ON THE DEATH OF WHITNEY HOUSTON: Why I Won't Ever Shut Up About My Drug Use

When Whitney died, I wasn't surprised: women are using drugs all around you, and I'm one of them. Now why am I not allowed to talk about it again?

Feb 13, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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Two days ago I spent half an hour poking around the internet for information about Althea Flynt, who has interested me ever since Courtney played her brilliantly in “The People Vs. Larry Flynt”. I wanted to ask Jane about talking to Courtney about talking to me about Althea for a story.

I’ve always been fascinated by the pornographer’s wife and the bisexual drug addict, who passed from an overdose and drowned in her bathtub in the Bel-Air mansion she shared with Larry in 1987.

It was eerie, then, when 48 hours later I woke up at 11:30 pm after sleeping all day to learn that Whitney had passed out and probably drowned in her bathtub at the Beverly Hilton hotel.

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For all the wrong reasons, I always love the ones who are going to die young. I know they’re headed for it. Gleamy clavicles and comebacks that won’t stick. Singing voices gone to hell; concerts cancelled. Pictures get leaked of a home full of drug paraphernalia and garbage, or the star just lets a journalist in to see it all for herself.

Oh Whitney.

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Have you ever heard of Freud’s theory of drives? Basically, he (initially -- he'd come to revise his ideas a bit) believed that human behavior could be explained by a class of drives known as the life instincts, or Eros (also sometimes referred to as sexual instincts; the energy created by the life instincts is known as libido: that ultimate pro-life force, and incidentally one of the first things to go for me when I use).

The life instincts are those that deal with survival, reproduction, pleasure—in other words, instincts that are crucial for sustaining a person’s life, as well as the continuation of the species: thirst, hunger, pain avoidance, love, human interaction and other prosocial actions.

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You follow?

But eventually Freud determined that human behavior couldn’t be explained by life instincts alone—and introduced his theory of death instincts, or death drive, or Thanatos.

Freud posited that “the goal of all life is death”, concluding that humans hold an unconscious desire to die—and that self-destructive behavior is an expression of the energy created by the death instincts.

According to this theory, then, if you are not a self-destructive person, your death wishes are under control because they overridden by healthier life instincts.

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Alternately, then, “an organism shall follow its own path to death” when the death instincts override the life instincts.

Let me posit that drugs weaken our life instincts, those compulsions that are intended to keep us, for as long as naturally possibly, from being sucked into the supposedly seductive (says Dr. Freud, though his ideas about all this have certainly been contested) current of death drive and alluring self-destructive tendencies.

I touched on these themes in my article “Self Sabotage in a Bottle”:

“…prescription speed works until it stops working, and if it hasn't stopped working for you yet, believe me, it will. It deprives your body of natural cues (hunger, sleepiness), wears away at your edges until finally you're all raw nerve, with no inner resources of physical or psychological strength left to deal with your life.”

This weakening and waning of life instincts—that crucial internal self-parent, the instincts that keeps adults alive and healthy and part of the social world—to such an extent that the self-destructive death instincts were allowed to take over: this is what I understand to have been happening to Whitney Houston for a very long time.

And I believe this because for so long drugs weakened my life instincts so that my death instincts started to take over. With years of heavy drug abuse, the scales tipped and my death instincts got more and more powerful than my life instincts, until I found myself quitting my magazine job just so I could withdraw for a year.

I put up blackout curtains in my apartment and became a recluse in my own bed and even in my own bathroom, even overdosing once (I'll save that for another article).

As xojane.com likes to say: It Happened To Me.

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Have you ever fallen asleep in the bathtub on drugs, or blacked out laying on your bathmat? Some of you who drink might relate to the latter.

I'm a big bath person in general, and I used to pass out in the water all of the time, when I used to snort heroin, snort painkillers, and take tons of Xanax and sleeping pills together, always alone at my house, or one time, in a hotel room bathtub when Lucky sent me to Chicago to cover Lollapalooza.

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I took baths, never showers, because showering when you're messed up is a lot of work, and makes you feel like you're going to collapse half the time (see: Meg Ryan's alcoholic character in "When A Man Loves A Woman").

Also, baths feel good on drugs, and also, like anyone who's fucked up all the time, I was too shaky to stand—Bambi legs (you can read my Amy Winehouse death story here).

Remember my story, "Tangled Up (PLUS: The Secret Shampooing Rituals of Pillheads)":

I had stopped taking care of myself physically and grooming-wise almost completely, save for the occasional bath (showers made me too woozy). I started washing my hair only in the bath tub, which incidentally Tinsley Mortimer told me that she does, too. But I didn’t do it in a glamorous way. I did it in a lazy junkie way!

Also: sometimes I fell asleep in the bath tub.

Anyway, I was so exhausted and apathetic about my appearance that basically I just didn’t brush my hair for days and then weeks and then it turned into like a month, and when I washed it I was just dipping it in the bathwater to wet it, lathering at the scalp, and then dipping to rinse, and then half-heartedly conditioning, and then barely rinsing that, and then just wrapping a dirty towel around the whole mess and taking a bunch of Xanax and Ambien and Seroquel and Suboxone or whatever the hell I had laying around, and blacking out for twelve hours.

So while stars are infamous for their hard partying, their dizzying downward spirals, their headline-making binges, the truth is, when they use most heavily and subsequently die, it’s usually in their most private places, where they can relax, be in quiet, and don’t have to appear functional to the outside world.

