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the broken world that helped create whitney houston

May 23, 2019
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I don’t know how I became anxious. Unlike my gender performance and sexuality, I couldn’t describe my relationship with anxiety as natural or something I was born into, although I can’t quite remember a time when I was not experiencing anxiety. It’s harder for me to name my contact with anxiety as natural, or as something given to me through genetics and the probability of science. My relationship with anxiety has always felt political.

After being booed when her nomination was announced during the 1989 Soul Train Awards, Whitney Houston reflected on it like this: “Sometimes it gets down to ‘You’re not Black enough for them. You’re not R&B enough. You’re very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them.’” The Whitney documentary uses this moment as catalyst, as one of the reasons she suffered. The filmmakers take this moment as a way to explain both her mental health and her relationship with addiction. The film proposes that Whitney Houston’s childhood tension — between her poor Black upbringing and the mainstream star she was groomed to be — is at the core of a lot of the decisions and behaviors we witnessed. 

This idea immediately put fear in my heart. I always believe in being conscious of how we talk about, and often inadvertently stigmatize, people living with addiction and mental health problems. Because we’re humans and learn best through stories — especially the linear allegory — it is easy to want to simplify Houston, and anyone living with addiction and/or mental illness, by proposing that there was one singular event or person that propelled someone into toxic behavior. And in the case of Houston, deadly. That’s not true for how life unravels; there is usually no singular or pivotal moment that makes someone gravitate towards drugs or explains away mental health problem.

The question isn’t “what in the world happened?” It’s about knowing that the world happened.

Avoiding mental illnesses like anxiety and depression feel almost impossible if you were born like Houston was: poor, Black, and made to compromise. Even when I think of my own realizations of anxiety, it was the homophobia on the streets, the anti-Blackness in certain institutions I’d have to navigate, and a lack of resources that gave me a fear that doesn’t go away. The one that we refer to as anxiety.

Which leaves me to the realization that unlike the other reasons we might find ourselves oppressed — skin color, sexuality, gender, and the like — mental illness is at the very least grown. This is not to say that some people aren’t more genetically inclined towards mental illness than others. This is to say, we can’t ignore how mental illness is shaped by the world and by society’s demands.

That in some cases, perhaps in Whitney Houston’s case, it was the world that shaped her mental state as much as anything else we could suggest. This thought was healing for me, because it reframed my own battle with mental illness as not just interpreting that something in my body and mind was broken, but perhaps as my body’s natural response to inheriting a terribly broken world.