From The Times
August 31, 2007
Tough love or TLC?
Amy Winehouse’s father and father-in-law have clashed publicly over how to handle her drug addiction. Our correspondent examines how much parental influence matters and discovers that a child’s best protection is self-confidence
The biggest challenge when dealing with a drug addict is getting them to admit they have a problem. Blame, recrimination and what-ifs surround them as their loved ones search for solutions. Meanwhile, the individuals at the centre of it all often appear oblivious to the fuss, emotionally anaesthetised by the drugs and cocooned in their drama.
It is a cycle of events that will be sadly familiar to some, and this week the emotional turmoil that so many families experience had a very public airing. First, the parents of Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil went head-to-head in a radio phone-in on the subject of what to do about the ongoing Blake and Amy car crash. It was not just a clash of class – the Fielder-Civils are liberal, Middle England types, while Winehouse’s father, Mitch, is a straight-talking cabbie – it was also a collision of principles.
Mitch Winehouse thinks that the pair should take responsibility: “The only way out of this for them is to hit rock bottom . . . it’s their decision to make,” he said. The Fielder-Civils, on the other hand, were far more forgiving, conciliatory even. “We love [our son] very much and we urge him to come home,” they said. They also laid blame on outside factors, even recommending that Winehouse’s fans stop buying her records.
On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, accusations flew as to the cause of the actor Owen Wilson’s suicide attempt. Courtney Love, herself no stranger to the effects of drug abuse, blamed a third party for encouraging Wilson to embrace an excessive lifestyle. For ordinary parents at home, however, the far more pressing question is this: how do I stop this happening to my own child? Seeing one’s worst nightmare played out in the lives of young celebrities such as Blake and Amy – and recently Kate Moss and Pete Doherty – does nothing to placate the twin demons of parenthood, guilt and overprotectiveness. Who is right? The Fielder-Civils, with their come-back-all-is-forgiven approach; or gruff Mr Winehouse? Personally, I’m with Mr Winehouse. When I was 13 or 14 (the peak age for experimentation, according to Colleen Hart, project manager of Addaction), my father and I had a chat. He explained that I was very welcome to experiment with drugs, alcohol and cigarettes – as long as I understood that, if I got myself into trouble, he would most emphatically not bail me out. Perhaps I was just very impressionable, but it worked – in part, at least. I was well beyond my 18th birthday before I even got squiffy.
Hart, who has a lifetime’s experience in dealing with addicts and their families, is adamant that parents play a key part in how their children deal with the temptations of the modern world. “The hard part is establishing boundaries, while at the same time being supportive,” she says. “It is very important that parents open up and maintain dialogue with their child early on. ”
The move from primary to secondary school can often be a trigger, as the child is transferring from a small, familiar environment to a large, scary one, and insecurity lowers resistance to negative peer pressure. “A confident child is well equipped to resist,” says Hart. “Children who feel good about themselves rarely have serious problems with drugs.”
As to identifying signs of trouble, “look for the weakening of old, regular friendships in favour of newer, more undesirable friends,” she says. “Marked changes in appearance are also strong indicators.” No one following the career of Ms Winehouse would doubt that all those factors are present. Regarding the solution, there is magic cure, says Hart, it is down to the individual but parental involvement is key.
As to the rest, it is clear that the pair still have a way to go before resolving their problems: yesterday there were reports that Amy is contemplating having a baby with Blake. So in that respect, at least, the Fielder-Civils are right: the pair are in denial. There is only one thing worse than having a drug addict for a child – and that is having one as a parent.
Living with an addict
The year that I was born was the same year that my half-sister, Louise, began her life as a heroin addict. It was 1977 and she was 17. Just a few days ago she told me that she last took the drug in July (she injects). Since then, she said, she has kept to her methadone prescriptions. Of course I’m pleased for her, and I told her so. But I’m afraid that I’m pessimistic about the likelihood of her staying off heroin for long.
For three decades I’ve been a witness to Louise’s addiction and our mother’s anguished attempts to free her of it, until her death five years ago. Mum was almost as consumed by her unconditional imperative to revive Louise as Louise is by heroin.
Mum tried everything she could. That’s just what you do. You don’t waste time debating whether it’s tough love or loving tolerance that’s the best way to help your addict child – the only debate is which method to try after the one you’re trying now fails.
Theodore Dalrymple states that withdrawal is medically trivial – and in the grand scheme of physical misfortune, I suppose it is – but it appeared serious enough to me. Once, after pleading from Mum, Louise agreed to try going cold turkey again. Mum insisted that this time she try it at home where Mum could keep an eye on her. Louise turned up first thing in the morning. Mum made her strip and have a bath, ostensibly to make her comfortable, in reality to ensure she wasn’t concealing heroin. Then Louise went into the spare bedroom and Mum locked the door.
All day she was fine – if a little jittery, she said, a little cramped – and she ate the soup Mum gave her. I’m sure that she had sneaked in some drugs.
It was in the middle of the next night that the agonies began. Louise’s banshee screaming and desperate pleas for liberty woke me.
She was using a chair to try to beat down the door and outside that door, in the hall, Mum was standing sentinel, weeping again.
I know Louise fiercely loved Mum, and I believe that love for your parents has a psychological primacy. So the physical effects of heroin addiction and withdrawal must be pretty powerful if they can trump that love so consistently.
That cold turkey attempt ended soon after when Louise threw the chair through a window and screamed out into the street for help. Mum opened the door and she rushed out into the night.
