I feel a little crazy writing about Whitney Houston, because I don't know her personally. Plus, it dates me and makes me feel like I'm glorifying big, eighties hair bows and neon pink and the pop music that was the soundtrack to my life back then. But her passing has pissed me off, and while I have never met her, I'm going to call her by her first name, and I'm going to take it a little personally that she died when and how she did.
I'm not gonna lie, I'm more than a little sad that Whitney's gone. It just feels wrong. I think there are many women like me who, when they first heard the news, felt instantly like, that's gotta be a typo, there's no way Whitney is gone. Seriously? With her fabulous life and gifts and money/fame/glory? How could it be? What about the whole, learning to love yourself thing? How. Could. It. Be?
I kept saying to my husband (who, shockingly, was in town), She's a dumb ass. How could she do that to herself? Knowing that she had friends who revered her. Knowing that she had a daughter who loved her. How?
Because she's a dumb ass, that's how. And my husband kept reminding me, don't hate. She was sick. She had a disease.
Maybe I'm angry because I've been through this before. So many people have, and shouldn't the rest of us learn from the fatal mistakes we see being made all around us? Don't people understand the devastation their passing causes? Couldn't Whitney see she had every resource available to help heal her, and that she didn't have to end up high and alone in a bathtub when she passed? No, she couldn't see that, because she was a dumb ass.
My sister may have been somewhat of a dumb ass too. (If you knew her, and ever heard her cackling laughter, you'd know she'd be agreeing with me and laughing right this second. So it's all good, I'm not pissing Jesus off or anything by writing it.) She wasn't in a bathtub when she died, but she was definitely alone and she was probably high. She was 45 when she passed. FORTY-FREAKING-FIVE. How many years away from or past 45 are you? I'm pretty close to that number today, and it feels a whole lot younger now than it did then.
But how about that sentence a few paragraphs back, the one in italics. How could she do that to herself? Is that a fair question? Let's consider for a moment that maybe she and Whitney weren't dumb asses after all. It's tough for those of us who aren't afflicted to recognize addiction as being a sickness sometimes. Cancer, that's a disease. Pneumonia, that's an illness. Alcoholism or drug use, from the outside, looks like a choice, doesn't it?
When I tell people my sister died, I get a very appropriate, sympathetic look. When it comes up why she died, and I explain that it's probably due to her abusing her own body for many, many years, combined with her last couple of weeks of life consisting primarily of drinking vodka...the look shifts slightly. I end up feeling like her death was HER fault. And on some level, I tap into that feeling, because if only she hadn't put the drink to her mouth all those times, maybe she would still be here. It was HER doing. On some level, I feel like her death was suicide, because she knew from a near death experience years ago, that if she drank heavily again, her body would no longer be able to survive it. That kind of abuse would surely kill her. And yet, that's exactly what she did.
A tumor can't be helped, it just eats you alive. But alcoholism or drug abuse? That doesn't just eat you alive. Or does it?
Cancer cells are uninvited, but so is whatever IT is in somebody that drives them to drink too much or use drugs. Some of us can do it whenever we feel like it. We can take a hit or a drink, or we can leave it. We don't have that thing inside of us, whatever that thing is, that tells us we must use.
Or maybe we do, and we just also have something else inside of us that's stronger, that tells us when life gets tough, or we feel like we aren't good enough, or we want a 5th cocktail for the 5th night in a row, that hmm...maybe there's a better choice to make. Maybe there's another way to feel better.
So maybe there isn't a gene that exists in some people, telling them to overdo it, maybe something else is missing instead. For those of us who find ways to cope with stress or sadness or frustration, those feelings, when we have them, fall into our internal coping mechanism and the mechanism churns it up and spits out an answer. It's not always the right answer, but it's something. A process with which to manage ourselves in a way that won't, say, lead us to death. Like, take deep breaths. Go for a run. Call a friend. Take a Xanax. Write a blog. What have you.
But it seems to me that for people who are missing that coping mechanism, all those horrible feelings of stress and sadness and frustration fall into a little hole where the coping mechanism should be. And maybe that hole goes deep, and maybe it's dark and prickly and devoid of answers. And when they go into the hole, chasing after all that stress and sadness and frustration to see where it's going to go, they go too deep inside of themselves, and they start to feel really alone and afraid. And also, it's so dark they can't see their options anymore and they're just waiting for the answers to churn themselves out like they do for everyone else, but unbeknownst to them, that's not going to happen, because that mechanism they think they have, actually doesn't exist.
