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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 30, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 13
Whitney Houston and her demons
Arts & Entertainment
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Whitney Houston and her demons

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

Whitney Houston was the best. At the pinnacle of her career, no one could touch her. Beautiful and talented, Houston grabbed headlines from the moment she captivated the world as a young woman at the top of her game in the early 1980s. Some of the headlines were kinder than others, as in later year she publicly battled addiction. Her life ended suddenly on February 11 by accidental drowning as the main cause of her death in the bathroom of her hotel suite in Beverly Hills. She was dead at 48.

I'm not interested in dragging Houston over the coals. Countless journalists and tabloid reporters who - for one reason or another - refuse to research addiction and the powerful grip it can have on a person have already done that. Houston was a great vocalist and entertainer. Some have called her the Queen of Pop. Unfortunately, Houston was also an addict, battling substance abuse, alcoholism, and anxiety. In February, she joined the ranks of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson as legends who, in their personal life, could never overcome the demons they fought to suppress with drug abuse. I will always love her, as many of you will, but it is important to acknowledge what helped destroy her. Like Houston, many Gay men have struggled with depression, substance abuse, and alcoholism. We tend to idolize and celebrate women who struggle with the very same - think Judy Garland and Amy Winehouse. It is important to understand that, without getting help, anyone could fall down that rabbit hole.

A VICTIM OF BULLYING While her tumultuous marriage to R&B bad boy Bobby Brown and battles with substance abuse tarnished Houston's once golden image, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw a young woman grappling with painful challenges. Houston was hurt that some argued her music wasn't 'black enough.'

In an interview with 20/20, gospel singer BeBe Winans, her longtime friend, remembered Houston saying, 'They're saying I'm not black enough. I'm selling out.'

Rolling Stone writer David Browne reports, 'A turning point seemed to arrive in 1989, when Houston was nominated for Best R&B/Urban Contemporary Single by a Female at that year's Soul Train Awards. Seated up front, [Clive] Davis and Houston listened as the announcement of her name was greeted with scattered boos. The two looked at each other with baffled expressions.'

Some critics, said Browne, even dubbed her 'Whitey Houston.'

'The criticisms seem silly now,' he wrote, 'but at the time they stung deeply.' 'It was horrible and undeserved,' Don Ienner, who had been general manager of Arista, said of the incident. 'That might have haunted her for the rest of her life.'

Some say - even Brown himself has alluded to it - that she married Bobby only because; she wanted to earn so-called 'street cred' while putting to rest the rumor that she was Bisexual.

For some time, the press had accused her of having a sexual relationship with her friend and personal assistant Robyn Crawford, a female friend from her teen years.

'Our relationship is that we are friends,' said Houston, defending herself in a Rolling Stone article. 'I mean, what kind of person am I - to be married and have another life?'

Crawford has never addressed the issue.

Brown, whose marriage with Houston officially ended in 2007, was quoted as saying that their marriage was 'doomed from the very beginning. I think we got married for all the wrong reasons. Now, I realize Whitney had a different agenda than I did. & I believe her agenda was to clean up her image, while mine was to be loved and have children. The media was accusing her of having a Bisexual relationship with her assistant. In Whitney's situation, the only solution was to get married and have kids. That would kill all speculation, whether it was true or not.'

Many credit Houston's accelerated use of drugs - cocaine in particular - to her marriage to Brown.

In addition, like other stars, Houston missed being able to go out in public without being mobbed.

'That troubled her because she didn't want to live a double life,' Winans told ABC's 20/20 after Houston's death. 'She wanted to be that Jersey girl. And she fought hard to be her.'

HOW COCAINE CAN CONTRIBUTE TO HEART DISEASE Accidental drowning, heart disease, and substance abuse are blamed for Whitney Houston's tragic demise. The toxicology results have been revealed and what the coroner found was heart-wrenching.

As reported by ABC News on March 22, Los Angeles County Coroner's chief, Craig Harvey, outlined the findings in the office's preliminary toxicology report.

'We had approximately a 60% occlusion in the arteries, in the narrowing of the arteries,' Harvey said. 'So, that condition, complicated by the chronic cocaine use, all combined to result in her drowning. The final cause of death has been established as drowning due to atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use.'

According to the National Institute of Health, atherosclerotic heart disease is a buildup of plaque that narrows the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. It is not known how long the singer had the condition. But what is known is that her body took a serious beating after years of hard drug use.

The findings harkens back to the now infamous 'crack is whack' interview Whitney Houston gave with ABC News' Diane Sawyer. 'It has been [alcohol, marijuana, pills, cocaine] at times,' Houston told Sawyer in the frank 2002 interview that delved headlong into her addiction struggles. 'Nobody makes me do anything I don't want to do. It's my decision; the biggest devil is me. I'm my best friend and my worst enemy.'

So what does it mean to be a chronic cocaine user? And how does it contribute to heart disease? Dr. Michael Fishbein of the UCLA Medical Center explained the short- and long-term effects cocaine has on the heart to ABC News, in an attempt to make sense out of what happened on February 11, during Houston's final moments.

