Autopsy, The Last Hours of Whitney Houston
I had only been talking about drugs and their impact on our bodily organs the other day, when I spotted a new documentary series on Channel 5, Autopsy. I knew it was one I couldn’t miss, especially the first, which was about Whitney Houston, as I grew up with her music, attended her concert in 2001, and we were of similar age. Like many I was touched, shocked and saddened by her death two years ago.
The programme started with a world renowned forensic pathologist introducing the coroner’s autopsy report and telling us that within its pages lies the story of Whitney’s life, as well as the crucial days and hours leading to her death. Throughout the programme he shows us how he has pieced together, by thoroughly examining the report and her body externally and internally, the unique set of circumstances that brought to an abrupt end, her life, unexpectedly and prematurely. He manages to answer the questions that need answering in order to lay the gossip, and Houston herself, to rest, and he does this by reading all the signs.
Addiction is a subject close to my heart as it comes in its many forms into my practice daily and is much more common than we think. Addicts have little support and are generally made to feel shame rather than encouraged to truly heal. The cards are stacked against them.
Whitney had been in LA for the 2012 Grammy Awards, the music industry’s most important night, where she was going to make her big comeback. She had apparently been sober for nine months post rehab. Things were looking up when she arrived in Beverley Hills, named the city of temptation for good reason, a week in advance of the annual pre awards party hosted and in her honour, by Clive Davis, her manager. A couple of days before the events she was celebrating her new record deal, and the extent of her partying and loss of control were observed by the press who were watching her closely.
Initially she seemed on good form, her voice was stronger than it had been on other unsuccessful comebacks. Evidentially she was benefitting from her recent break from smoking and drug abuse. She drank a lot but she managed to keep her drug relapse hidden from even those very close to her. A combination of cocaine and alcohol lead to her turning jealous and aggressive which of course was seen by all the tabloid newspapers when she left the nightclub.
The programme makers also managed to interview the actual drug dealer who supplied her with pens filled with cocaine – the pen trick – which, in full view, they deceptively swapped for cash while autograph signing during that short period of time. Without remorse he spoke of his role in her downfall for which he takes no responsibility. And I have mixed feelings as to whether he should. It is, after all, the entire system, not one individual, which feeds addiction and the devil within. The medical system also failed Whitney. The unethical and dangerous loophole of ‘doctor shopping’, which resulted in her receiving multiple prescriptions of highly addictive anti-anxiety meds from several sources, also contributed to her sedation, loss of control and awareness. And of course the media played their part in her downfall too, as well as of course Whitney herself.
There were several flashbacks to a heart breaking and very uncomfortable interview she had with Diane Sawyer ten years earlier, where her denial of the extent of a problem was evident, even to the point of her completely discounting that her behaviour was self destructive. She said she was not an addict, but she had a bad habit that could be broken. She said ‘I am not a person who wants to die, I am a person who has life and wants to live, and always have, and never mistake it for anything other than that.’ She was unfortunately deluded. Whitney felt that she was in control, and that put her in the most dangerous situation of all.
Whitney died in the bath. She drowned. Not because she slipped into an unconscious state from daytime drinking, as many may have wondered. She was preparing herself for her big comeback that night, and as the toxicology report showed, she had been taking prescribed medication that morning as she was feeling out of sorts from playing too hard in the days before. The more she took, the less aware she was of their impact. She prepared for herself a relaxing bath, she was said to be happy and on good form by then, and she smoked some freebase (crack) cocaine, her drug of choice, just before she climbed into the tub.
Had she been sober and dipped her toe in, her senses would have warned her that the bath was too hot. But her natural response to pain had been dampened down and so within a few seconds of standing in the water (the scalds to her legs reveal), she probably passed out from the shock to her system and the subsequent lowering of her blood pressure – what is known as a Jacuzzi faint. As a result, she fell forward and tragically drowned as a result, facilitated by her already chronic lung and heart degeneration. She was discovered a short while later by her assistant. It only took a few critical minutes for Whitney’s world to come to an end. And the party went ahead that night regardless.
The forensic pathologist explained the effect of her lifestyle on her bodily organs. Her perforated nasal septum from snorting cocaine, emphysema of her lungs from long term smoking which destroyed her remarkable singing voice, the furring and thinning of her arteries close to her heart from chronic smoking and drug abuse (including crack cocaine which she continually denied she used) and the enlargement of her liver from her alcohol binge that week and beyond.
And the programme gave me many answers but left me with an array of thoughts and some questions too. I wonder how we would all feel if we could have an ongoing insight into what impact our lifestyle has on our physical body. If we could see what sugar does to our system, for example. If we could actually observe, day-by-day, how our own diseases progress on an app on our phone or on our computer. If we could just tap in ‘liver’ or ‘lungs’ and keep a log of what we ingest and what impact it has, would we live differently, and would we change our lifestyle if we had evidence of the damage we were doing? We experience the damage all the time and our body sends out signs, but we are trained not to listen. We have a pain, we take a pain killer, and carry on. We push ourselves on all levels, way beyond our natural limits and our body responds to the disorder with disease.
Is there a way that we can learn from these tragedies that happen to a small proportion of the human population, a lesson that is common to all? And are we prepared to learn it before its too late? Is it not true that we all live in denial to some extent? What do you think?
Rowena J Ronson