So in that dark, pokey place where they feel different and bewildered and alone, how good does a drink start to sound? How nice would it be to just tap out for a while. Get reeeally high and just say fuck it for 90 minutes (or however long a high lasts...this is not my personal area of expertise). And maybe it starts as a conscious thought, like, I think I'll get high and not deal for a while. For some of us, the next thought might be, Nah, getting high is probably not the best thing for my body/kid/husband/job/life. I'll call a friend and go for a walk, or I'll eat some ice cream and watch a sad movie and cry it out, or I'll clean the bejesus out of my house.
Maybe for people like Whitney and my sister, that second thought doesn't come. That first thought, the one that tells them that the only option is to escape, gets all stirred up in their system like a dirty martini, except instead of olives, it's mixed in with that stress and sadness and frustration, and after some time, that's what makes them sick. And the longer it lives, the bigger it grows, until it turns into disease. And the disease then starts to eat them alive, just like cancer can. It starts to make all their decisions for them. It becomes their first thought, and their first instinct, and it manifests itself as need in their body. But the general public doesn't live like this, and so in order to keep functioning in the sickness, people with the disease learn that the disease's best friend is a good front. They have to pretend. They lie. A lot. So much of the time the lie is paper thin and vodka-scented, but they so desperately need to hold onto the life they lead, they believe we believe it with a whole (if broken) heart. But we can sniff it out, literally and figuratively. For the longest time when I was a kid I thought that scent was my sister's perfume (It kind of smelled like White Shoulders or Taboo...what can I say, it was the 70s.). When I got older, I realized it wasn't that at all. It was the smell of lies and sickness and the disease that would eventually take her from me.
My sister wasn't an international megastar like Whitney Houston was. But she had friends who loved her, just like Whitney. She had a daughter too. She had three siblings who had each spent nearly thirty years getting banged up along her rocky road and loved her in spite of it all. She had parents who gave with open hearts and minds and hands over and over and over and OVER again, and yet the well of love was still full to overflowing whenever she came back for more. She knew it too, because she reached out to all of us the week before she died.
I hold my last conversation with her in my heart, in a dark corner, right next to a large pile of regret. I can't recall the whole conversation because it was almost 10 years ago, and I was a new mom, in the throes of sleepless nights and foggy days, and honestly, this call sounded a lot like many other calls from her over the years. A bit twisty and nonsensical. I remember thinking though that I was happy to talk with her, because we finally had something in common. If you read "Seven" on this blog, you might recall me mentioning that we didn't have a very large common ground as I was growing up - she was clutching a bottle of alcohol not long after I stopped clutching my bottle of milk. But as adults, we were both moms. We both had daughters who would be 11 years old in our 45th year of life. There had to be something there now that we could connect over, and laugh about, and love each other through.
But instead, about a week later, I got another phone call. This one came in the middle of the night, and like most middle-of-the-night calls, it was a sharp ring followed by some very bad news. The call came as a shock, even given the history and the knowledge that it could happen, because it had almost happened before. But it felt surreal, as did the phone call I then had to make to my parents. As did gathering with my family for my first Mother's Day weekend, to say hello to everyone, but goodbye to her. As did standing on the boat, with my baby in the Bjorn and my husband next to me, while we each scattered a handful of her ashes into the Pacific Ocean. As it does now when she comes to me in my dreams, and I wake up thinking how real it felt when I talked to her.
Some people end up being able to fill that little hole inside them, so the despair has somewhere to go to turn into answers. I don't know how big that hole was inside my sister, or what shape, but I wish she had found a perfectly-sized piece of self-love to put there. In my mind it would soak up her despair and allow her to see her way into her 46th year and beyond. Both my sister and Whitney gave me memories, and taught me about myself in little ways, and then abruptly left. Nothing I could do about it and no song about learning to love yourself could keep them here.
So where's the silver lining, you might ask? Well. Maybe my sister has now met Whitney, and they're up in heaven reading this blog and having a good laugh. Maybe Whitney is helping my sister turn her cackle into a proper singing voice. Perhaps they are busy advising young angels on how to watch over people on earth who are dealing with their own disease, so they don't come up to heaven too soon and make the wait time for a table even longer at the Heavenly Starbucks, where my sister always gets her Egg Nog Latte and her Cafe Verona blend.
Whitney and my sister can keep my seat warm at the coffee shop for another 50 years or so. In the meantime, I'll continue to miss them both. (One more than the other, obviously. Who can resist an international megastar songbird?)
Does anyone else hear a cackle in the distance...?