How A Psychoanalyst Looks At
Her “Freudian Fate” & Bulimia

Asif Kapadia’s deeply truthful, Amy, makes something very clear. Although Amy Winehouse predicted fame would “drive her mad,” it was more her psychological troubles that set her on a fatal downward spiral. The lyrics to What Is It About Men – “my Freudian fate. History repeats itself. It fails to die,” only touch the surface of those troubles. No, it’s not a simple matter. Yes, perhaps, she “emulated all the shit her mother hated,” had animal aggression, and played out taking “someone else’s guy”. But, her real “Freudian fate” was hidden in her bulimic struggle. And, that fate sadly eclipsed the real Amy – fun-loving, irreverent, and full of life.

What Part Of History Failed To Die?

Truly, history kept failing to die for Amy. But not in the way Amy thought. Or in the way What Is It About Men would lead you to think. Sure, it’s about her Dad. No question about it. Yet, in fact, it’s about his leaving Amy when she was a child. What did Amy’s little girl’s fantasy world make of that loss? She had to be “Daddy’s Girl:” There it is iin Amy’s tattoo with a pin-up girl underneath. And, here we have Amy’s confusion about sex and her hunger for Daddy’s love.

Amy’s daddy left for another woman. Daddy wasn’t home at night because this other woman – a grown-up sexual woman – had all his attention.  What’s a nine-year-old little girl going to feel?  Amy felt she wasn’t enough to make Daddy stay. And, this feeling ate away at her and played out her whole life. Amy was left with jealous competitiveness and hungry loneliness that couldn’t be filled.

Mitchell Winehouse didn’t think his leaving bothered Amy so much: “I was a coward, but I felt Amy was over it really quick.”  She wasn’t. As a teenager, she was on anti-depressants. Her guitar and poetic songwriting were her outlets. She might have looked like her dad’s leaving had no consequence. That’s how she had to look. But, the effect was devastating. And it was expressed in her bulimia.

What Is Bulimia? “I Want It All, But …”

Bulimia is about a desperate hunger for love and not wanting to need it: “I’m starving.  I can’t get enough.” “No. I’ll vomit it all up because I hate needing it. If I need it I’ll lose it.” This was Amy’s bulimic Freudian fate. Add drugs and alcohol. That’s the spiral she was trapped in and could never resolve. That’s what got repeated, over and over again.

The real danger, though, is not the “wanting” – it’s the terror of having it. Because, to a child, a father leaving means “anyone I love can leave me at any time.” No love, then, is ever secure or to be trusted.  She had to get rid of it first – food or men or any form of love. That’s the bulimic’s dilemma. It’s the fear of loving and losing. In Amy’s bulimia, the real nightmare, the way history couldn’t die, was Amy’s belief that “love is a losing game.”

History Repeated With Blake Fielder-Civil

It’s a fact. Early history repeats itself in later love relationships. Amy’s did with Blake Fielder-Civil. In many ways, he was Amy’s mirror image, as troubled early on in life, as she was. She needed him. And, when Blake returned to his girlfriend the first time around, she fell apart. Namely, here was the nine-year-old Amy who lost her dad to another woman. This was being relived, making it absolutely clear that Amy,unconsciously, never got over her dad’s leaving.

Indeed, losing Blake tipped Amy over the edge. “She went nuts. Went reckless. Amy thought of him with everything she did. She just wanted him to love her.” Her loss is agonizingly expressed in her song, Back To Black: “I tread a troubled track. My odds are stacked. You go back to her. I go back to black.” Back to Black tells the story of a very dark childhood depression. She spiraled down into the abyss of her Freudian nightmare: Dad’s gone. He doesn’t love me. A troubled child’s fantasy lived out. Now, Blake stood in for Dad.

Amy could never get close enough. Not even when she later married Blake: “she wanted to feel what he felt. Wanted to be on the same level.” Same. Sameness. Separate means panic of loss. Amy needed sameness so desperately, she couldn’t say no. Not to crack cocaine. Not to anything he did. He cut his arm. She nicked hers. She had to. When Blake went to jail, though, she knew for sure: “love is a losing hand.” Her bulimia continued. She needed him but had to get rid of that need.

Turning History & Bulimia Around

Psychoanalytic therapy takes very seriously the complicated ways that history is repeated. It’s not about placing blame. Understanding the effects of early experiences and the fantasies that develop is psychoanalytic therapy’s intent. It’s about constructing a picture of what’s going on inside, just as I’ve tried to do with Amy’s bulimia.

If I’d had Amy in therapy, I’d have listened to her words. I’d have taken the sadness in those words very seriously: “Dad was never there when we were being little shits. He said he was working. He was having an affair.” I would have talked to her about the pain of her early losses. About her fears of love. I’d have shown her how those fears are expressed in the troubles in her life. And, played out in her bulimia.

I’d have helped Amy see how hungry she is for love and how fast she runs from it. How fast she tries to tell herself she doesn’t need it. Just as she does with food. And, just as she did as a child when her dad left. Hunger hurts – it’s a reminder of what she’s certain will be lost. What’s the best defense, then? Get rid of it first. Look like you don’t really need it. Get rid of the sadness before you feel it. First and foremost, get rid of it before you’re the one who is left. Amy Winehouse?

What Killed Amy Winehouse?

In bulimia, purging is a major symptom. Psychologically, purging represents the need to get rid of unbearable feelings and needs. When a child has been traumatized by loss and doesn’t feel in control, need someone is dangerous. Purging poses a physical danger in bulimia. However, the psychological danger of purging is more complex. The terror of needing anyone or anything, and purging that feeling whenever it arises, interferes with keeping the love desperately needed.

This conviction, that “getting rid of” is the best option, is what therapy must stop. If I’d had Amy in therapy, I’d have helped her build trust in my steadiness. This might have allowed her to open up, need me, and mourn her early losses. To learn that needing someone won’t end badly is a part of ending the vicious cycle of bulimia and loss. Truly, love doesn’t have to be a losing game.

In the end, fame didn’t kill Amy Winehouse. Her bulimia and distrust of love did her in. The real Amy Winehouse, (the charismatic, bluesy, honest, fun-loving diva) got lost in her Freudian bulimic fate. Tragically, despite several stints in rehab that Amy ultimately said “No, No, No” to, what she really needed was intensive therapy. And, that, Amy sadly didn’t get.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.