I’m gonna lose my baby /
So I always keep a bottle near
– Amy Winehouse, Rehab

It was Amy Winehouse’s birthday recently, she would’ve been thirty-four. Sadly, she passed away at the age of twenty-seven, after years of struggling with addictions, bulimia, and troubling interpersonal relationships.

As a child, her father was rarely around and, if the reports are accurate, wasn’t all that engaged when he was. There doesn’t seem to be any question that her mother, Janis, loved her and it sounds as if she did her best, but as she says in Amy, the Oscar award winning documentary, “I wasn’t strong enough to say to her, ‘Stop.”

Janis Winehouse’s experience of feeling totally overwhelmed by a spirited child is not uncommon. Kids often make parents face challenges that they can’t handle, and often parents don’t quite figure out how to be the particular brand of strong and wise adult their kid needs. Amy, like any child, needed guidance and support as well as unconditional love.

From her behaviour and her mother’s account of her childhood, it sounds like her mom and the other adults around her didn’t quite know how to provide her with it. This does not mean that the adults around her were bad, or that they didn’t care, it just means that they weren’t able to provide her with the boundaries she needed.

Broken Bonds and Addiction

There are very strong correlations between the lack of a secure bond with caregivers in childhood and future struggles with addiction. Citing the Adverse Childhood Experience Study, Johann Hari makes the point that, “child abuse is as likely to cause drug addiction as obesity is to cause heart disease” (Chasing the Scream p.160, italics mine).

I am not suggesting that Amy was abused as a child. However, it is likely that she experienced the inability of her mother and other adults to understand her and to provide her with safe, reliable boundaries as distressing.  It is likely that, even as a child, her way of seeking attention and guidance baffled or overwhelmed those who might have liked to have held and nurtured her.

Bigger, Stronger, Wiser, and Kind 

Like many bold, willful people, Amy pushed boundaries and went head-to-head with people, including or especially her parents. Though such boundary pushing is often quite destructive, and elicits an angry, baffled, or giving-up response from the adult being tested, there is meaning and even value in it.

Head-butting with parents and other adults is a way of demanding that they prove themselves as being “Bigger, Stronger, Wiser, and Kind”:

“The heart of secure attachment is when I know I have a parent who can be counted on to lovingly provide tenderness, comfort, guidance and protection every day.”  –  Manitoba Attachment Network

Comfort, Guide, and Protect

In our more empathic moments, we can read such behaviours as signs that a child, teen, or even struggling adult, is looking for proof that someone is strong and capable enough to put them first and to protect them from chaos and fear. Nothing is more distressing to a child (or adult) than the lack of a safe, reliable adult who can soothe them and help them make sense of the chaotic world they experience.

The irony is that acting out is usually just a way for people to figure out where the boundaries are. Or, to quote the Manitoba Attachment Network again:

“I [your teenager] need you to be firm and kind. When we butt heads, I am pushing the boundaries because I really don’t know where they are yet.”

It seems that Amy never figured out where the boundaries were or who would keep her safe, and because of that, she never managed to curb her self-destructive impulses for very long. She grew up from being a hard to handle teen, to being a woman who drank far too much, who got into several street fights, and who sang, with regret, about her infidelity.  My sense is that it didn’t need to be that way, but that the sort of help she would have needed to feel whole, didn’t come, or when it came, she didn’t take it.

Is Addiction Just another Bond?

“Maybe we shouldn’t even call it addiction, maybe we should call it bonding.” – Dr. Peter Cohen

Yet, Amy Winehouse was also an incredible vocalist who, when working with the Dap Kings and producer Mark Ronson, made Back To Black, an album which was startlingly harmonious. Its cohesiveness and unity is particularly notable when we consider the subject matter she croons about: drinking too much, broken heartedness, infidelity, and self-loathing. Back To Black is a record as dark, outstanding, and tightly produced as Amy’s trademark beehive hairdo. As far as I can tell, there is nothing in it that is out of place or ill fitting- it’s a cohesive whole representing the best of what a group of very talented people could create. 

The Flood Drowns (and Resusitates) the Sorrow

“Today’s flood of addiction is occurring because of our hyper-individualistic … society makes most people feel social[ly] or culturally isolated. … They find temporary relief in addiction … because [it] allows them to escape their feelings, to deaden their senses — and to experience an addictive lifestyle as a substitute for a full life.” (Chasing the Scream, p. 160)

Experience and training tells me Dr. Cohen is right: Addiction is about bonding, not will-power or morality.  For many, addiction provides a substitute for the illusive “full life” everyone inherently yearns for and not everyone gets a taste of. Human beings innately seek compassion, understanding, protection and guidance. When we feel those things are missing, we turn to drinking, drugs, gambling, shopping, or even Facebook as stop-gaps, as reliable ways to help us abide with the loneliness. 

The best of her music proves that Amy Winehouse was capable of connecting – of bonding – in productive and profound ways with people. In stark contrast is the fact that when those connections with others failed (or she failed them), she bonded with alcohol instead. We can see alcoholism as one “substitute” for the fulfilling relationships and sense of secure attachments with others that eluded her. 

After all,

The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection – Johann Hari

P.S. If you or someone you care about is struggling with addiction, please watch Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong. A client recommended it to me a while back, and I’ve been paying it forward ever since.

P.P.S. Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs can help us understand not only the root causes of addiction, but also gives us a better way to help ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities face it.