During post-graduate training in couples, family and sex therapy, I was taught the importance of asking new clients about alcohol and substance use during the first session.  There is a controversial but widely accepted understanding in the therapeutic field that if someone is actively abusing a substance, traditional psychotherapy will have limited benefit unless a client undergoes substance abuse treatment and THEN resumes therapy.  Defining and diagnosing substance abuse usually means walking a fine line, especially with young people who are often going out every night and insist that their level of use is no different than their friends.

Director Asif Kapadia’s recently released film, Amy, celebrates the truncated life of the musician, Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning at the age of twenty-seven.  A thoughtfully edited compilation footage of the singer, her family, friends and colleagues, the documentary pays tribute to her musical genius and paints a portrait of her intimate relationships with music, drugs and alcohol.  The result is a powerful film that conveys important messages about substance abuse and intimate relationships.

One of the most painful aspects of the film is watching the footage of the singer’s father, Mitch Winehouse, who expresses minimal concern about his daughter’s substance use and comes across as living in denial about the severity of her addictions.  Once she finally receives substance abuse treatment, her father is quick to push her back on tour even when she is saying she does not feel ready to travel and perform.  The film includes interviews where she opens up about how hard it was for her when her father left her mother during her formative years; throughout the film, her longing for her father’s love, attention, and approval is a prominent theme.   The film portrays boyfriend and eventual husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, as a key figure in Winehouse’s descent into severe, life-threatening addiction.  From a psychological perspective, it makes sense that someone with a father who seems completely dismissive of his daughter’s well-being would choose an unsuitable romantic partner.  Various colleagues and friends close to Winehouse open up about how difficult it became to watch her self-destruct, and one colleague summarizes her downfall perfectly: “Amy was a girl who just wanted to be loved.”

The lyrics to Winehouse’s legendary song are especially bittersweet:

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said, ‘No, no, no.’
Yes, I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab but I won’t go, go, go…..

I don’t ever wanna drink again
I just, ooh, I just need a friend
I’m not gonna spend ten weeks
Have everyone think I’m on the mend….

The decision to seek substance abuse treatment and live a sober life in recovery is immensely personal and complex.  There are certainly times when I have met with clients for a first session and it is clear that they are abusing a substance to such a great extent that therapy would be a waste of their time, money and energy.  For those who drink to excess but do not think they need treatment, films like 28 Days, Leaving Las Vegas, and Rachel’s Getting Married are worthwhile viewing and can even become a catalyst toward treatment.  Amy is the newest film of this genre and is as memorable as it is heartbreaking.

Elisabeth LaMotte

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