Karen Ocamb

Whitney Houston's Death as a 12-Step Meeting

Filed By Karen Ocamb | February 21, 2012 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality
Tags: alcohol addiction, drug abuse, Kevin Costner, Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston in 2009 (Photo by Michael Wright/WENN.com)

There's a long-passed-down saying in 12 Step meetings: "There, but for the Grace of God, go I." It never occurred to me to think that when I read tabloid stories about the alcohol-and-drug fueled decline of singer Whitney Houston - until I heard Kevin Costner speak at her funeral Saturday, Feb. 18.

One of the themes of Costner's stories about Houston and their movie "The Bodyguard" was how she never felt "good enough." I'm almost 32 years clean and sober and, as with so many other addicts and alcoholics in recovery and out – that is still a recurring theme in my life. Listening to Costner was like attending a 12 Step meeting for me: suddenly I saw through all that arrogant diva crap to the young woman who sang well, longed to be loved and accepted and was charitable. I saw past the details of her life to what we shared in common, our demon addiction. I, too, bounced between arrogance and not feeling good enough. In New York where I got sober, one definition of an alcoholic is as someone who can be lying in the gutter and still look down on people. Metaphorically that was me - and Whitney.

In June 1980, my boss ordered me to get help or lose my job and with it, my identity. After a rebellious, nail-biting first year not drinking or using, I surrendered to accepting help and to my version of a Higher Power. Listening to Costner, I reconnected with that terror of letting go of what I’d always known and the joyful reprieve of surrender and I wished that this spiritual sister had found something akin to the program and fellowship that saved me. I was awash with sadness and immense gratitude.

Thanks to my online friend David Badash from The New Civil Right Movement, I learned that I was not the only person who experienced the death of Whitney Houston in the context of sobriety. On Feb. 14, Max S. Gordon wrote an in-depth, insightful essay from a black gay sober perspective entitled “Whitney: Sister Can't Fly On One Wing.”

I urge you to read the whole moving piece but here are some excerpts:

"Did Whitney Houston die from drug addiction or from co-dependency?" There are some people who may feel that asking a question like this so close to Whitney Houston's passing is disrespectful and an act of betrayal. I might agree with them. But celebrity is a curious thing. When people reach Whitney's height of fame their lives become archetypal, like a prism that we turn in different directions; in the refracted light we see our own stories, our failures and triumphs. A celebrity who has lived a life of entitlement and privilege is suddenly supposed to be afforded the modesty of a private citizen after death. But the fact is that Whitney's career, her glory, accolades, marriage, addiction, comebacks, not to mention reality show, played out in the public eye. So I'm writing about Whitney because I am shocked by her death, (and at the same time not surprised at all), and like so many others, I'm trying to make sense of what happened and what Whitney has meant to me. Which means I can't write about Whitney without writing about my life, about myself, and my addiction.....

I have written before that there is an aspect of the black American experience that may only be communicated through song; as a writer I am humbled by this. And there is an aspect of our experience that can only be screamed. That scream is in Aretha's music and it's in Chaka's, (I'm not talking about singing soulfully or hitting high notes: this "scream" isn't in Mariah Carey's music or Christina Aguilera's.) Because racism in America has at its heart "a black body swinging in the Southern breeze," we look to our soul singers for catharsis and release - releasing this scream is often what the experience of the black church is about. Over the years, I scanned many of the pop songs that Whitney recorded for a deeper emotional subtext and sometimes felt ripped-off because there didn't seem to be any - just a performance, albeit a smashing one....

When the drugs came, and Whitney's life seemed like a Cinderella story gone bad, I watched her give interviews, and marveled at the denial in her answers. And I worried for her; I heard the words, but I wasn't hearing the humility that comes with real recovery. Perhaps Whitney associated humility with humiliation and refused to let us see her bowed. But she may have had a triumph if she had truly acknowledged what addiction was costing her. One of the reasons why she was such easy fodder for comedians like Debra Wilson and Kathy Griffin was the fact that after a while the denial was ludicrous, and it seemed that Whitney was the only one who wasn't in on the joke - the nadir came when she asked Diane Sawyer to "show (her) the receipts" for the sums the media reported she was spending on crack cocaine....

As in the blues tradition, "Death come a-creepin' in my room," you eventually have to ask yourself at some point, why do I want to kill myself, what I am trying to kill inside me? As a gay man, I know when I've sometimes felt the need to kill something inside me, or what I am told - whether from childhood conditioning or Rick Santorum's presidential campaign - should be dead. I don't know what Whitney's demons were, perhaps there were many, but I know there are addicts for whom there aren't enough drugs in the world, who can't get high enough to escape, and for whom "excessive partying" is really just a polite term for suicide attempts. The reasons are manifold. We may feel we have to stay high in order to cope with the pressure to succeed, or to make a destructive relationship work.....

Prior to that relationship, Whitney was also pursued by rumors that she was gay; that the love of her life may have been a woman. I never knew Whitney, and I can't confirm this. What I do know is that Whitney didn't have to be gay for homophobia to affect her choices; in an effort to dispel those rumors and "prove everyone wrong" she may have stayed in an unhealthy relationship long past its sell-by date. Perhaps her pain came from not being able to reveal an aspect of herself to the public, in the way her image was created for her; or perhaps the heterosexism, the religious pressure and the need to prove to everyone "I'm straight" leads to the kind of self-righteous, "stand-by-your man" postures that keep some women stuck with men who hurt them. Whether she was gay or not, Whitney had to deal with the force of our speculation, and the need, for whatever reason, to prove us wrong.

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.