Whitney Houston’s Death: Addict or Death Wish?

by Dr. Karen Ruskin on February 19, 2012

Did Whitney Houston have an addiction, therefore mental illness? Or, a different un-diagnosed/diagnosed problem and used prescription and/or illegal drugs and alcohol as medication to numb, cope with, and or escape her challenges? Or did she have a death wish? What role does the media play in reporting a celebrities’ death and/or drug/alcohol/mental health troubles? Drugs, death, and the media – this combination platter has been a hot topic over the past few days on the news specifically regarding Matt Lauer’s interview of Bill O’Reilly and then in follow up on FOX & Friends. Bill further discussed his perspective on The O’Reilly Factor this past week.

It is my psychotherapeutic opinion that we; a) not vilify O’Reilly and b) not close a blind eye to the media’s lack of focus on using Whitney’s death as an opportunity to educate children. Was not Bill’s point something to consider – the point of using a celebrities’ death as an opportunity to educate our children to not use drugs? Yet again, another celebrity dead due to drugs/alcohol – what a surprise (sarcasm)! This is such a shame – for all the Whitney’s of this world. She is another human being like many others who struggled and whose loved ones suffer and will continue to suffer because of it. Truly a painful reality and so very sad- is it not?

Not Aware Drug Abuse Is A Slow Death?

Although I have not treated nor interviewed Whitney, to make an argument that when a person has an alcohol and/or drug use and/or abuse problem (illegal and/or legal) it means they are not – not aware it is potentially a slow death, quite frankly I find disturbing. Of course the use of and the over use of drugs kills far too many. I would think anyone who has been in any sort of treatment has been educated about the concerns of putting one’s self in harms way. How many times when working with a client who reports a drug problem and/or the mixing of drugs does a therapist assert their concern for and explore the topic of their safety and others? Good grief, often I would hope. How many times when a woman or a man comes into a therapist’s office reporting a relapse does a therapist share their clinical insight that it is far too often for this behavior to lead to death? Far too often indeed, is the answer. The spouse, the children, the family close to the adult using drugs often lives in fear of what is and what is to come. Those who love this person often report it is killing their family, their life and their fear it may someday literally kill the user. Each time a child uses drugs and the parent sees how this negatively affects their functioning, parents often report their fear of more drugs, stronger drugs, overdose, and even death. Indeed drug use and abuse is no laughing matter.

Drugs As Escaping Life’s Stress And Pain: O’Reilly’s Angle?

For those who are addicts, they often report that to control their addiction feels out of their control. Many do report they want to live and enjoy life but they struggle for how to do that cycling back to making life choices that bring them closer and closer to death. This point is certainly a significant reason why so many were upset with O’Reilly’s comment expressing that they feel he does not understand. Do note, on the other side of this coin, there are those who report they do not enjoy life, are stressed and/or depressed, feel anxious and overwhelmed and are looking to numb the pain, escape the pain of what they are experiencing through the use of alcohol and/or drugs, in essence make the pain go away, at least for a little while. Therefore, rather than; a) killing themselves quickly, or b) utilizing healthy coping methods which takes a lot of effort, self confronting, dedicated work, high motivation each and every day to be mindfully aware of making healthy mental wellness choices, and often includes consistent treatment, rather, they continue to suffer emotionally and choose to escape from life the only way they know how! Instead of escaping by killing themselves quickly, they escape with a chemically induced brain state so their pain can be dead, for a little while. It is this point that perhaps O’Reilly and those who did understand his perspective may have been drawing upon. I did not interview O’Reilly nor those who agreed with and those who disagreed with his point. This insight I am sharing is based on my expertise in human thoughts and behaviors. I will remind you that the pain a person tries to escape from while using drugs does not evaporate while using drugs. The pain remains, but for that person, they feel like it is gone for a little while. That is the person’s version of death of their pain – pain that is gone (dead) for a little while, while their brain is fried.

Whitney Houston Is Not Alone – You Are Not Alone – Get Help

If indeed life is so stressful, so overwhelming, if you are so uncomfortable in your own skin, feeling anxious and perhaps depressed or any combination of any of these statements that you are using multiple prescription drugs and mixing that with alcohol and/or illegal drugs – wouldn’t you say there is a problem? Of course there is. If this is your situation or someone you love, please seek out help! Let Whitney’s death be an opportunity for you to save yourself and those you love. Although I do not know Whitney, what I do know is that whatever her personal struggle, whatever her challenge, whatever skeletons were in her closet, she was not alone – there are many just like her and like her family, perhaps not famous, not a celebrity, not a singer, perhaps did not use the exact same “cocktails” she has used and what ultimately led to her death, yet, like her still! Use her death as an opportunity to get help so as to have a different outcome to your and your families’ life story.

Addict? Choice? Genetics? The Power Of The Mind?

