In an instant, you get this strong sense of recognition paired with waves of arousal and euphoria.
Sometimes music hits me like that. You’re forever changed when it does. Something shifts.
That’s what happened to me early 2007, sitting alone at my desk in a high-rise building in Atlanta, when I first listened to Amy Winehouse’s album, Back to Black.
As I listened, I felt my brain expand inside its cranial cage. My heart grew to twice its size. I stifled my giggles at her clever lyrics as my eyes welled with admiration. This chick had not only incredibly original vocal stylings, but major cojones and she didn’t care who knew it.
She wrote poetry dripping with vulnerability and sexy imagery. Simultaneously classy, witty, and raunchy. Brilliant words that made your heart break because you could feel her heart breaking, too.
Yesterday, I caught the last showing of Amy a day after the four-year anniversary of her death. The film was most revealing of her good nature, kind of surprising after how she’s been portrayed in the media all these years. But then, drugs and alcohol do change a person. To that, I can personally attest.
Early on in the film, Amy uses the typical ruse of “being an artist” for her alcohol abuse. She’s nonchalant and dismissive that it’s much of a problem, really, because that’s the life she’s chosen and that’s just the way things are. She’s an artist. What other path is there?
It was clear she had already resigned herself to an untimely demise even as her career was just taking off. She bought the story and didn’t question or fight it.
I wish I could say that her situation is unique to the famous, but we both know it’s not.
I bought into that story myself for many years. And I see it all around me in New Orleans, a hub for artistic, sensitive types who also buy into the notion that their creativity comes from a place of suffering and darkness. And, really, every city offers an endless buffet of substances promising to make that suffering a bit more bearable.
Except the big lie is that is doesn’t help make it more bearable. It makes that shit nothing but worse.
So what does make it better? Is it possible to claw your way out of your own delicious downward spiral? I think so. But you better have even bigger cojones than Amy did.
For starters, you better have the balls to be honest with yourself that you have a problem. It’s scary to admit that you’re stuck and you don’t know how to deal or heal.
You better have the balls to reach out for help, to seek a family member’s strength, a friend’s comfort, a therapist or, ahem, rehab. Because, like Amy’s family and my own, chances are no one’s going to help pull you up or even toss you a line. Heck, they might not even know you have a problem. But you know. Are you being honest with yourself?
And you better be able to consider the possibility that things will get better. That you might be able to love and treat yourself like a friend one day instead of waiting for everyone else to. That this struggle doesn’t have to be for the rest of your life. You must believe you can get past it.
Alcohol was a great distraction for me because it gave me the kind of attention I was after. All the cool kids love you when you’re the life of the party and can drink them under the table.
…was once music to my ears.
Probably the most difficult task of all is choosing to focus on yourself and your art for a change, instead of feeding the discontent, the self-loathing, the attention whore inside of you. What are you going to do instead of getting wasted every week with your friends? How are you going to spend those several hours a day you’ll gain by not blaming your lack of creativity on your hangover or general malaise? It’s hard to imagine, I know.
You can’t expect to heal if you binge drink under the guise of “moderation” or torture yourself with that seasonal detox only to retox when it’s over and think you’ve done yourself a favor.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that you must suffer for your art, your relationships, popularity, attention, anything or anyone. It doesn’t make you a martyr. Consider these words by Steven Pressfield in his book, The War of Art:
“Remember, the part of us that we imagine needs healing is not the part we create from; that part is far deeper and stronger. The part we create from can’t be touched by anything our parents did, or society did. That part is unsullied, uncorrupted; soundproof, waterproof, and bulletproof. In fact, the more troubles we’ve got, the better and richer that part becomes.
The part that needs healing is our personal life. Personal life has nothing to do with work. Besides, what better way of healing than to find our center of self-sovereignty? Isn’t that the whole point of healing?”
Amy may have had the balls to put her private life into her poetry, but she didn’t have the guts to try to learn to love herself. Her dependency wasn’t solely on substances; it was also on approval, attention, and that unfortunately low artistic standard.
The beginning of healing is love. Love yourself first. I promise, it doesn’t hurt.