The High-Functioning Alcoholic

Understanding this Hidden Class of Alcoholics from a Professional and Personal View

Whitney Houston’s Story Could Help Others With Addictions

Whitney Houston’s life and addiction… a cautionary tale.

On September 22, 2009, I posted a blog in response to an interview that Oprah had conducted with Whitney Houston in which she identified herself as being "sober" but still occassionally drank alcohol. While I do not feel that it is appropriate to make conclusions about Whitney's cause of death prior to the release of the autopsy reports, I do believe that her life has been a cautionary tale. Whether or not drug addiction is found to be the cause of death, it is clear that Whitney and her loved ones were negatively impacted by her untreated addiction.

Whitney was spotted drinking alcohol at Kelly Price's party two days before her death—truly playing with fire given her three prior rehab stints. While I do not always agree with Dr. Drew Pinsky's tendency to make premature diagnosis of celebrities without actual medical records, I am in complete agreement with his outrage at the minimization from several of Whitney's friends of her drinking champagne before her death at a Hollywood party, given her addiction history. "She had given the last performance of her life that night singing ‘Yes Jesus Loves Me' with R&B singer Kelly Price. ‘Whitney partied,' Price said in an interview. ‘She drank champagne. She sang and gave a performance that was unscheduled. I never expected her to take the stage.' (source: http://drdrew.blogs.cnn.com/2012/02/13/did-pills-play-role-in-houstons-death/?hpt=dr_t1)

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It saddens me that many of the video clips and pictures of Whitney featured to commemorate her life by the media are from more than a decade ago, prior to her addiction. I, too, had forgotten the past brilliance of her voice and performing ability and have been mesmerized by these clips. Through the years, she has become visibly weathered and her demeanor has changed considerably. Therefore, in light of her recent death, some feel that it is important to focus solely on her many achievements and the "glory years" and to ignore the drug addiction issue altogether. However, I feel that it is important that Whitney's story be used as a cautionary tale in order to help others with addictions to get help before they destroy their lives and talent.

Just two years ago, she admitted to Oprah that she was still drinking alcohol after being in rehab, yet falsely considered herself "sober" (see interview and blog below). Fast forward two years, and not much had changed—she seemed unable to have the "comeback" that she was hoping for. Her voice was clearly damaged and she presented herself with a rough demeanor and weathered physical appearance—the deterioration was obvious and sad. Whether or not her death was the result of her addiction, drugs and alcohol have clearly ravaged her life, and it appears that friends, loved ones, and record/film execs did not have the courage nor did they care enough about her to confront her and to set limits. The "VIP syndrome" leads so many celebrities to become exceptions to the rules, as caregivers and loved ones "tiptoe" around the issues and lower their standards of care to prevent conflict.

So the question remains, should the media defer to the VIP syndrome and only focus on Whitney's talent? I personally believe that we can all honor her life by opening up a dialogue about the importance for addicts to be truly sober, the need for appropriate addiction treatment, and the curse that fame and power have in sustaining true recovery from addictions...

Blog entry from September 22, 2009
The Oprah Winfrey Show aired a two-part interview with Whitney Houston on Monday, September 14th and Tuesday, September 15th. This revealing interview covered topics that the public has been waiting to hear about—from her relationship with Bobby Brown, to her daughter, to her career hiatus, to drugs. The striking part of this interview personally was the discussion about the chaos in her life, tumultuous marriage and Bobby Brown's alcoholism and drug addiction. At times, it felt as though Houston's drugs addiction was the "white elephant" in the room, only to be acknowledged as an issue when Oprah asked the following questions.
Oprah: Tell me how bad did it get, the drugs?

Whitney: When you don't speak and you live in the same home and you're sitting right next to that person and you're not saying a word for a week? You're just sitting there? And you're just watching TV? That's bad. ...

Oprah: You're just watching TV and doing coke? Or are you smoking?

Whitney: We were lacing our marijuana with base. We weren't on crack. We weren't on no crack stuff. We weren't buying $20 jumbos. We were paying money. We were buying kilos and ounces and ounces. We would have our stash.

Oprah: But you were freebasing cocaine.

Whitney: Basically. ... We weren't doing pipe smoking. We didn't get that far.
Oprah: Did the drugs give you any sense of relief?

