Friends describe Whitney Houston a few nights before her death as "tipsy... partying... a mess at 2am... the champagne was flowing... she was sober."
Huh? Confusing right?
How does one who is "sober" drink champagne? I understand the confusion about what recovery from addiction looks like, and how recovery bumps up against our notions around how to drink in moderation. For the person working to recover from addiction, the rules are different than for all the "normal" folks out there.
Just up from a nap before heading out to watch Saturday Night Live at 30 Rock two nights ago, I heard the news, "WHITNEY HOUSTON DEAD AT 48."
From nap to taxi, I was speeding up Sixth Avenue, heading to the very same stage John Belushi made the me laugh as a boy in the mid-70s as part of the original SNL cast. Belushi died in 1982 after years of addiction's war on his body and spirit. He overdosed a mile or so from the spot Whitney was discovered in the bathtub dead; just down the road from there Michael Jackson died after a doctor injected a powerful drug into his neck.
We ask: What is recovery? Does it include alcohol? How about pot? Where do prescriptions fit in the mix?
Each time a celebrity death by addiction grabs the headlines, it calls attention to the enormous suffering one goes through when battling chemical dependency. We don't know what killed Whitney yet, but we do know that she had a long history of substance abuse problems and made several attempts at getting clean and sober and staying there.
Every blurry streak in Whitney's life will be scrutinized in the coming days and weeks. Did she drown in that bathtub? How much Xanax was in her blood? How much alcohol?
I'm like Whitney. I drank, coked, and smoked and swallowed Xanax to cope, then there was calm. I tried to live in the middle where moderate drinking and pills wouldn't get the best of me -- while keeping coke and crystal meth on the shelf.
It Didn't work. For most of my clients whom I help get unhooked successfully from addiction -- it doesn't work either. Addict rules are different.
Relapse is often the norm for addicts. Harsh word right, that one, "addict." But words are important and addict rules are different. "Addict" means a person living with the disease of addiction.
The largest misperception about addiction is that rehab and traditional treatment will be enough. Add to that the help, the support groups helping millions through 12-Step support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Treatment plus support from friends and family and the "system" of the addicted loved one is as important as rehab or treatment.
When I meet with families across the country, most are at their wits end and believe they have "tried everything." They've tried to find middle ground with their addicted loved one to no end. That's because addict rules are different.
Most arrive on my doorstep talking about letting someone needing to "hit bottom" or "want to change." This "bottom" that you hope your loved one will hit may very well end like so many. Would you look at a cancer patient and tell them that we have to wait for their disease to advance further before we step in? No way. So why do we treat the disease of addiction -- the third leading killer in America - the chronic condition of 20 million Americans -- differently?
Would you stand in silence as a friend with life-threatening diabetes devoured an ENTIRE CHOCOLATE CAKE? Of course not. So why do we see someone drowning and talk ourselves out of throwing them a life preserver? Because unlike cancer and diabetes, where friends and family rally around the patient and pray for them and send wishes and immediately step in to help with whatever is needed, the by product of addiction symptoms on family and friends is cunningly devastating.
That's because addict rules are different -- and the understanding of addiction needs an update to the 21st century.
Right now a good percentage of people reading this know someone in need of help. In my work I teach families four simple steps:
- Craft a Circle of Change -- Use the natural influence of friends, family and even co-workers to move a resistant loved one toward change
I teach that relapse is a natural element of this disease of addiction, and it's part of the pathway to recovery. I didn't get clean and sober on the first try -- but it's going on ten years now, from the day it clicked for good.
Because addict rules are different, expect setbacks. But remember if you change around how you support and enable the recovery -- it will most certainly have an impact. Move forward without shame, despite feeling discouraged. When you make a wrong turn while driving, does your GPS berate you? It simply says "recalibrating."
When I work with families I simply teach them to do the same.
If you're already hurting, why not hurt on the way to wholeness and recovery? Your loved one's life is at stake and you have the power to help them. But never forget that addict rules are different than for "normal" folks.
Don't fall into minimizing, reducing or normalizing the disease that threatens, diminishes and kills millions.
Whitney sang a soundtrack of celebration and love over the course of my lifetime. I miss her terribly already.
People will for years pick apart how Whitney's own internalized homophobia, addictive history and inability to get the balance right brought her to an early death. But I bear witness to an important life saving fact that we can all embrace -- YOU CAN HELP SOMEONE YOU LOVE. Toss aside blame, shame and guilt and get busy learning how addiction works for an addict. Because it's different than for non-addicts. The rules are different.
Brad Lamm is a Board-Registered Interventionist and author of How To Help Someone You Love.