When Whitney Houston died on Saturday, my Twitter feed exploded. I had been at home watching Dawson’s Creek (I wish I was joking) when I went online and saw all of these tweets that said something to the effect of “OMG, Whitney Houston! So sad…” For some reason, none of the ones I read had specified that she died but I had a feeling that was the case. Just hours earlier, I was checking the gossip blogs and came across pictures of Whitney the night before she died. She looked like a hot mess with scratches on her wrist as she left a club in Hollywood, and I remember thinking briefly, “Oh, that’s sad. She’s clearly not clean,” and moving on. Photos of Whitney looking insane and possibly under the influence of drugs were not shocking to me and many others. Whitney Houston may’ve been legendary for her voice but in the last 15 years, she had become more known for her appearances on the short-lived reality series Being Bobby Brown and battling a drug addiction. Her arc was very similar to Michael Jackson’s in that way. Both had been untouchable stars in the ’80s and ’90’s who later became consumed with drugs. Right before they died, we assumed they were getting better but that clearly wasn’t the case. In the end, they would have a marred legacy. There would be no comeback for either of them.
I must admit that Whitney Houston’s death didn’t come as a shock. In fact, the most shocking thing about it was discovering that she was only 48-years-old. Years of drug use had aged her considerably and I had long assumed she was in her mid-fifties. But despite my lack of surprise, it still stung in a way that it always does when a celebrity passes away, especially one who’s as iconic as Whitney Houston. The thought of her puttering out alone in some hotel bathtub makes you realize she wasn’t so untouchable after all. On the contrary, she was more vulnerable than you and I could ever imagine. Whitney Houston being a beloved actress and singer couldn’t protect her from her own death. She was Whitney Houston, the drug addict who could never kick the habit. That’s the identity that won out in the end.
I’m not going to pretend I was Whitney’s biggest fan — I think I actually only have one song of hers on my iTunes — but I will respect her in death. I will always be sensitive to the plights of an addict. How could I not be? When she died, people on my Twitter feed were already making jokes about her crack use or confusing her for Whitney Cummings. It was a disgusting display of the Internet’s capacity for cruelty. Snark is the go-to emotion for most things on the web. Not even a celebrity’s death is invincible to it.
Anyone who grew up with an addict or struggled with drugs themselves would never make a joke about someone ODing. Or I would hope they wouldn’t. Because they know how bad it can get, they know how many things it can destroy before it actually destroys the addict. Whitney has left behind a 19-year-old daughter, Bobbi Christina, who will no doubt be battling some demons of her own for the rest of her life. As the child of an addict (a famous one, no less), she has already experienced too much. She never even got to see her mother triumph over her addiction and work through the trauma. There’s no closure for her. Just headlines.
Grieving a celebrity’s death is strange. On one hand, playing up your love for the person in the wake of their death seems disingenuous and lame. Really? You were Whitney’s biggest fan? Okay, honey. Let’s see those records then. I’m pretty sure I heard you making fun of her just yesterday. On the other hand, mocking their struggles on a public forum shows true insensitivity and tactlessness. Drugs claim the lives of so many loved ones. I’ve coordinated interventions for friends and sat through AA meetings for moral support. I’ve watched my mother collapse in my walk-in closet before sending herself off to rehab. Addiction is far too personal for me to ever make jokes about it. Drugs are insidious little bastards that rob you blind. What’s so hilarious about that?