Amy Winehouse statue

The Lessons of Amy Winehouse

“Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen.” – Amy Winehouse

I’m listening to the Back to Black vinyl right now. And earlier today I watched the Amy Winehouse documentary thinking that I was going to be inspired somehow. Her music isn’t inspiring. It’s painful as was her life. But it reflects the life of a true artist.

Amy briefly mentioned her battle with depression and mental illness when she was a kid up to her teens. Her doctor prescribed medication but she complained that it made her feel strange. Her parents separated and it seemed like she was pretty much left on her own. The music was both her heaven and her hell. She felt comforted when writing and singing at small intimate clubs. But then, as she became more famous, it was her demise.

I think what stands out is that I recognize myself in her. I have had my own addictions. Addiction is self medication. It’s an attempt to feel nothing or feel something. And here’s what I know and recognize from watching the film and understanding a little bit about Amy.

The Feel Nothing

I can only speak for myself and what I observe. These are my opinions. Please keep and mind that I am not a professional. But my work as a journalist and writer, in addition to understanding my own disorder, has made me sensitive to many aspects of human character and emotions.

The ‘Feel Nothing’ is a state of just that, when you feel nothing. To an outsider you are cold and alien. To someone who doesn’t understand, you are selfish and unkind. And often when you’re in the ‘feel nothing’ the people who are closest to you, begin to express anger and may even remove themselves from your life. But this state can either be long term or temporary sporadic episodes.

With me, I tend to have the ‘feel nothing’ a couple of times a week. I think in Amy’s case, this is where the alcohol, drugs and sex come in. Addiction is a quick fix to feel something. We want to feel alive. Sex is usually the preferred addiction for this state. You want to feel the touch of another human being and a connection. You want to feel like you belong to the world. Most of all, you want to feel loved.

When I have a strong case of this, I plan a trip. I run away. I go somewhere to be inspired to write. Also, I want to be away from the people who are toxic. Amy did this in the film a couple of times. When she went away to her friend’s house, holed herself up, she produced Back to Black and regained her health. But there was another time, near the end, when she went to the beach and her dad was there and that was a toxic influence.

The Feel Something

This is similar to the ‘feel nothing’ in that emotions are extreme. When you feel something, you feel too much. Maybe because of addiction or simply because you’re an artist and you function on your highs. You want to feel that constant high. There is no rest. And that’s why drugs are so easy to become addicted too. Chasing the dragon, that wonderful feeling of being on a cloud, excited, open. That’s your mind being twisted. It’s your heart rate going on. It’s an illusion.

The ‘feel something’ can be too much and you need the rest. I don’t suffer from the highs as much. And when I do, I fear the consequences of the overstimulation. I know that the highs won’t last long and that puts me in an immediate depression.

Sex is that way too. That ecstasy you feel when you are with someone and have an incredible orgasm, yeah, but without love or a real relationship, what is it? It’s nothing. And when you realize it wasn’t real, you end up a mess. This was an Amy lesson. She fell in love with a person who kept her in the dirt instead of lifting her up.

“I do suffer from depression, I suppose. Which isn’t that unusual. You know, a lot of people do.”

Amy Winehouse and husband Blake
arriving at the 2007 MTV Movie Awards. Gibson Amphitheatre, Universal City, CA. 06-03-07

Love Game

Speaking of love, this transitions to the other lesson. And it’s a big one. People like us, who are fragile and have the vulnerability of a mollusk without a shell, have no business falling in love with the wrong people. Yes, it may make our art better, but it can be destructive. “Love is blind”is not just a cliche. Love is a drug. A powerful force. Amy was a victim and the results were a beautiful album but also a fierce addiction to crack and heroine.

My own love destruction hasn’t necessarily been limited to romantic. At this state in my life, I can remove myself from a romantic situation. It’s self preservation. And a skill I learned after I separated from husband. No, my vulnerable spot is my child. My little girl whom I would kill and die for. Having and loving a child is a blessing and a curse. A blessing for obvious reasons. A curse because for the rest of your days, you become a slave to the worry. And their pain is your pain. I think one film that demonstrates perfectly what it’s like being a mother with mental health issues is I Smile Back, which I wrote about.

The Artist

As mentioned earlier, a lot of highly creative people suffer from mental disorder. If you want to read an interesting article that links the artist and the tortured soul, read this article by Adrienne Sussman from the Stanford Journal of Neuroscience. Take the background of any painter, writer, musician, actor, whatever, and usually the story is that of tragedy, loneliness, depression and extreme emotions. And the only way to let the demons out is to do that thing they do best.

For me, writing has been the one constant in my life that makes me feel better and I don’t have to harm my body to do it. It started, in fact, when I was young. I excelled in my English classes because I was highly creative and fearless when it came to writing. I remember a high school English teacher telling me that she was confident I was going to be a famous writer one day after reading a horror story I wrote to the class.

But like Amy, I can’t be pushed to do it. I have long episodes where I rather be in bed or out drinking than stuck inside writing. Lately, I have to force myself to do it because I’m too sad and the pain is too much.

The Extroverted Introvert

I’m not a people person. But I am. I hate parties but I want to be invited. I want to feel like people want me. But when I am in a crowd, drink in hand, I panic and drink some more and brood in a dark corner. It’s a weird thing though. For so long I have been a journalist and have interviewed famous and important people. When I am on my stage, I am fearless. And that is also my high. But put me in a room full of people and I want to be at home with the covers over my head.

Sometimes I am in a situation where I meet new people, like a dinner party, and the panic sets in for about 30 minutes. And then by the end of the night, I don’t want to leave and somehow I become the life of the party.

Amy’s friends said she was shy. Perhaps the drinking helped her come out of her shell. Towards the end, she would perform under the influence. And I can understand that. Crowds when you don’t want attention are terrifying. She just wanted to sing in jazz clubs. She didn’t want to be on stage in huge stadiums. Her mental state wasn’t prepared for that. She paid the price.

I was hit by a car once on my bike, but I still rode home.
I say this all the time. Every day is a struggle for me. As selfish as it sounds. I want to keep on but I want more than that. I want to be happy. I want to do what I love. And I want to be with the people I love. I don’t need fancy things. I want to be connected.
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