It’s been five years since Amy Winehouse died, and saved my life

Steve Topple

IN MY VIEW

Amy Winehouse died five years ago this week, on 23 July 2011 at her home in Camden, north London. She also saved my life.

The initial coroner’s report recorded a verdict of death by misadventure. It was subsequently confirmed in a second inquest, on 8 January 2013, that the cause of death was alcohol toxicity – with the coroner stating the levels of alcohol in her blood (five-times the drink-drive limit) were normally associated with a fatality.

I’m going to break with journalistic guidelines, here. You see, it’s advised that when writing you always refer to a person by their full name the first time you mention them, but thereafter only by their surname. I don’t want to do that. I find that preferred standard cold and detached. Almost clinical. So, she’s going to be “Amy”.

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The 1997 song “Angel” could’ve been about her.

Sarah McLachlan actually wrote it about the prevalence of drug addiction in the music industry. It’s composed from the addict’s viewpoint, voicing why they abuse a substance, or the “angel” as it’s referred to in the song. It is a devastatingly accurate depiction of reality – even though McLachlan wasn’t an addict herself.

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There’s always some reason to feel not good enough

Amy was an alcoholic and a drug addict, who also lived with mental health issues and bulimia.

She was struggling with her addiction to alcohol from around 2005/06, and had an intermittent battle with drugs. Her GP, Dr Christina Romete, said that she “fell into a pattern of abstaining from drink for a few weeks, then lapsing”. Amy was under the care of a psychologist and a psychiatrist, but Romete alluded to the fact that Amy didn’t want any sort of therapy.

Her addictions led to a very turbulent life. Public relapses, alleged violence between her and her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, problems with her record label, the cancellation of concerts and, most upsettingly, an ill-fated performance in Belgrade.

I’m an alcoholic who lives with mental health issues.

I’ve been struggling to deal with it for over a decade, now – but while I’ve used class A drugs in the past, I’ve never become addicted to them. My GP considers me a “high-functioning alcoholic”; that is, I was capable of pouring around two bottles of vodka and more down my neck a day and still run a hotel (my job before becoming a journalist).

My addiction has led to a very turbulent life. I’ve been bankrupt, had my house repossessed, had to turn my back on a good career, been sectioned under the Mental Capacity Act, seen the breakdown of a 12-year relationship and lost many friends along the way.

While our stories are extremely different, there’s one unifying aspect in both mine and Amy’s.

I need some distraction, oh – a beautiful release; memories seep from my veins.

We both abused substances and became addicted for the same, basest of reasons.

You are pulled from the wreckage of your silent reverie

Most addicts drink or take drugs because they are trying to escape from something. There’s always an underlying feeling; a torment; a profound sadness and wrench in your gut that just cannot be tamed. It is, as McLachlan says – a “silent reverie”.

I imagine the majority of people, if asked, would probably say that they all have demons that haunt them. But most people don’t have to throw a substance into their bodies in excess to keep those demons at bay. They would probably say they just “get on with it”.

If you have an addictive personality, it’s different. In your desperate clamour to gather enough inner peace just to carry on with your life, you find yourself “in the arms of the angel”.

That “angel” in my case is alcohol. I can trace the finding of my “angel” back to when I was 14; bullied and ostracised at school, lonely, a problematic family life, socially anxious and with rock-bottom self-esteem, I found alcohol – and it immediately gave me the release I craved from these demons that shadowed me. It “pulled me from the wreckage”.

Amy’s story appeared more multifaceted. From the onset of one “angel”, bulimia, when she was around 14 (and already on antidepressants) through her battle with drugs – it seems that alcohol was the constant throughout her life. Her reasons? Her parent’s divorce, depression, the pressure of fame, rock-bottom self-esteem – these can be speculated, but not confirmed.

But both mine and her logic behind grasping at something for a release is undoubtedly the same.

Let me be empty and weightless, and maybe I’ll find some peace, tonight.

It’s a peace that, to begin with, you find. But it quickly manifests into something far darker, more menacing and sinister.

The storm keeps on twisting; you keep on building the lies that you make up for all that you lack

A GP once told me that he considered alcohol to be the most devastating addiction in terms of people’s lives; more so than even heroin. The negative physical effects of the latter are generally worse, and the likelihood of overdosing, contracting an illness or dying during withdrawal are greater.

But with alcohol there is never any escape from it – because it is ingrained in society’s mind-set.

You don’t walk around a supermarket and see tabs of smack on a “buy three for £20” offer; the factory girls from “Underworld” in Coronation Street don’t go into the Rovers every night to jack-up. Your mates don’t ask you round for a barbecue on the condition you bring 5g of skag.

It’s why recovery is so bloody hard, and why many people don’t make it. Like Amy.

It don’t make no difference, escaping one last time. It’s easier to believe in this sweet madness, oh, this glorious sadness, that brings me to my knees.

Amy’s relapses, in terms of addiction, were extremely severe and frequent. Her doctor said there was a pattern of relapse, in a cycle of three weeks. My own relapse cycle is about six months – that is, I’m dry for six months and then crash and burn.

Why do you relapse? It’s usually down to one fundamental reason. As the above lyric alludes to, you think that this time, it won’t matter. Even though you know it will probably destroy you (that it will “bring me to my knees”) it’s “easier to believe” that the “glorious sadness” it offers is worth the risk.