Whitney: At times. Don't forget, there were some times we'd laugh our tails off. We had a ball. Sometimes you do have a good time. But when it gets to the point where you're sitting in your home and you're just trying to cover what you don't want people to know. It's painful. And then you want more just so that you don't let anybody see you cry. Or anybody to see we're not happy. ...
(Source: http://www.oprah.com/article/seriesandspecials/previousshows/pkgscreeningroom/20090831-tows-whitney-houston/15 )

Given that she began using drugs in 1996, the statements above about her drug use, admitting that she attended rehab at least two times and was intervened on by her own mother—the following part of the interview was somewhat shocking.
Oprah: Does that mean you're drug free?

Whitney: Yes ma'am—I mean, y' know—don't think that doesn't mean I don't have desires for it. There are times it take a minute to cleanse—get off, get off me—I have to pray it away.

Oprah: Absolutely.

Whitney: I have to pray it away. I have a drink now and then, don't get me wrong. If you see me at a bar, don't think...

Oprah: Don't think she's gone back.

Whitney: Please don't do that to me.

Oprah: Because drinking wasn't your issue.

Whitney: No, that wasn't an issue for me—but no week, no coke, no.

Oprah: Do you think you ever will again be tempted?

Whitney: Oprah, I can only take today, one day at a time, one day at a time. Right now no.

Oprah: Right now no.

Whitney: No.

Houston reported attending several rehab facilities in the past few years, where she would have learned that she would need to abstain from both drugs AND alcohol in order to be sober and to maintain long term recovery. The message that Houston gave viewers in this interview is that if you are a drug addict, then you do not need to abstain from other mood altering drugs such as alcohol (with the exception of medications that are taken AS PRESCRIBED by a medical professional). She appears to justify drinking "now and then" because alcohol "wasn't an issue" for her. However, it is known within the addiction treatment and recovery world that in order to be truly sober, a drug addict would also need to abstain from alcohol—even if they did not consider themselves an alcoholic. The same applies for sober alcoholics who report that they do not have a problem with marijuana—it should be understood that sobriety will involve abstaining from marijuana as well.

You may ask, what is the rationale for this sobriety criteria?
1. Addicts and alcoholics often return to their drug of choice when they are not fully sober: For example, a cocaine addict reports not having a problem with alcohol, drinks "occasionally" and abstains from cocaine. Drinking alcohol lowers inhibitions, and this greatly increases and almost guarantees a higher chance of turning back to using his or her drug of choice—in this case cocaine. The same applies for the alcoholic who quits drinking but smokes marijuana because they report that they do not have a problem with it. While high on marijuana, judgment is impaired and inhibitions are reduced, therefore leading him or her closer to or to the point of relapse.

2. Alcoholics and drug addicts may become addicted to a substance that they were not originally addicted to: If a Vicodin (pain medication) addict abstains from that drug and reports "not" having an alcohol problem but occasionally drinks alcohol, he or she may develop an alcohol problem. Addicts or alcoholics turn to outside substances to fix internal problems and also have addictive tendencies physiologically and psychologically. Therefore, to use alcohol or drugs that they claim "not" to have a problem with, opens the door to developing a new addiction.

3. True recovery from addiction involves learning to live life without drugs and alcohol: Alcoholics and drug addicts wreak havoc in their lives and those of their loved ones. Therefore, why would they take a chance that they may relapse or start a new addiction? Only an addict would even want to take that chance. Recovery is the process of an alcoholic or drug addict finding physical, psychological and spiritual balance in their lives without the use of mind altering substances (with the exception of medications that are taken AS PRESCRIBED by a medical professional) and by living their lives consciously. Alcohol and drugs are an escape that prevent the alcoholic or addict from learning to appropriately cope with life stressors and to tolerate pain and discomfort without trying to escape.

So the following questions remain: Why would Whitney Houston, after all of the pain, embarrassment, damage and danger that her addiction has caused her and her loved ones, consider going to "bars" in the future and choose to drink alcohol? What message is she sending to all of the sober or active alcoholics and drug addicts who saw that show? These are questions that she should honestly ask herself. In addition, assuming that she has some form of ongoing treatment team and/or recovery program should be addressing with her. Maybe because Houston was able to remain somewhat "functioning" despite her drug addiction due to her financial status, she did not hit a bottom low enough to take her recovery seriously.

A majority of The Oprah Winfrey show interview with Whitney Houston is available in transcript form at: http://www.oprah.com/article/oprahshow/20090831-tows-whitney-houston

For information about high-functioning alcoholics and alcoholism treatment resources, please visit www.highfunctioningalcoholic.com.

Sarah Allen Benton, M.S., L.M.H.C., LPC, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Professional Views and Personal Insights.

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