Amy being alive meant there was hope for my heroin-addicted younger sister. When the singer died, my world caved in. What chance did we have now?
I remember where I was the day that Amy Winehouse died. I had run into a shop in Soho to buy a birthday present, when I heard an exchange between the girl at the till and her customer. “She died of an overdose. It was just on the radio,” the cashier said in a “sad news” voice while counting out the change. Both shook their heads, tutting, saying “what a waste” and other stock phrases that people keep in reserve for when the talented die young.
Whenever there’s mention of Amy – which is often at the moment because, with this new film, she’s suddenly everywhere again – the same feeling is dredged up from a crevasse in my guts. The sucker punch that gave me jelly legs. The way my mouth went slack and dry. The fact that my teeth chattered even though it was July.
After I persuaded my feet to move, I ran back to the car, thinking: “If she can’t make it then, my God, we’re all fucking fucked.” Because somehow, and it’s odd to admit it even now, during those years when Amy Winehouse’s life came undone in pixellated Technicolor, I used her as a yardstick. I made a pact, a ridiculously unutterable pact, that Amy Winehouse being alive meant that my addict sister Siobhain would be OK.
While Amy catastrophically pinballed from the streets of Camden to the stage of the Grammys and managed to keep singing, or just breathing, I held out hope that my sister would make it, too. My talented, funny, kind, shy, much-nicer-than-me sister. My sister the heroin addict, the methadone user, the crack dabbler, the erstwhile alcoholic. My sister whose addictions and self-loathing would snowball to such an extent that she would be hospitalised, become homeless and give her only child – such a child – over to me and my family.
On the day Amy Winehouse died, my whole body caved in. My warped logic was that if Amy’s manager, her family, her doctors, her bodyguard couldn’t keep her alive, then honestly, what hope did we have? Us or any of the families in the UK who reluctantly tag along on an addict’s grand tour, seeing sights we never wanted to see, meeting people we never would have chosen to sit next to at breakfast, in the cockeyed hope that one day our loved one might come home to us.
As is the case with all high-profile addicts, Amy’s life has been forensically examined for the “why?”. Why was this striking, multitalented, whip-smart woman having scrappy bust-ups at smart hotels? Many theories have been mooted: her parents’ break-up, Mitch’s affair, her husband Blake Fielder-Civil’s heroin-enabling, her bulimia, her unquiet mind.
Film still from Amy Photo by: 2015The “why?” with my sister is just as obvious. We have a lively family history, a bleak mashup of EastEnders and Shameless storylines. When the madness peaked in an epic end-of-season finale, my siblings and I were left, as young teens, essentially parentless and rudderless. We stumbled into our adult years, all of us trying to make sense of a baffling, macabre past. But she was the youngest, most vulnerable and most impressionable. She never had a chance.
It didn’t look that way at first. While I carried on family tradition and became a teenage mum, my sister set out a clear path for herself. Although she dabbled with drugs from the age of 13, she focused her talents, her desire to make a life overriding her crippling shyness, and she seemed to be flying. I was at home with a new baby, on income support and crying a lot, looking on at her in awe. She worked hard at her job in catering and partied hard – which is OK, right?
I mean, these are rites of passage in the UK. You’re young and you get bent-up and still go to work? It’s a social norm. As Mitch Winehouse says about Amy, in the film: “She was like a lot of kids, going out binge-drinking.” We thought the same. So at what point should we have said: “Actually, she’s got a problem. Our sister needs help”?
For the Winehouse family, this seems to be the most contentious part of the film. Mitch has complained about the editing of words from one of his quotes: “She didn’t need to go to rehab at that time.” Put aside some of his more questionable actions and imagine how hard it is to confront the reality that someone you love has a serious problem. The klaxon went off for us when our sister, then 19, returned from a three-month holiday with her then boyfriend (our very own “Blakey”) as a fully fledged heroin addict. From then on, nothing was the same for her again. Life became wild and untethered. There began the visits to the hospital, the police, the courts, the homeless persons units. As events became by turn hilarious and disturbing, I, my siblings and our respective saintly partners ran around London on missions to “sort her out”. We rowed about it, too, each of us having our own theory on how to get her better.
As the years went on and the person that we knew and loved became more distant from us, we were locked in a cycle of sorrow and anger. Her life became scarier, the worlds she moved in much darker. She held down jobs – just about – until she was 25. Then she had a child, Maya, who was born methadone-dependent. By the time Maya came to live with us, because Siobhain had started taking crack, we were all spent. We knew that we needed to redirect our efforts to this tiny wonderful person and, bit by bit, we stepped back from our sister and tried to bring some normality to our own lives and protect our own kids.
The lesson to take from Amy has, of course, been blindingly obvious from the start. There was comfort in knowing that other people were going through what we were going through. Reading about Mitch Winehouse’s, Bob Geldof’s or Cara Delevingne’s experiences of having an addict in the family has helped me cope with the wretched feeling that, somewhere down the line, we abandoned our sister to save ourselves. It has helped knowing that no poetic words, no guilt trip, no high-profile friend or swanky rehab unit can save someone headlocked by addiction. Frustrating as this cliche is, it stands true: they must do it for themselves.
With Amy gone, the Winehouse family continues to mourn, with the burden of a cumbersome legacy. As for me and my family, we are shyly looking to the future. I am proud to say that my sister has managed a long, intensive period in rehab and continues to work towards rebuilding a sense of herself. We are no longer looking for “the old her” to return, but a different, stronger, happier version. We tiptoe towards plans where we reintroduce her to her child. But experience has made us sceptical.
Will there ever be a time when we siblings do not nervously ask each other: “How did she sound?” A time when we all forgive each other for the stuff we did and didn’t do? A time when we all sit at a table and laugh about that time she tried to get me and my husband arrested for assault because we were trying to stop her from doing crack in a hospital toilet? We hope so. Because it was pretty funny, in a twisted way. We’ll cling to that hope hard, because for these past 16 years, hope is all we’ve ever had. •Sarah Walker is a pseudonym. Some names have been changed.