'The immediate effect of cocaine is that it interferes with the electrical system of the heart,' Fishbein said. 'An analogy might be a swimming pool pump. You can have a perfectly good pump, but if you cut the electrical cord, the pump stops working. If the heart stops pumping blood, all the organs are deprived of oxygen. The tissue dies and the person dies.'

Cocaine also increases the demand for oxygen, as it increases heart rate and blood pressure.

'The long-term effect is that cocaine causes the heart to be enlarged, which increases the risk of sudden death,' Fishbein said. 'It also causes scarring in the heart, which increases the risk of a sudden cardiac death, and it causes accelerated atherosclerosis, or a hardening of the arteries, which we associate with high blood pressure and smoking.'

When occlusion in the arteries reaches 75% narrowing, it is typically considered dangerous, but Fishbein says 60% occlusion for a woman of 48 is above average.

Although Houston had been a chronic cocaine user throughout her life, Fishbein said even a person with a normal heart can die of cocaine use and that if someone takes too much cocaine, he or she can die from even one exposure.

The question still remains, however, whether Houston died before or after she was submerged underwater in her hotel bathtub.

According to ABC News, 'Medical examiners tend to say that someone has died of drowning if they are found in the water, and it is likely that water was found in Houston's lungs. In the report released Thursday, the coroner lists drowning first.'

According to Fishbein, there are two potential scenarios in Houston's case.

'People can have what are called agonal respirations. That is, you can have a gasping breath, even after the heart is stopped. There are two possibilities: that she was incapacitated and alive when she went under the water, or she was basically dead, and the water got in with these respirations.'

'How does someone die in a bathtub?' he asked. 'It's not like they're swimming the English Channel. So she had to have been incapacitated. And I think that was due to the cocaine causing an abnormal cardiac rhythm.'

Houston's cause of death has been identified as accidental drowning and although accusing fingers have been pointed in the singer's death (Bobby Brown's sister blames Ray J, whom Houston dated for some time, for her cocaine use), the L.A. police department says it will not investigate the case any further.

Lt. Mark Rosen told the LA Times that the department has been focused on Houston's case since she died on February 11, but the coroner's report concluded there was no foul play.

'Unless something changes in the final report, this investigation will end,' Rosen said. The investigation is expected to close within a few weeks.

IN DEATH, A LEGEND IS BORN Whitney Houston is a legend, and rightly so - she was the voice of a generation. No one sounded like her then, and I doubt anyone will sound like her in the future.

She was a successful artist. In 2009, the Guinness Book of World Records cited her as the most-awarded female act of all-time. Her records sold over 170 million copies worldwide. When Houston debuted her first album at age 22, she scored three No. 1 singles and her follow-up album, 1987's Whitney, delivered four more number ones. She is also one of the Grammy Awards' most celebrated artists. She is the only artist to chart seven consecutive No.1 Billboard Hot 100 hits.

When America was entangled in the Persian Gulf War, Houston performed 'The Star Spangled Banner' at Super Bowl XXV on January 27, 1991. Due to the overwhelming response to her vocal prowess while singing the anthem - many called it the best rendition they'd ever heard - it was released as a commercial single CD and video.

As the star of the feature film The Bodyguard (1992), Houston's career was catapulted into superstardom. Its lead single 'I Will Always Love You,' became the best-selling single by a female artist in music history. She would go on to star in Waiting to Exhale (1995), The Preacher's Wife (1996), and the not-yet-released remake of the 1976 film Sparkle.

Yes, she disappeared for a while (much longer than her fans and admirers would've liked). And not just from music and film - the Whitney Houston we all knew and loved disappeared. A new, unrecognizable, rebellious Houston emerged. Her voice was hoarse. She was devastatingly skinny. She was photographed at nightclubs drunk and sweaty, clearly intoxicated. Her appearances on the reality TV show Being Bobby Brown were an embarrassment.

And then it happened. False hope. She was attempting a comeback and she almost got there. The public was willing to look the other way on the sketchy years of 1999-2007 in Houston's life. Sure, when she released I Look to You in 2010, her voice wasn't what it once was, but we didn't care. After divorcing Bobby Brown and recording again, we wanted so badly for her to remain clean. Everyone was rooting for her.

But the demons came back. Her erratic behavior returned when she was on tour in Europe and her friends, family, and fans got the sad news in the spring of 2011 that Houston was once again back in rehab for drugs and alcohol. Bullied, hurt, and addicted, Houston would never obtain the comeback she - and we - so dearly wanted. On February 11, the demons went silent. Maybe now, she can finally rest.

I like to think of Houston in her heyday. Voice stronger than ever, dressed in a beautiful gown, head held high - sober - stepping up to the microphone with a single spotlight illuminating her genius as she belts, '&and I will always love you.' That's the Houston I choose to remember: beautiful smile, confident demeanor, and nailing those high notes with an ease that the rest of us mere mortals will never understand. As she slipped away from us, a legend was born.

Houston was buried in her hometown of Newark, New Jersey, on February 18.

If you are LGBT and in need of counseling for depression, anxiety, aging, and more, or you need help to recover from addiction to drugs and/or alcohol please visit Seattle Counseling Service (1216 Pine St., Suite 300). The mental health and addiction specialists at SCS have proudly served the LGBT communities since 1969. SCS is open Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information call (206) 323-1768 or email them at info@seattlecounseling.org.

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