Alcohol/drug use and/or abuse is a roller coaster ride that professionals continue to discuss and analyze. Depending on which professional you speak with, you may find a slightly different belief system. Some professionals may slant more with a mental wellness philosophical belief in one direction or the other including theories such as; the concept of choice, the theory of addiction, the strength of physiology, the role of genetics/pre-disposition, the theory of learned behavior, and the philosophy of the power of the mind . . . What if all of this plays a role? Why does it have to be either/or, rather let us consider the notion of both/and. Yes, I believe that each of these components plays a role in who one is, and therefore let us teach our children at a young age to make wise choices and DO NOT USE DRUGS! This is not a nature vs. nurture debate, rather nature and nurture affects who we are and using drugs is not a wise life choice ever. Gosh, there are even some mental health professionals who are more laid back on certain drug use reporting it is a sign of the times. Ugh! There are those who feel legalizing some drugs would be helpful. Double Ugh! Well, that is another topic, another blog, for another day (Laid back? Heck no I say! Legalization- heck no I say!)

Angry At O’Reilly? Where Is The News Media’s Outcome Action?

This past week there seemed to be 2 camps:

Camp #1: This camp consists of those folks who are angry at O’Reilly for inferring that an addict on some level must want to die and that his desire to use Whitney’s death as an opportunity to educate the public to help our youth culture is wrong that honoring her life as a musician is the only thing we should be doing right now. Or perhaps they are not angry but they do disagree with him.

Camp #2: In contrast, this camp consists of those who agree that the media should play a role in educating the public about drugs and that O’Reilly has a point.

It appears that more in the media must be in disagreement with O’Reilly based on the lack of the media’s outcome actions! Specifically, I am not seeing, as of yet anyway, the focus of the media to have mental health experts of varied disciplines come on their show and discuss addiction, anxiety, depression, escapism of one’s challenges, and the challenge many have for coping and therefore using drugs (illegal and/or legal). I am not seeing the media’s outcome action of interviews of mental health experts being called upon and having the opportunity to share educational material on the affects of drug and alcohol abuse, as if somehow by doing that would be stepping on Whitney’s name? Perhaps she would love to know that her struggle and death helped to save the life of another by having a panel of experts on all of the news programs. What do you think?

Panel Discussion On The News – Recommendation By This Psychotherapist

Imagine panel discussions on the news that offer varied mental health experts each vested in voicing the pain and suffering of those who struggle with addiction, with overuse of drugs, with mental health issues, the struggle of their families, and why not to use drugs. Imagine a panel including but not limited to; parenting experts, marriage and family therapists, individual practitioners, youth experts, psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, mental health experts with varied philosophies including but not limited to; cognitive behavioral therapy, solution focused treatment, mindfulness, insight awareness, strategic counseling, family systems theory  . . . group leaders for addictions . . .  each sharing their perspective on the challenges of those who suffer, what the family goes through, resources to contact if you need help, different types of help options, and steps you can take right now to begin your journey of mental wellness. What a tribute that would be would it not? Okay, okay, I understand Whitney’s legacy is her music so that is the focus. Aren’t we really ignoring the pink elephant in the room that keeps showing up every few months when the next celebrity is in rehab or dies?

What about the idea if the media were to host panel discussions on their shows and do not state that they are specifically in response to Whitney’s death? Rather how about a special segment recognizing all of the fallen celebrities, all of the fallen every day folk and their families?

Confront The Reality Of A Deceased Drug User

When I work with families who come to counseling due to mourning the loss of a family member due to ongoing drug/substance abuse we do not simply just honor that person’s memory by only talking about their positive traits. Sure, that is a part of it, absolutely an important part! We must discuss the reality of what happened as well, not sweep that under the rug. Children that meet with me in the office, I make it a point to talk about the reality of what drugs do to a person. We discuss family history, and pre-disposition. I state in clear and no uncertain terms that they are putting themselves in harms way to use any type of drug. We discuss leading a clean life. We explore what they have learned from the life and death of the person they love both positive and negative and what role that can have on their life both positive and negative. We discuss how they can become the best of themselves drug free! We discuss concrete coping skills when challenges come their way instead of a drug related option. Yes, I offer direct clear advice: don’t use drugs and what the healthy alternatives are!

As a psychotherapist my colleagues and I meet people where we see how drugs have destroyed their lives, their families’ life. If but only people would seek out help sooner and with consistency for as often and for as long as they have to.

Tell Your Kids: Do Not Use Drugs

Parents are so afraid to confront their kids if they think they are using. Parents are afraid to talk with their young kids about drugs saying they are too young. Parents are afraid to talk with their older kids about drugs saying they are afraid if they talk about it, their child will want to use just because they as parents tell their kids not to. Parents who know their teen is smoking marijuana try to accept it far too often, since it has become so much more acceptable than it once was. Some parents feel hypocritical to tell their child not to use since they themselves use and/or abuse legal and/or illegal drugs.

