Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whitney Houston's Troubling Death

Less than 24 hours ago, the word began to spread that singer Whitney Houston had been found dead in her hotel room.

There have been paroxysms of public mourning ever since. It's gotten to the point where I really feel that this is the flip side of the Michael Jackson experience. And that is appropriate, I guess. Even in his lifetime, Jackson was known as the "King of Pop" — and, more than once, I have heard Houston called the "Queen of Pop."

And both had well–publicized battles with drugs. (I'm not talking about the light stuff, either.)

Tributes have been pouring in, and, appropriately, there will be one at tonight's Grammy Awards. It's really too soon to put together the kind of star–studded salute that the Grammy organizers would have preferred for someone of Houston's stature, but, as the executive producer noted, the Grammys would be "remiss" if something wasn't done.


So Jennifer Hudson — who is, arguably, this generation's Whitney Houston — will perform. And more garments can be rent.

These accolades are coming in while the effort goes on to determine the cause of her death. The Los Angeles Times reports that police have found no evidence of foul play, but there is always the issue of drugs and/or alcohol, which figured prominently in Houston's professional decline.

At this point, the Times says police have found no evidence that drugs played a role, either, but it will take time to reach a conclusion on that.

"In other cases of high–profile figures dying unexpectedly, the investigations lasted for months and included detailed toxicology tests," reports the Times. "It took nearly three months for the coroner to officially rule on the death of Michael Jackson in 2009."

Whatever the results of those tests may suggest, I think it is fair to say that Houston's history of substance abuse did play a role in her death.

It may not have been directly caused by a lethal dosage of drugs — either prescription or illegal — but I believe it was helped by a culture that condones the demonizing and criminalizing of drug users. Not all people who use illegal drugs are addicts, just as not all people who consume alcohol are alcoholics, but society insists on treating them as if they were.

If things get out of hand, alcoholics can seek help without being ostracized. (There have even been times, in fact, when it was trendy for alcohol abusers to seek professional help.) The former cannot. And that can influence one's general willingness to seek medical help in any emergency.

It was reported last year that Houston was going back into rehab, and it was reported only a few days ago that Houston had been acting erratically in public. Those two items alone suggest that there was something wrong behind the scenes.

Maybe they were related. Maybe they were not. There may be some medical factor at work here that no one knows about, something that went undiagnosed during Houston's life.

I recall that, when I was a teenager, a boy who was a few years younger and had a talent for basketball was at practice one day when he collapsed and died. Turned out he had a rare heart condition. He'd passed all his physical examinations over the years, but no one had ever pinpointed the tiny genetic defect that would end his life at the age of 14 or 15.

Perhaps something similar will be uncovered as these tests are conducted.

And if that turns out to be the case, it will be a tragedy — especially if the post–mortem conclusion turns out to be that she died in spite of what should have been easily observable symptoms that something was wrong. Her reason for ignoring such a condition could have been innocent — or it could have stemmed from a desire to obscure her use of illegal substances.

If substance abuse was treated like other diseases in this culture, maybe those around Houston could have encouraged her to seek medical help that might have saved her life. And she might have heeded their advice — absent the stigma.

But this culture prefers to criminalize people for their weaknesses. Today, when the political debate includes discussions of budgets with deficits in the trillions, there are those who want to test people who apply for government assistance, be it unemployment benefits or food stamps.

(This is in spite of the fact that the Fourth Amendment — part of the Bill of Rights in which patriotic Americans always swear they believe — protects American citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures and requires judicially sanctioned warrants that are backed by probable cause.)

The discussion raises an issue that was at the heart of the founding of this country — freedom from the tyranny of the state.

If the state can seize someone's bodily fluids without probable cause, it can search someone's home or automobile just as easily — and, freed of that tedious restriction of having to look for specific evidence of a specific crime, the state could seize anything and use it as evidence of anything. Facts be damned.

Without my Fourth Amendment rights, the police could burst into my home, whether I was there or not, seize a steak knife from my kitchen, claim that it was used to stab someone I didn't know with no proof that I was present when he/she was killed and throw me into jail indefinitely.

I don't know what Houston's financial situation was like at the time of her death or what kind of impact her substance abuse may have had, but I gather that the general perception is that, because of her success, she left behind a considerable estate.

Be that as it may, the only real difference between well–to–do addicts and underprivileged ones is the availability of funds.

Money affords the affluent the means to acquire the drug(s) they want and the silence of their supplier(s). Things are a lot more complicated for the underprivileged. But it is reasonable to believe that, unless there is a good, sound reason to think otherwise, if someone applies for unemployment assistance, that person will use it for necessities — food, clothing, shelter.

Instead, there are those who would happily make them the scapegoats for a persistently terrible economy and require them to jump through more hoops to get a few hundred dollars so they can put food in their bellies and clothes on their backs.

That mindset is plenty for substance abusers to fear even if they already have the funds that give them access to the substances they abuse. It is this criminal attitude as much as anything that contributes to the early deaths of good people.

It reminds me in many ways of the early years of the AIDS epidemic — when the prevailing mindset was that, if one was sick with AIDS, it was probably because of his own reckless (and possibly illegal) behavior.

Worse, there were those who added to the stigma by suggesting that AIDS victims deserved to die. (I continued to hear people say that, by the way, even after many well–publicized cases of people who got sick through blood transfusions.)

Consequently, it was no surprise that many AIDS victims retreated into the shadows. Granted, there was little in the way of treatment for them in the early years, but that was largely because funding for research was scarce. Many simply chose to suffer in silence.

Even as they were dying, many insisted that the cause not be mentioned or that more innocuous phrases (i.e., "complications from pneumonia") be used in their obituaries. I always thought it was indescribably sad that someone would be so concerned about appearances on one's deathbed.

Our culture lost so many good people in those days because of that destructive mindset. It still exists, and it still judges harshly, indefensibly, neglecting people because of their weaknesses and labeling them criminals.

Whitney Houston may or may not have contributed to her own death, but there is blood on society's hands.

As a culture, we failed her, just as we fail the others like her, regardless of their social standing, with our smug, superior, judgmental attitudes.

It's too late to help Houston. Is it too late to help the others?

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