Whitney Houston, My Mother, and Addiction

With her death at the age of 48, Whitney Houston becomes another tragic statistic – another gifted woman and mother lost too young in the wreckage of addiction. There is nothing shocking about Ms. Houston’s death. Heartbreaking? Of course. But shocking? Not to me.

The singer’s battle with alcohol and drugs played out on the public stage. She sought treatment for her addiction as recently as last spring. And while we don’t yet know the exact cause of her death, she was found in a hotel bathtub with prescription drugs nearby.

So if Ms. Houston’s death is found to have been caused, or hastened, by her public struggle with addiction, will hers be the celebrity tragedy that finally awakens us to the realities of drug and alcohol abuse?

I doubt it.

Why? Because society turns a blind eye to the very ugly truth: there are more than 79,000 deaths attributable to excessive alcohol consumption alone in the United States every year — about the number of fans who packed Tampa Stadium for Ms. Houston’s heralded rendition of the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV.

Fifteen years ago, my mother was one of them.

At the age of 53, after battling alcohol for much of her adult life — and seeking treatment in five different facilities — she finally succumbed. To the end, her mind denied the truth of what was happening to her body. She died pleading for one last chance to get sober.

The World Health Organization says that alcohol abuse is now the third-leading cause of death and disability in the world. Young women, aided by a culture that glamorizes “partying” and cocktail hours and associates alcohol with independence and success, are succumbing to abuse and addiction atever-increasing rates.

Mothers are not immune. Books like  “Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay” (2006) celebrate the “I’m still hip!” wine-swilling mom whose evenings (and even play dates) revolve around alcohol. They perpetuate the deeply dangerous view that drinking and motherhood are a perfectly acceptable mix, and make it easier to deny a problem that the drinker is often the last person to recognize.

There is nothing glamorous about it: acute alcohol abuse in women leads to higher rates of breast cancer, weakens the heart, reduces brain function and ultimately destroys organs, one at a time. It leaves us more likely to be victims of violence and has the capacity to dramatically shorten life expectancy. Alcohol may not have killed Whitney Houston, but when we as a culture make alcohol look glamorous, it’s easier to sweep the addictions that so often accompany it under the rug.

I know my mother wanted to stop. I’m sure Whitney Houston wanted to break her dependencies, too. My mother didn’t want to leave me and my two sisters. “This is accidental,” Billy Watson, Ms. Houston’s brother-in-law, told ABC News. “She wouldn’t have left her daughter like that. She wouldn’t have done that to her daughter.”

My own daughter is 4 years old now and understands vaguely that her “mommy’s mommy” is gone. I see her struggle with the scary notion that she could someday grow into a woman like me without the mother who now occupies the very center of her world. I want to promise her that I’ll always be with her, that she won’t lose me like I lost her grandmother. And while I cannot guarantee I’ll always be there, I do promise her — and myself — that that particular fate will not be my own.

Now it’s Ms. Houston’s teenage daughter who is left in the wreckage. She will not be helped by media coverage that overlooks the truth of her mother’s struggles. That kind of denial prevents addicts from seeking desperately needed help, leading to more drinking, using and dying.

So, will Ms. Houston’s death lead even one woman to look honestly at her drinking or drug use and ask for help? I hope so.

But we must first admit the truth — that alcoholism and drug addiction are  deadly diseases with the power to destroy relationships, families and lives. Until we do, more stories are sure to follow about the tragic death of yet another gifted woman.

Maybe that woman will be a star. Maybe she’ll be just another mom. But to the daughters she leaves behind, she will surely have been both.

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