You’re expecting me to say that love addiction killed Whitney Houston, aren’t you? When all you have is a hammer, after all, every problem looks like a nail. My hammer is the addictive model of romantic fantasy. I’m the one who said Amy Winehouse died of love addiction, that drug and alcohol dependence were her coping mechanism for an underlying problem. I said that Etta James — who wrote “I’d rather go blind/ Than see you with another girl” — was the vocal standard-bearer for the love addict.
And now there’s Whitney Houston, simultaneously a transcendent world-class talent… and a hope-to-die drug addict. She first gained fame thanks to an Eliza Doolittle/Professor Higgins relationship with record executive Clive Davis, who famously locked a roomful of music critics in a studio and made them listen to her debut album from start to finish. Later, her insane marriage to Bobby Brown played out in the tabloids and on reality TV. Still, her most destructive love affair was with the pipe.
Scratch an alcoholic and you’ll usually find a codependent, which is the nicer way of saying love junkie. And crack addiction is alcoholism… well, on crack. An addict in recovery will tell you that drugs and alcohol were a solution before they became a problem, a way to soothe an existential dis-ease that permeates the very marrow of our bones. A neuroscientist will tell you that cocaine activates the same chemical “reward cascade” in the brain as being in love.
When Kenny Rogers sang about “love or something like it,” he probably didn’t realize that “something like it” sells by the $20 rock. But, chemically, it does.
Which brings us in a roundabout way to Dolly Parton, who wrote Whitney’s signature hit “I Will Always Love You.” It sounds like just the sort of pop song I decry, a desperate declaration of undying enmeshment. Pop music has always specialized in the longing and the loss; anything between “I want you so bad” and “I miss you so much” is generally overlooked by the Top 40. Not so “I Will Always Love You.”
“I hope life treats you kind/ And I hope you have all you’ve dreamed of/ And I wish to you, joy and happiness/ But above all this, I wish you love.” A sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous may recognize this sentiment as the template for a Resentment Prayer. When we simmer with anger towards another — and who isn’t angry at their ex? — we’re supposed to pray for them to have all the gifts we would wish for ourselves.
Personally, I usually preface the prayer with “Okay, God, you and I both know I really want him to eat glass and die. But….”
“I wish you joy and happiness… I wish you love” is not the wounded cry of the love junkie. That’s the prayer of a healthy person who can separate and remain whole. It was written by a woman who’s been in a “monogamish” relationship with the same man since 1964.
So, yes, I think Whitney Houston was addicted to love and I think it contributed to her early and tragic death. But she leaves us with a transcendent soundtrack of recovery. It is possible to let someone go with love, instead of leaving claw marks all over them.
(Photo by Jim Steinfeldt c1987)