What else did Mum try? She spent her father’s inheritance on rehabilitation centres in various countries. She tried to bribe Louise to stop. She cut Louise off and didn’t speak to her for two years. We all went on long holiday retreats in one-donkey Mediterranean islands and desolate Cumbrian villages. Louise always found a dealer somehow.
In London she became indebted to dealers, was arrested a few times, had terrible addict boyfriends – one of whom was a very successful car thief. She overdosed more than once, was detoxed, always survived.
It would be easy to hate my sister for what she did to my mother. Most painful to watch were the bouts of self-interrogation to which Mum subjected herself: how had she failed Louise? What had she deprived Louise of to make her so dead-set on wiping herself out?
Terrible in a crueller way were the tantalising periods of hope. The longest was when Louise stayed clean for 18 months – I’ve still got her Narcotics Anonymous key-rings – went to college, was worshipped by a dashing, intelligent, drug-free man. Mum was so happy. Louise seemed so proud.
She relapsed though, of course. My sister was a beautiful young woman, a glamorous punk when heroin was particularly chic. It’s disturbing to see this revival. It would have infuriated Mum. Louise was high at her funeral. She spent her small inheritance in months.
Why was Louise a heroin addict, and why not me? Well, she certainly had her problems; Mum had her when she was very young, perhaps too young to cope as well as she might have. Her father left after only a few months and died violently when Louise was 4. She idolised her lost dad and intensely resented my father when he entered her life.
I suspect that Louise resented me too: Mum was much better equipped to raise me than Louise, and I benefited. I suppose it’s no coincidence that her drug use started around the time I was born.
She had ample emotional grist to mill a lifetime’s self-pity – enough for a platform upon which to build that life as a drug addict. But I never wondered too much – for me it was always about getting through the latest crisis with the minimum damage.
When I saw her last week it was for the first time in four years – I can’t satisfy her demands for money and I’m scared to let her into my life, close to my children. She has stolen from me so often before.
She has taken heroin since I was born, so I’ve never known Louise untainted. I’ve seen photographs of course: she was apparently a lovely, intelligent young girl. I wish I’d met her then.
— James Mackie
It’s not easy to get addicted – and withdrawal symptoms are medically trivial
Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil are the victims, not of an illness, but of a myth: the almost universally accepted myth that they are suffering from an illness rather than from a bad choice about how to live.
This is dangerous, because it encourages them and others like them to believe that there is something technical that someone can do either to them or for them that will alter their behavior, and that until this something is done they have no alternative but to continue.
The mythology around heroin addiction is complex and in every particular false. It is not only false, but obviously false, and maintained by grossly misleading films such as Trainspotting (pictured).
It is not easy to become addicted to heroin. Most addicts take the drug intermittently for months before taking it regularly. Furthermore, most of them are not naïve or ignorant about the drug when they start to take it: the heroin way of life attracts them. They are not hooked by heroin; rather, they hook heroin.
Withdrawal symptoms are medically trivial, as all the textbooks will tell you, unlike those, say, from alcohol or barbiturates. They last a few days at most and consist of flu-like symptoms of the type that no one can pass through life without experiencing. The withdrawing person may have diarrhoea, abdominal and muscular cramps, may feel restless, yawn, have watering eyes and a runny nose, and so forth, or may experience nothing at all.
Experiments have shown first that a large part of the suffering from withdrawal is anticipatory anxiety and, second, that addicts are inclined to exaggerate their symptomatology to doctors in order to obtain medication.
The problem is largely a psychological one, which is worsened, and even created, by the whole apparatus of supposed care that now surrounds heroin addiction. The desire to avoid the symptoms of withdrawal, even at their very worst, could not possibly explain the bad behaviour of addicts that extends over many years: a proof being that it is perfectly possible to be a heroin addict without behaving badly and while conducting an otherwise normal life.
In any case, it is not true that criminal behaviour is caused by heroin addiction. On the contrary, in so far as there is a causative relationship between crime and addiction, it is that a tendency to criminality causes addiction, not the other way around.
The great majority of addicts who end up in prison have long criminal records before they ever took heroin, so their criminality cannot be accounted for by their addiction. And this is a finding that dates back many years.
It is dangerous nonsense to suggest that people cannot give up heroin, or any other opiate, without medical assistance. Thousands of American soldiers returning from Vietnam, where they addicted themselves to heroin, did so; and Mao Zedong was the greatest drug therapist in history. He got at least 20 million people off opium by threatening, ultimately, to shoot them if they did not stop. When Mao threatened to shoot someone, it was usually a credible threat, so those millions stopped.
It would not have made sense to threaten to shoot people suffering from, say, rheumatoid arthritis, if they did not get better. This suggests that there is a conceptual difference between addiction to opiates and real illness.
A recent outbreak of fentanyl poisoning among heroin addicts in Midwest America (fentanyl is an opiate many times stronger than heroin), that has killed hundreds, has been explained by the fact that the “rush” that fentanyl gives them is so strong: that is to say, they like it very much. It is a question why so many people are so attracted to a fool’s paradise, but it is not a medical question, nor does it have a medical answer.
Why do people persist in believing obvious nonsense about heroin and opiate addiction? I think it is because of an extremely strong literary tradition, starting with two English romantics in the first part of the 19th century, Coleridge and De Quincey. Both were first-class self-dramatisers and self-pitiers, and their accounts of the pleasures and pains of opium have been accepted uncritically ever since, and reproduced down to Trainspotting and beyond. So Winehouse and Fielder-Civil are, in the last analysis, victims of Coleridge and De Quincey.
— Theodore Dalrymple