Much more rare are the overdoses out in the world of the living, like River Phoenix’s in front of the Viper Room many years ago. After beds (recently these deaths include Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger, Casey Johnson, Michael Jackson), it seems that bathtubs are where drug abusers die.

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Jim Morrison died in the bathtub at 27 allegedly of a heart attack in 1971.

A few years ago, many people I know were devastated when their friend, an important young New York City artist who used heroin, was found dead in his hotel bathtub downtown.

Kristen Pfaff of Hole fell asleep in her bathtub at home in Seattle—a “normal thing for her”, said her friend Paul Erickson, who found her the next morning—and never woke up.

Another bassist, Pete Farndon of The Pretenders, drowned his in bathtub following a heroin overdose.

Then there are the bathroom deaths: Brittany Murphy, Elvis. I could go on. But I won't.

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The first time I did coke, at fifteen, in my friend Alexis’s house on E. 58th Street in Manhattan, on a weekend in the city from my Massachusetts prep school, the corniest but also best thing was that this Bowie was on: What you like is in the limo/ Fame FAME fame FAME…

What can people who use drugs make of celebrity deaths?  I can tell you that people who regularly take to their beds on loads of drugs are not unprepared to die. Similarly, they are not unprepared for celebrities that they see doing to same shit to die, either.

We’ve been there, and we didn’t care that much about ourselves when we were there.

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I’m not famous, but let me tell you: celebrity or civilian, the Bowie lyrics are a little different when you’re in bed past dawn, coming down off uppers, with nothing to black you out: Shame SHAME shame SHAME.

When this song is inevitably stuck on repeat in the jukebox inside her brain at dawn, a stimulant user will take just about anything to yank the plug from the wall.

Got to get a raincheck on pain (pain). (Pain PAIN pain PAIN)

To me, things feel not so tragic: I could die, I thought to myself a hundred times when I snorted the heroin or shot the coke or washed the oxycontin down with vodka Gatorade. I might die, I thought, when I felt unnatural heaviness hit me in that way that it must when you are drugging yourself to sleep because your heartbeat is keeping you awake.

Is it any wonder?

I don’t know what killed Whitney, but if it was something that she used to put herself to sleep because the agitation of being awake was too great—remember this, drug users: staying awake will never kill you.

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Drugs weakened my life instincts, and every day that I’m getting better—I still use, though it’s nothing like before—I’m struggling to strengthen those instincts again. They have made it harder for me to keep motivated to care for myself; they’ve made it more comfortable for me to isolate from other human beings and give up on being an attractive potential mate to others than to be out there being awesome and sexy. I still can hide out in bed for two weeks without brushing my teeth or hair.

At times drugs have squashed my libido and, sometimes, my ability to orgasm—not that I’m fucking anyone when I get into a drug phase. They’ve made me incapable of eating, sleeping or dating like a normal person; I feel like a space alien all of the time.

And yet when I am at my sickest, I put a huge amount of effort into fooling everyone: the hair, the makeup, the chatter. You either never see me—I've been so busy—or I'm my very best self in public before rushing home to numb out again.

Remember Michael Jackson in his "This Is It" rehearsals? He looked good and he sounded good, and then he was getting put under anesthesia every night. Don't you remember those horrible tapes?

It would be wonderful if we lived in a world free of drugs and drug addiction, but we don’t. In the end, the addict will die of overdose, of disease, or serious self-neglect, and half the time, you won't even see it coming for her. So I am telling you that there are people all around you with one foot in the door—where you see them—and one foot out, where you can’t.

For a long time, it was like that for me: one foot in the door, the other out—and it could easily get there again. We all thought Whitney was better. She wasn't.

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Desperate drug addicts go on the internet late and night and prowl around looking for writers who will talk about using. I was one of those internet-searchers, looking for help on the fucking internet, night after night. I’m writing this for them. Hi guys.

 

So many of you have expressed your disgust about how much I talk about drugs. I really tried to stop for a while, but you know what? No one else in women's magazines or websites is writing about this stuff, so there's nowhere for a female community to read it. I guess they can buy a zillion wack addiction memoirs, as I have, or go on message boards online, but that's it.

Why can’t we acknowledge that lots and lots of women abuse drugs? That they are a huge part of so many women’s lives? Including mine?

Why aren’t I allowed to talk about them? Like, a lot? On a "womens" site?

I just don't get it. Is it because I'm not committed to "recovery" or a life or sobriety? Why does a person have to have resolved their drug issues in order to be allowed to write about them? Can't a writer be conflicted?

And above all else, why shouldn't I be honest about my life? Do you really think I don't deserve my job, a platform, because I'm an admitted drug user?

I guess I make people uncomfortable, and that's fine. If you want a recipe of the week, subscribe to the xojane newsletter or something. I don't know.

Dude, so many people use drugs. So many people use drugs. I don’t know what to tell you, reader who asks me to stop writing about them. I understand that you don’t want to read about them. I keep trying not to write about them, and I keep coming back to them.

But I'm not going to shut up about this stuff; I'll keep mentioning drugs in my columns so long as they are in not only my life, but in the world all around us, which they always will be. In a big way.

You call it oversharing; I call it a life instinct.

Because look. Look how easy it is, even when you are Whitney fucking Houston, to withdraw your voice and pretend like you're a good girl and not mention that you're using. To slip silently into the water. To disappear.


Cat's on Twitter @cat_marnell.