Dr. Drew on Amy Winehouse Doc: 'Help Destigmatize This Disease' (Guest Column)

amy wine hosue 2007
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Amy Winehouse performing on May 28, 2007.

"Although Amy Winehouse’s voice was indisputably unique, there was really nothing unusual about her addiction," writes the popular TV personality.

The Oscar-nominated documentary Amy takes an honest look at an incredible singing talent who was also suffering from a common chronic disease. Although Amy Winehouse’s voice was indisputably unique, there was really nothing unusual about her addiction. Like so many other addicts living in the glare of celebrity, Amy needed to be treated like everyone else. It’s easy to place celebrities on a pedestal and believe that their problem stems from the special circumstances of celebrity, therefore their treatment requires special handling, but through years of experience, I’ve learned the opposite is true.

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Contrary to what many believe, the white-hot light of fame wasn’t the problem for Amy, her disease was. This wonderful documentary heartbreakingly chronicles the missed opportunities for appropriate care for a young woman in the throes of severe psychiatric illness. Many addicts typically have adverse childhood experiences and trauma — for Amy, her parents’ divorce, feelings of paternal abandonment and lack of boundaries from her primary caretakers resulted in difficulty in regulated emotions, particularly negative emotions. Again, like so many that seek relief in drugs, meds or a bottle, addiction is the solution that becomes the problem.

There are no shortcuts to recovery. It takes time. The most common issue that I find sabotages a celebrity patient’s recovery is the desire to return to work prematurely. The patient loves his or her work; they make a lot of money for a lot of people so the pressures to return are huge. Musicians, in particular, often hire “sober companions,” too, so as to get back out on tour and keep working; this rarely results in success. In fact, what the patient should do is drop out, get the care he or she needs and focus on recovery for whatever time it takes. Unfortunately, the celebrity is often surrounded by an inner circle that is reluctant to confront the celebrity for fear of being kicked out of the privileged access to this special individual. And yet more treachery comes from celebrities seeking “special” caretakers or treatments. Again, what a celebrity needs is standard care. The standard of care is the standard for a reason: it is the best.

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Certainly recovery is difficult in front of the paparazzi, and it doesn’t feel good if shaming headlines are splashed across tabloids. But most impactful is a family and community who does not mandate or at least does not firmly encourage appropriate medical care for a patient with bulimia, a mood disturbance, severe polydrug addiction, generalized seizure disorder, cutting and sex/love addiction one way or another conceived confounding characterological pathology. The fact remains, she could likely have been effectively treated.

I’ve spent much of the last 30 years trying to get people to understand that addiction is a brain disease. It’s not about a lack of self-control or a weak will. Severe addiction is a fatal illness with a bleaker prognosis than most cancers. The disease itself affects our ability to judge situations and to prioritize — at its very darkest, it distorts our freedom as thinking, feeling human beings. Amy offers the clearest, most powerful portrait of the effects of addiction I’ve ever seen on film. I urge you to see Amy and help destigmatize this disease.

Dr. Drew Pinsky, a trusted health and wellness advocate, hosts HLN's Dr. Drew. He is a practicing physician, Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Board Certified in Addiction Medicine. Pinsky is also Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Keck USC School of Medicine.

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