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Amy Winehouse's Manic-Depressive Life

Out of Control on a Downhill Road

By

Updated July 25, 2011

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse

Carlos Alvarez / Getty Images

Famed singer Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), was born into a musical family, and from a young age she showed an interest in performing. She attended the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School in London -- but even then, at age 13, her teachers noted she showed signs of trouble that might have developed into the mental disorder she was later diagnosed with, manic depression.

As school founder Sylvia Young wrote in November of 2007:

"[Winehouse's] abilities could put her in the same league as Judy Garland or Ella Fitzgerald. She could be one of the greats. But the emphasis is on that word 'could.' Sadly, there is a danger that Amy will be better known for her personal life than for her God-given musical gifts.... when she sang [at her audition], we were blown away."

"When she wasn't singing, she was naughty," said Young. "The misdemeanours were never serious, but they were persistent." She refers to the fact that Amy wrote prolific notes to her friends in class. "Every millimetre of the page was crammed with her writing, which seemed to flow off the paper with her energy." Regarding a statement from Amy that she had "mild manic depression," Young said, "Amy had high spirits and occasional downtimes, but there was no sign of anything being wrong when she was with us."

It would be improper to say that Amy Winehouse definitely had strong symptoms of bipolar disorder as a young teenager. The portrait drawn by her teacher is of a rebellious teen with tremendous talent and drive who wasn't interested in anything but her music and performing. Whether writing notes in class was a sign of early hypomania (see What Is Your Wildest Manic Writing) can't be determined.

Many internet biographies and articles state that Amy was expelled from school at 16 "for 'not applying herself' and piercing her nose." Young states emphatically that this is not true, but that an unfortunate phone call from one of Amy's teachers led her mother to withdraw her from the school.

Stardom

Despite this setback, friends' help and her raw talent got Amy a record contract at the age of 19, and her extremely successful debut album, Frank, received award nominations and one award, and her second, Back to Black, won 5 Grammy awards. Yet between them, problems became apparent, from missing performances to showing up too drunk to perform to fistfights. "I do drink a lot. I think it's symptomatic of my depression," Winehouse said in an interview on the British TV show The Album Chart Show. "I'm manic depressive, I'm not an alcoholic, which sounds like an alcoholic in denial." The blockbuster single from Back to Black, "Rehab," reflected the pleas of family and friends for her to get treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, and her refusal to do it. In fact, she entered treatment programs several times but always left early.

Drug use put her in a coma in August 2008. Biography.com says, "First claiming exhaustion, Winehouse later told the News of the World that she overdosed after she had used a mix of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine, whisky, and vodka during a bar crawl in London." In early 2010 she pleaded guilty to assault for punching a theater manager because he told her she could not have another alcoholic drink. She said she was drunk at the time, and testimony recorded that she "had drunk five vodka and cokes before going to the theatre." Her attorney asked for leniency because, he said, she had had a change in attitude regarding her drinking." Ironically, the judge gave her a 2-year conditional discharge, saying, "... you have to stay on the straight and narrow for two years now."

She didn't.

After she was booed off the stage in Belgrade, Serbia, in June 2011 for performing while so drunk she had difficulty standing at times, Amy's friends said she had been drinking so heavily she was frequently passing out. On July 23, 2011, she was found dead.

Manic Depression and Amy Winehouse

How much impact did bipolar disorder have on Amy? It isn't easy to tell. Unfortunately, many young performers who rocket to stardom as she did wind up embroiled in a world of drugs and alcohol - and only a fraction of celebrities with bipolar disorder turn to alcohol and drugs. Amy's alcohol and drug use was so pervasive that independent bipolar episodes weren't apparent.

But it's fair to conjecture that having bipolar disorder and getting no treatment for it - by medication or otherwise - made it more likely she'd self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. It's estimated that 30 to 60% of people with manic depression also have substance abuse issues. And Amy did, as mentioned above, link her drinking to depression.

She also admitted to engaging in self-harm, a problem that affects many people with bipolar disorder.

In the end, it's apparent that young Amy Winehouse was an out-of-control driver on a downhill road to disaster. It's a shame no one was able to grab the steering wheel from her.

Sources: Young, Sylvia. As Amy Winehouse goes into meltdown, her former teacher makes a moving plea. Daily Mail Online. Nov 18 2007.

Biography.com. Amy Winehouse Biography.

Pidd, Helen. Amy Winehouse spared jail on assault charge. Guardian.co.uk. Jan 20 2010

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