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Amy Winehouse, Addiction and Individual Rights

The intersection of addiction and individual rights is one where everyone is a loser.

The point where addiction and individual rights meet is, for me, a place with more than enough regret and guilt to go around.

For the addicted individual, it's the point where their rights are protected. For the family of the addicted individual, it's the point where even the best-intentioned are not able to make the decisions they would gladly make to safeguard the health and safety of a loved one.

Unfortunately, I am familiar with these issues because of several older family members who have served as lifelong cautionary tales for me, my three brothers, and each of my 21 cousins. 

To commit these relatives against their will was not possible. To get them to successfully complete rehab was not possible. What was possible was to watch them deteriorate over an interminable time, all the while knowing we might never see them alive again.

I think the sadness and guilt from those experiences explains why I feel so sad at the death of Amy Winehouse.

It's not like she and I hung out or were "peeps," but her "Back to Black" video and her amazing voice are among my favorites. The chronicle of her personal struggles and choices made me anxious—especially her latest cancelled tour—even as I wished her safe passage through her addictions.

From time to time there were quotes from her parents, people who clearly cared about their daughter and expressed a frustration I could relate to firsthand. And now it's done. Their daughter is dead, leaving more than enough heartache, blame and recriminations for one and all.

I understand that in the past the involuntary commitment process, where someone is admitted for treatment without their consent, was abused. People were committed when they shouldn't have been. The solution? The system we now have in place.

The system varies by state, but usually includes a 72-hour involuntary hold if the person is a danger to himself or others. That hold can be followed up by a 14-day additional stay if the person continues to be a danger. After that the individual must be involuntarily committed or can sign out and be on their way.

If the person is incapacitated they will be held, but being capable of leaving and having it be a good idea for that person to leave are entirely different things.

As it stands, a person who considers it rational to consume substances that render them incapable of lucid thought cannot be held involuntarily. A person who considers it rational to sleep outside in the bitter, bitter cold and run the risk of freezing to death cannot be held involuntarily. A person who considers it rational to put all their possessions in a shopping cart, beg for money during the day and sleep under a bridge at night cannot be held involuntarily.

Where is society when these choices are being deemed non-injurious to the individual? Where is our health care system when a person who cannot get through the day without reaching a state of inebriation that renders them incapable of walking without weaving—let alone holding down any type of job—is not considered a person who is a danger to himself or others?

I don't know the right answer to any of these questions. I didn't know it at 17. I regret to say that decades later, I'm still not sure. All I do know is that it's an issue we as a society need to address.

The backlash against Winehouse's parents has already begun. The chorus of voices wondering why they didn't "do something" is already warming up. They may as well save their energy and leave Winehouse's parents alone. We as a society are responsible for what happens to each individual. Their failure to help their daughter is our failure to create a system that protects vulnerable individuals while protecting their rights.

Theresa Defino July 29, 2011 at 01:54 PM
Thanks for the heart-felt post, Gina. I am sure it was difficult to write. I, too, have witnessed family members in this situation and a tragic end to one at a similar age. Amy's case, though, was that she had apparently left treatment in May. Reports now are saying she was suffering from alcohol withdrawal/detox she went through on her own. Beyond the conflict of involuntary/voluntary consent to treatment is the dismal failure of many programs once the person does finally enter care. The revolving door, the lack of good followup, outpatient services, high costs, unconventional methods, etc., are hallmarks of the broken treatment system.
Gina Hagler July 31, 2011 at 03:23 AM
The whole thing is just so frustrating!

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