As you’ve all undoubtedly heard by now, pop star Whitney Houston passed away on Saturday in Beverly Hills, likely as a result of a drug overdose.
When I heard this news, I braced myself for the inevitable. I knew exactly what I was about to be subjected to, because it happens every time a celebrity dies as a result of an ongoing addiction. I was going to hear, over and over and over, variations of “just another dead junkie”, “yeah, I saw it coming”, “she deserved it, brought it on herself”, “hard to feel sympathy for someone like that”, “threw her whole life away”, etc.
Happens every time.
Personally, I hate this. I hate it so much. It sickens me, and reminds me again just how much our society regards people struggling with addiction as completely subhuman and undeserving of any compassion. It reminds me how little people are willing to understand, and how quick they are to judge. It reminds me just how easy it is for people to completely shut down their compassion when it requires extending it towards a suitably stigmatized group. It reminds me just how willing people are to disregard empathy and sympathy when their culture is giving them an excuse.
I’ve lost many people to addiction. People I loved. I’ve seen what addiction is. I know it intimately, and am at least as aware as anyone else as to where it leads. And I care deeply about people who are dealing with that illness. To see them so publicly and openly spat upon every single time we’re given a collective opportunity is…well…”disappointing” would be the understatement of the century.
Here’s a sampling of the tweets and Facebook updates I came across in just the first few hours, just casually browsing through my normal, usual feeds. No real research required. And aside from one re-tweet, these are all from my friends, colleagues and people I follow, all people I genuinely respect and care about:
‘I’d rather be alone than unhappy.’ You marry a drug addict,then you become an addict,then you die.You’re not even 50.
I have to admit, some small part of me wants to say: How much sympathy can you have for someone beautiful, talented, famous and rich … who pisses it all away? Whitney Houston, you idiot.
Jeebus, I’m gonna hafta unfollow everyone. Seriously, some pop star dies? How about Syria, democracy, USian insanity?? Pandas, anyone?
Well at least cocaine will be cheaper now since there isn’t a huge drain on the market
Wow, Whitney Houston is dead. Can’t be terribly shocked, she was clearly messed up.
This may sound mean and heartless… but for some reason I’m not surprised by Ms. Houston’s death (nor Ms. Winehouse’s – even if ruled from different causes)… they both lived pretty hard lives while pushing their stardom… as Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner spoke “those who burn twice as brightly, burn half as long”
Yeah, yeah. You’re all so not surprised. Congratulations. I’ll fetch some gold stars for everyone.
So, when Christopher Hitchens died after a struggle with cancer (almost certainly caused by his own addictions, I might add), did you all feel the need to point out how you saw it coming?
Why is it that with this one particular illness it is acceptable to show so little respect and sympathy for the deceased? Why is it that when someone dies of this illness, but no other, it’s okay to openly show-off how nonchalant you can be?
Why is it okay to treat it as all so ho-hum or boring or vaguely funny?
It’s not really all that funny or boring for those of us who have lost the lives of friends and loved ones to addiction. Addicts are not subhumans. They are people, with lives, connections, friends and family, consequences of their existence. There are people who care for them, and who are hurt by their absence. They played a role in this world the same as anyone did.
It’s not funny or boring for those of us who’ve almost lost our lives to that same illness either. Is this how you’d speak of me, if I relapsed and overdosed?
We’ll mourn a suicide. We’ll recognize it (rightly) as a tragedy and a loss that should have been prevented. We’ll think about the hurt it must have caused the friends and family. We recognize it as a product of illness or misfortune beyond the deceased’s control. We’ll look at and think about the social forces that may have contributed to their death. We don’t act like they deserved it. But for drug addicts? Nope. Their own fault. Who cares. Just a dead junkie.
We’ll mourn a death from an eating disorder. We’ll mourn the death of a smoker from lung cancer. We’ll mourn an accidental death resultant from mental illness. We’ll mourn a mountain-climber killed in an accident. We’ll mourn a car accident. We’ll mourn almost any death, regardless of the degree to which it was linked to the victim’s actions. But we reserve a special disregard and lack of compassion for drug addicts. They, more than anyone, “deserve” to die.
And what’s especially disgusting? The degree to which the addict actually didn’t have full control over their actions. We know that the pathology of addiction strips the sufferer of their agency and capacity to control their own choices. We know it’s incredibly difficult, bordering on the impossible, to fully shake a serious substance addiction. We know that addicts typically come from lives filled with trauma, abuse, neglect, pain and loss. We know all of those things but still we persist in just not caring. Still we refuse to regard a drug addict as equally human, and still we perceive the addiction as a shameful moral failing. Idiots, all of them, right?
Most of the time, addicts are just human beings who’ve seen and endured more than the human heart is able. What I’ve learned from my many conversations with the people who live and use and ‘work’ in Vancouver’s Hastings Corridor, most of the time these are people who have seen and been given exactly the worst life has to offer, and have nothing left at all. They’re just looking for what is literally the only way they can find any comfort and happiness. They may know it’s going to kill them, but it’s all they have, and the poverty and streets will kill them anyway.
So those of you who think it’s clever, edgy, cool, funny or a demonstration of cynical, worldly wisdom to openly announce how little you care about the death of a drug addict?
It’s fine if you don’t care. That’s understandable. I’m not heartbroken over this either. It’s impossible to mourn every death that occurs on this planet, every second of every minute of every hour of every day. But to wear your dispassion like a badge of honour, like the degree to which you withhold compassion for a specific class of people who died from a specific illness somehow renders you this intellectual ubermensch above the mere sentiment of mankind is disgusting. Don’t you dare act like the life of a drug addict doesn’t count. Every human life counts, every death has meaning, and all of them were inevitable. If you’re going to dole out human worth in accordance with a fucking actuary table, you are beneath my contempt.
Next time, please take a moment to actually think it through before parading around your lack of empathy.
(for the record, I do still respect and care about those people whose tweets and facebook statuses I quoted. The angrier and more vitriolic statements in the later parts of this post were directed towards those who engage in the more extreme and blatant forms of this behaviour… particularly those in the mainstream media who do so)