My goodness – the more we allow drugs as an option to be acceptable the more acceptable it will become! My note to all parents: it is never too early or too late to educate your children! Teach your children not to touch drugs, there is zero benefits only risks. Discuss with your children what they think the benefits are. Discuss with your children how to get the “benefits” in their life they think drugs will give them without using drugs. Seek out help if you are struggling!

Drugs Ruin Lives And Often Kills

Let us speak up as a nation that drugs DO kill far too many. With drugs becoming so much more accepted we are ruining our lives! To legalize drugs is as good as stating: go ahead use drugs, self medicating is acceptable. Way too often husbands report embarrassment that their wife urinates in the bed unable to control her bladder after yet again another night out drinking and lies to their kids about where she is so late at night and why the bed is wet. This is something a man shares with his therapist but often no other is privy to his inner pain. What if parents told their kids the reality of the problem and sought out help? Men report their wife’s alcohol use is ruing their marriage, his emotional well being, and her physical and mental health. Men whose children witness their father pouring alcohol into a non-alcoholic bottle so as to hide from the wife that they are drinking yet again is way too common of a reported problem in counseling. Kids feel forced to keep the family secret with nowhere to turn and no way to make sense of the problem. Children do not learn healthy coping skills, communication outlets, nor do they learn to seek out help. This affects children in their childhood and their coping methods as they age. Spouse’s feel at a loss for what to do as they realize what their spouse is doing and instead of making an out loud statement to the family; “Your father who we love has an alcohol problem let’s go for counseling for how to cope with this life challenge”, rather the spouse says nothing. Cocaine, Percocet, Xanax, the list is endless, illegal or prescription drugs, stories after real life stories of the life of drugs killing . . . a slow death.

The O’Reilly Factor – Charlie Sheen

2 weeks short of one year ago I was on The O’Reilly Factor in a debate with Dr. Keith Ablow discussing; Is the media exploiting Charlie Sheen? It was my stance that the media was treating Charlie Sheen “like a monkey in a zoo”. Specifically I verbalized my concern that it is clear that he was not well and that the “greatest gift” we could give Sheen and his family was to “offer him the opportunity to confront himself”. It was my stance then as it is now that the media can be used as an opportunity to educate by stating facts, the truth, not just purely entertainment of another’s decline. What is wrong with our culture that seeing another’s decline is entertaining?! Ablow stated during that debate that he did “not want to live in this world that Dr. Ruskin is describing”. What a shame I say for all of us as a culture. I do wish to live in this world I am describing where we are not entertained by another’s decline and rather see it for what it is and discuss it with our children to help them be all that they can be. The media has great power and  I am always honored when I am given the opportunity to be on television as I use it as an opportunity to educate the public. I view myself as a helping agent and the media is the forum upon which I and others with a message may share our insights in the hopes that we have helped others to help themselves get to a better place. Is that not one of the roles that the media plays, a forum upon which professionals may state truths and educate from varied perspectives? That is the world I wish to live in, not that we just splatter the person’s problems before us, highlight it, and then say nothing of insight.

Over-Medicating?

O’Reilly’s interest as he has shared it this past week post the death of Whitney is that the media has an obligation to tell the truth and use it as an opportunity to help our children. This stance is not being followed through by our many media stations. During my interview regarding Sheen almost 1 year ago, I shared the beauty of the debate that O’Reilly offered me the opportunity to educate the public as there are many Charlie Sheen’s of this world. How wonderful for Sheen and his family that he is still alive and appears to be in a better place as we can only see through the screen in contrast to what was all of those many months back. Whitney, Sheen, Amy Winehouse, the list is endless- some live and some die, and there is everyday folk that are not celebrities who struggle and the same holds true; some live and some die. The Sheen’s, Winehouse’s, and the Houston’s of this world, look around you, many are struggling. As a culture we are self medicating for the quick and easy “fix” both in prescription and non prescription form as adults and over-medicating – including the over-medication of our children.

The mind is powerful and has the ability to learn other ways of coping with challenges. Let us help ourselves and our children access the gift of what one’s mental strength is capable of by living a sober life free of chemically induced substances.

There are those among us who prescription medication serves as great value, is used judiciously and certainly I am not inferring medication is unacceptable for all people all of the time. That extremism is ludicrous. I am stating that for far too many, medication is utilized as the seemingly quick fix and rather techniques and strategies would have worked effectively. There are also those of who a combination of medication and techniques would be best. My concern is that there is far too much acceptance of the utilization of chemicals rather than hard mental work to cope with life’s emotional challenges. We are over-medicating and the ingestion of any chemical should be used wisely each time it is used.

Do Not Wait For The Media – Educate Your Children And Get Help

If the media does not use another celebrities death as an opportunity for education, if they do not see that as their role, let us please, as parents, take the lead and talk about alcohol and drug abuse with our children. Seek out help if you or a family member is struggling with drug/substance use and/or abuse. Drugs do kill! Do not let drugs kill you or someone you love.

 

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