Whitney Houston's death is sad. Any time great talent and creativity is lost from our world, it's a loss for us all. But what's more sad is the woman and life herself. Though it was immediately speculated upon at the time of her death, we now have the official coroners verdict: Whitney Houston did indeed have drugs in her system at the time of her death and they played a clear role in her unintentional drowning. Whitney is hardly the only person to struggle with addiction. From the very famous to the utterly anonymous, no area of our society is immune, no set of life circumstances insulate us. The questions are: what are the underlying reasons for addiction? What can be done? How can we make sense of this tragedy and thousands of others like it?
In recent years, we've come to think about addiction as primarily a medical disease, one with a possibly genetic origin. One positive reason for this shift is that it's a way to destigmatize those suffering with addiction. This encourages addicts to seek treatment and their loved ones to feel more comfortable in confronting the situation.I appreciate that and support the compassionate intention behind that approach. Ultimately, though, I think addiction is primarily a spiritual issue.
The truth is, I've never met a happy addict. Genuinely happy, peaceful, self-aware, and blissful people simply don't become addicts. Or, if they were once addicts but now find themselves in a solid place, spiritually speaking, they're susceptibility to relapse is minimal, perhaps nonexistent. I realize this is a strong claim. It's not one that I make lightly. As someone who has taught and counseled hundreds of people struggling with alcohol or drug problems and who once, more than twenty years ago, found myself in the Emergency Room at Stanford Hospital on the brink of a stroke because of my own accidental drug overdose, I feel qualified to offer some insight into what was happening with Whitney Houston--and addicts everywhere.
The foundation of addiction is confusion about what really makes us happy. People who rely too much upon alcohol or drugs are either looking for ways to numb their mental and spiritual pain or to produce euphoric highs that they hope will give them as much pleasure as possible.
In Whitney's case, we can see this clearly. They found three drugs in her system, Xanax (a prescription drug for anxiety), marijuana, and cocaine. Xanax and weed give a temporary sense of inner peace. Cocaine heightens one's confidence and sense of pleasure. In all these cases, Whitney was using drugs as a substitute for genuine happiness. She wanted to feel inner peace but didn't know how to genuinely achieve it, hence the counterfeit peace of Xanax and pot. She wanted to feel something positive, deep, and intensely joyful, but didn't know how to tap into the reservoir of bliss within, so she substituted cocaine instead.
My guess, too, is that in Whitney's case something else was at work. She had discovered that so much of what most of us idolize and spend our lives chasing is in fact empty, meaningless, and joyless. Misery comes when we place too much emphasis on external things: wealth, sex, romance, fame, beauty, or power. When we search for fulfillment in these things, we're bound to be miserable. It's illustrative that by all accounts Whitney's own struggles with alcohol and drugs didn't start until AFTER she was rich and famous. She achieved these things--perhaps the culmination of a life-long dream--only to discover how empty and meaningless they really are. If you don't have anywhere else to turn, but you've reached the pinnacle of what society tells us the top, and yet your still miserable, then this becomes not only confusing but also creates genuine despair. Alcohol and drugs help blot out the confusion and spiritual pain generated by the shocking discovery that those things which we've been desperately seeking are actually empty and meaningless.
Sadly, while it's too late for Whitney (at least in this life) to learn these lessons, it's not too late for us. Her tragic loss need not be in vain. Instead of seeking to numb ourselves or hedonistically pursue pleasure, we can use this opportunity to learn something about ourselves and to make an unshakeable commitment to find genuine, lasting happiness in all the right ways, through the expansion of our inner awareness and discovery of the abiding reservoir of bliss within.