Ultimately, you give up and give in. And I think that’s what happened to Amy.

It’s evidenced in the gut-wrenching documentary about her life. In the final few days leading up to her death the signs were all there. Phone calls to friends, saying how sorry she was. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Can I see you?” Her friend described the conversation as “My Amy. Completely normal”. Wanting to see them. An almost desperately forced happiness. But it wasn’t normal.

This glorious sadness, that brings me to my knees

Amy probably knew she was teetering on the edge, and that “can I see you” call to her friend was her crying out to be saved. You know, as an addict, when you’re going to give up. You feel it stirring inside of you, like a “storm [that] keeps on twisting”, except it becomes so violent that it eventually engulfs you.

There are only so many relapses a person has in them. It’s not some lifelong game of cat and mouse, it eventually catches you – as it caught Amy. In her case, the periods of abstinence were so short that it must have had a devastating impact on her mind.

Most alcoholics end up with what’s known as “alcoholic brain damage”. Your frontal lobe functions are extremely impaired, as are your cognitive abilities, due to thiamine deficiency. This is then coupled with a lack of vitamins B2 and B6, which is shown to cause or exacerbate depression.

Moreover, when you stop drinking it takes six to nine weeks for you, psychologically, to completely get over the trauma of withdrawal.

Amy was only giving her mind three weeks at a time to try and recover. And it’s this constant hammering of your brain which (via vitamin deficiencies and psychological trauma) in part, leads to relapses.

Without intervention your ability to fight off the urge, to weather that twisting storm, is literally neurologically weakened. And it’s weakened further every time you “lose”, until it comes to the point where you are in the mire of a constant relapse/withdrawal cycle.

Amy couldn’t fight it any longer. While it was the poisoning effects of the alcohol that physically killed her, it was her giving up which ultimately led to her death. And as an alcoholic, something, sometimes, tells you it’s going to happen.

When I last relapsed in May, I sat and cried and cried to my psychiatrist, begging her to help me because I knew that was my final relapse. I knew I didn’t have any fight left in me, and that if I gave in again it would kill me.

Amy wasn’t so lucky. I wish to God she had been, as I wouldn’t be writing this now.

But I am, because what mine and Amy’s separate, yet intertwined, stories show is that addiction can stalk anyone. It cares not whether you’re a world famous musician, or an ex-hotelier from Suffolk.

In the UK, alcohol-related deaths have risen by 4% in a year and by 13% in a decade, with admissions to hospital due to alcohol consumption at an all-time high. The UK has a chronic drink problem – and it’s one that appears to be getting worse.

May you find some comfort here

If you’re not careful, being an alcoholic can define who you are for the rest of your life. It’s ridiculous, really – but you’re more prone to labelling yourself an addict than everyone else is.

It wasn’t what defined Amy.

What defined her was her spirit – and it was a spirit that shone through, blindingly, in her artistry. She was a raw, unrefined talent that needed no CGI-laced videos, no heavy production and no over-the-top theatrics. Her rasping, soul-born voice and the brutally honest and profound words that accompanied it, intertwined perfectly.

“Love is a losing game”, while shorter than most of its contemporaries, is just a perfect song. She needed no embellishments, no vocal precociousness. “Memories mar my mind; love is a fate resigned” enunciated by her with a tangible grasping regret, stops you in your tracks.

“What is it about men?” is broodingly powerful; “‘Cause it’s bricked up in my head, and shoved under my bed […] Now my destructive side has grown a mile wide” shows glimpses of the trauma that plagued Amy throughout her life.

“Rehab” sheds light on the reasons why she refused psychological help with her demons. She bullishly portrayed herself as a fighter; as someone who could battle anything.

But then “I tread a troubled track. My odds are stacked; I go back to black” shows the vulnerability beneath that north London façade; the need to be loved she felt, coupled with the perpetual rejection and shattered self-esteem that tarnished her life.

Few people have the ability to transfer to music exactly what they are feeling, and do it in such a way that it reaches out to most of us. Amy had that exceptional gift. She is up there with the greatest – Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Kurt Cobain. All tortured souls, but all with so much to give.

She’s always reached out to me, and to say that Amy saved me may sound like silly, teenage hyperbole. But she did.

I wrote about her during my last severe relapse – a few days before I realised I needed to see my psychiatrist and beg her for help. In it I said I was writing “as an alcoholic of over a decade, who has just had a (rather public) relapse. And as someone who has nearly given up.” I was, at that point, staring over a precipice.

Amy dragged me back from the brink of oblivion – because her tragic death acted as the alarm bell I needed to prevent mine.

Part of me wishes that the tables were turned, as the world would be a far more joyous, rich and worthwhile place if Amy was still in it. But she’s not. However, her beautiful, charismatic and remarkable spirit will always be here. And it will always be with me as I owe her, in no uncertain terms, my life. So thank you, Amy. And wherever you are – may you find some comfort there.

 

If you, or someone you know, are living with alcoholism you can call Drinkline on 0300 123 1110 (Mon-Fri 9am-8pm, weekends 11am-4pm)

If it is a medical emergency call 999.

Support Mind, the mental health charity.

Featured image via Fionn Kidney

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