelic for "God be with us." My arrival there was colored by the overhang of the past. My mother had gone to Dia Linn too, in 1957, decades before I got there. At that time it was Hazelden's first program for women, situated in a big old house in a suburb north of St. Paul. As a child I always heard the name as "Dale Lynn" and it made me think faintly of cowgirls and country singers and big western skies. I visited her there only once, a wild ride in the Chevy station wagon with my depressed father at the wheel and the entire complement of semi-hysterical kids, ranging in age from 4 to 16. On the way my father drove into and out of a ditch, losing control and miraculously regaining it, avoiding wholesale calamity but imbuing the memory with even deeper mystery and fear.
On our arrival, dad took the older kids to visit our mother and left us three youngest in a waiting room, dangling our skinny legs off overstuffed chairs, where a kind woman with perfect white hair told me I could eat as many of the pillow mints in the cut glass bowl on her desk as I wanted. I'd never received such an extravagant invitation so I popped them happily into my mouth by the handfuls until my older sister Martha dug me with an elbow and hissed. "She doesn't mean it! She's just being nice to you!" I saw my mother only briefly. She looked neither sick, as I'd been told she was, nor all that happy to see me. Now I can imagine everything pressing in on her that day.
I've come to admire my mother and find her noble, having had decades to work on our relationship and let understanding ripen. She helped lots of women sober up back in the '60s in our small town on the banks of the Mississippi River. After treatment, she was kooky and unpredictable, a much meaner person than the sad, drinking mother I faintly recall from earliest childhood. Sobriety for her, a middle-class housewife in the 1960s, was a tightrope act. She had to shoulder her way at first into the all-male A.A. group that met weekly above a downtown bar but became one of its local legends. She was a hero to the women she sponsored and her friends in the program. And she stayed sober until her death 25 years later. In moments of family upheaval, my mother would interrupt the mayhem and say, "Where there's life there's hope," a sunny assertion in the midst of madness that always reduced me to blind fury. But she was right.
M. and I talked for about a half hour. Our conversation was becoming circular and a bit maudlin. Some people in recovery would have told her to call back sober and hung up, as a matter of principle. But I didn't want to hang up on M. Every time she calls, I'm stunned that she's alive. I could be sitting at home too, with a tumbler of Jack Daniels sweating at my elbow, talking to the television. So I tell M. I love her, and that she can always reach out for recovery no matter what, when she's ready. I take her address and phone number and put a card in the mail. I want her to know she deserves to get better. I deserve it too, and so did Whitney Houston. But of the three of us, only two are still alive.