The most heartbreaking substance abuse train wrecks often happen in plain sight.
Exhibit A this week is the sad death of Whitney Houston, who gave us hope every few years that she would finally learn to love herself and return to us, whole.
We heard about her whacked-out, drug-fueled relationship with Bobby Brown, the way he cut her head off in pictures, the times he slapped her and she hit him. Through it all, they were both high, she confessed.
Does this relationship sound familiar?
It’s the same formula unfolding in a courtroom in Charlottesville, from which we’re hearing about the very public unraveling of another tempestuous couple. And the third wheel in that relationship was booze.
George Huguely V wasn’t drinking alone, behind closed doors. His were daylight binges, all-day benders that went on after sunset. He did it in front of his friends, in front of their parents. He even got hammered while golfing with his dad nearly two years ago, just a few hours before police say he killed a fellow University of Virginia student, his occasional girlfriend Yeardley Love.
There’s a lot to say about this case — money, power, the culture of campus athletics, domestic violence— but in the end, alcohol abuse is the constant.
Seeing alcohol in that case “is not surprising at all to anyone in our line of work,” said Mark Segal, the director of clinical operations for Second Genesis, a network of substance abuse treatment facilities in our region.
They see that combination of booze and abuse every day in people who belong to every class and racial background.
According to court testimony, Huguely was binge drinking about four days a week during his senior year. His friends met to talk about an intervention, but it never happened.
You could argue that the fine line between senior year celebratory boozing and substance abuse is pretty hazy around the month of May on a college campus. But alcohol was everywhere. In the courtroom crime scene description, jurors heard about Love’s tidy room, her picture frames, her neatly organized belongings and the crushed light beer can found in her bathroom. The autopsy showed that Love had a blood alcohol level of .14 — nearly twice the legal limit — when she died.
They were a volatile mix, Love and Huguely. Everyone knew he threatened her, she hit him, he tried to choke her, with alcohol as the accelerant. But no one intervened.
Their story reminded me of Whitney Houston’s 2009 interview with Oprah Winfrey, during which Houston went into vivid detail about her substance abuse and relationship with her ex-husband.
“He slapped me once, but he got hit on the head three times by me,” Houston told Winfrey.
Houston’s mother eventually showed up at their Atlanta home with a court injunction to get her into rehab. Houston told Winfrey that her mom said: “I’m not losing you to the world. I’m not losing you to Satan. I want my daughter back.”
Houston managed to leave Brown, but she got custody of the addiction in the divorce.
Love told her mom about the threats from Huguely. We haven’t heard what advice the mother gave Love, but I can’t imagine a mother who wouldn’t fight, beg and plead for her daughter’s safety.
As for Huguely’s family, it’s not certain whether the father who spent the day golfing with his binge-drinking son tried to slow him down.
In many cases, the wealthier the substance abuser, the less likely they are to seek treatment.
“People with power can have more people enabling them, people less likely to confront them,” Segal said. “If you’re a janitor and you’re drunk, you’ll get sent home. If you’re a CEO and you’re drunk, people may look the other way.”
And looking the other way, we’ve learned, isn’t going to save anybody.
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