"I always compare her performance of that song with a great athlete hitting his peak — with Michael Jordan in the playoffs. It was the absolute pinnacle of what she could do, of what anyone could do — and then she had to keep on doing it. Everybody wanted to hear her sing that song, and so she sang it. It didn't matter whether she had a cold, or wasn't in good voice; she had to deliver it, and she had it arranged so she could deliver every last note. And even if the note wasn't there, the feeling was. A lot of her songs were like that. They were a lot to deliver, but she delivered them every note, every time."
-- Robyn Crawford, long-time friend of Whitney Houston, telling Esquire Magazine about what happened after the singer recorded "I Will Always Love You" for the soundtrack to "The Bodyguard"
In the wake of Whitney Houston's death much is being written about drug addiction and alcohol abuse and abusing subscription pills and much more because it is known that Houston struggled with addiction issues and may hypothesize that these issues may have lead to her early death. The prevailing thought that I see over and over again regarding that addiction is often related to why other people have become addicts (self-medicating for a mental illness, addiction runs in the family, taking drugs to "cope" with emotional pain, etc.) -- but the theories people focus on are the ones routinely romanticized by the public and addicts alike.
Even though there's hardly anything romantic about the ravages of addiction.
It doesn't meant that people don't self-medicate for mental illness (see Kurt Cobain), that addiction isn't hereditary for some (see Drew Barrymore) and that people don't take drugs to "cope" (see Lyndon B. Johnson, smoking himself to death after the end of his presidency out of guilt over Vietnam.) All that is very true. But many people are avoiding a reason why many people find themselves addicts and it has little to do with your familial DNA or life tragedy.
It's about your life and how (for a while) substances make it easier.
Now before you think this is going to be one of those "being in entertainment means becoming an addict," let's strike that one from go. It doesn't. Plenty of people go off to work in high pressure industries like entertainment or journalism and don't end up looking at the bottom of a pill bottle to solve their problems. But there are many fields of work, including the media and entertainment, sports, interstate truck driving, hospital work, emergency services, the military or being an airport traffic control operator -- that might make you consider taking drugs to help you do your job.
Any job that requires you to be alert constantly or perform at a high level for extended periods of time with little sleep will create stress. It's not uncommon for those dealing with that stress (and doing their best to continue to succeed at their jobs in spite of it) will start taking a combination of uppers and downers to "enhance" their work performance. Or unwind after work. Or just to feel normal. Or to keep them awake even though they're exhausted and don't know anymore what city they're in today because all roads and all hotel rooms look the same.
This type of drug abuse is what befell singer/actress Judy Garland, whose mother was feeding her pills as a child. Pills to get up. Pills to go to sleep. Pills to give her high energy when she had none so she could be on time, do her job, be a delight to work with and make money.
The only problem with taking drugs to enhance your work is that there's a fine line between this form of self-medication and abuse. What starts as popping a Xanax before a performance to calm potential stage fright, what began as a drink or two so you'd be in the mood to schmooze and "be fun" to the delight of co-workers, industry insiders and fans alike at the after party, becomes something you need to do just to do anything. And soon that turns into addiction and soon the drugs that once helped you perform all night and do things people couldn't believe you could do, turns into the thing that robs you of that talent, skill and ability.
People forget that even though Michael Jackson died abusing hospital grade sedatives, his abuse of pain killers started after he was injured in the 1980s on the set of a Pepsi commercial and suffered severe burns to his scalp. Many people get addicted to pain killers this way -- simply taking the drugs they were prescribed to deal with severe pain. That's not necessarily about sadness or weakness or coping -- that's about "They gave me this to make me feel better and now I'm addicted to it. Now I can't sleep without it and if I can't get sleep, I can't perform. If I can't perform, I can't make music. If I can't make music, who am I? I'm not Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson makes music."
The problem isn't there are too many drugs. Or that people are "weak." Or that we're all delicate creatures who take one whiff of "reefer madness" and turn into drug zombies. (Because, dirty secret, many, many people do take drugs -- both pharmaceutical and street -- and don't become addicts.) America is a competitive place. People who admit to being tired or needing to spend time with their family or have "stress" are ridiculed as "weak" and not ready. We're a whole culture of people who are encouraged to "play through the pain" and you will be handsomely rewarded. This is true if you're a professional athlete or a singer or on the floor of the U.S. stock exchange. The first one to arrive at the office and the last one who leaves at the end of the day is celebrated. But it's a myth that everyone who is able to make it work in a 24 hour society is doing it naturally. Some can. Many others can't. Those who can't, but still have the drive, use some kind of substance to help. Sometimes those substances get over-used in the pursuit to perfection and sometimes those people become addicts.
I don't know Whitney Houston and I don't know what killed her. But I do know she had a high pressure job where many, many people were relying on her. If she missed a show, it wasn't just her reputation that took a hit -- the people who worked for her didn't get paid. People didn't eat unless Whitney Houston got up and sang. And she couldn't just half-ass it. She had to make the magic happen every time otherwise folks would want their money back. And she never asked for anyone's pity because this was the life she chose. She wanted to be on stage. She probably hoped she could keep that balance -- of doing what you had to do to get up and perform, get to work, make the records and the money, and the world would never know she couldn't work, relax or have a good time without a little help from her friends. After all, she'd probably seen other people do it and figured she could do it to.
Because not everyone who does it becomes an addict. Others just get to be stars. But it's not like those people are going to come out and admit ... maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's Adderall.