AMY: How A Psychoanalyst Looks At Amy’s Bulimia And “Freudian Fate”

Asif Kapadia’s 2016 Oscar winning Best Documentary, Amy, is a deeply truthful portrayal of the troubled psychological life of 6-time Grammy winner, Amy Winehouse. Amy predicted fame would drive her mad and, in a sense, it did. What the film makes clear to me, as a psychoanalyst, is that her complex fear of losing what she had, whether musical fame or love, was the real problem. We touch the surface of Amy’s fears in these lyrics from What Is It About Men: “my Freudian fate. History repeats itself. It fails to die.” The anxieties rooted in her “Freudian fate” were expressed in her bulimic struggle and silenced by her drug and alcohol abuse. The reasons for Amy’s bulimia are what destroyed the real Amy Winehouse: fun loving, irreverent, and full of life.

Amy’s History

To understand any psychological problem, history matters. Although the film doesn’t provide extensive information about Amy’s early history, there’s enough for me to make some guesses about what “failed to die.” I suspect it was Amy’s belief that she would be betrayed by love. This expectation haunted Amy throughout her short life. Amy’s losses began early. Her father was never there. Her mother, Janis Winehouse, who didn’t have a motherly mother herself, didn’t know how to mother Amy. In the film, Janis quoted Amy as a young girl: “She’d say, ‘Oh, Mom, you’re so soft with me. I can get away with murder.” Janis sighed, recognizing her limitations as a mother: “I just accepted it.  I wasn’t strong enough to say to her, ‘Stop.’” Amy’s own words shed more light on the absence of emotionally available parents: “My Mom had her children and was bringing them up single-handedly. When my Dad was there, he was never there. When we were being little shits, Dad was never there to say, ‘Listen to your mother.’ That’s all we needed.” Neglect is neglect, even if it’s subtle. Amy knew her dad was otherwise preoccupied: “I met another woman when Amy was about 18 months old. We worked together and were having an affair.  Another 8 or 9 years passed before I left home. I was a coward. But I felt that Amy got over it pretty quick.”Amy didn’t. She had no one to recognize that she, of course, would feel sadness and loss. Her father wanted to think she was fine. She merely learned to set aside her feelings, just as her father wished. When, as a teenager, she couldn’t do that effectively, she took anti-depressants. This was the first time her mood went “black.” When Amy met Blake Fielder-Civil, the man she fell obsessively in love with and later married, he said:  “I used to ask her why she was promiscuous and why she was more like a man with sex.  She said I wasn’t abused when I was a kid, nothing like that. Her Dad leaving her Mom was what caused this, what everything was about.”

What Is It About Men?  Her “Freudian Fate”

Understand once he was a family man …I can’t help but demonstrate my Freudian fate. My alibi for taking your guyHistory repeats itself; it fails to die, And animal aggression is my downfall. I don’t care ’bout what you got I want it all.

What “failed to die” in Amy’s history was certainly about her Dad, but not in the classical Oedipal way What Is It About Men would lead us to think. The history that “repeated itself” in Amy’s bulimia was “wanting it all” that existed alongside the fear of wanting anything. It was the trauma of her father’s leaving and what a little girl’s fantasy made of that loss. The conclusion any child makes is that her dad’s leaving is somehow her fault: she isn’t enough and someone else is better. She’s left with a hunger and loneliness that can’t be filled. The tattoo on Amy’s left arm speaks to these hungers and to her losses.  Let’s look closely at Amy’s tattoo: “Daddy’s Girl,” in cursive, surrounding a horseshoe, with a seductive woman flaunting large breasts underneath. Here is Amy’s confusion between sex and hunger for Daddy’s love. Mitchell Winehouse left for another woman. He wasn’t home at night because a grown up sexual woman had all his attention. Amy was a little girl who lost her dad, but also had an emotionally out of touch mom. The big breasts, then, have multiple meanings. Amy must have imagined she had to be that seductive woman to reclaim her place from the other woman who stole her dad. The breasts, though, are also a longing for what she could not get from her mom. And, in a more defensive fashion, these big breasts are linked to her bulimia. She had to feed herself when neither mom nor dad was capable of seeing what she needed. We can’t forget the horseshoe – a good luck charm. Amy didn’t have luck when she lost of her dad and luck was what she wanted. Horseshoes is also a game. The winner rings the horseshoe around a post before someone else does. Amy had to be first. She had to show she and no one else was Daddy’s Girl, searing this identity into her arm. In her tatoo, belonging to Daddy was always there and never gone. Amy wouldn’t be hungry any longer. Hunger hurts; it’s a reminder of what Amy was certain would be lost. These are the complicated and dangerous anxieties expressed in her bulimia. She must either cling and gobble up all the love or get rid of her need for love before she’s left.  Amy was already terrified of loss, and her losses continued.Blake Fielder-Civil went back to his girlfriend (before he later came back to her). Her manager, Nick Shymansky, couldn’t see her destroying herself and left her in 2005.  Months later, in 2006, her beloved “Nan,” her paternal grandmother and mother surrogate as a child, fell ill of lung cancer and died. As her friend Juliette Ashby said: “It killed her inside.” Yet, Amy had learned with her dad’s leaving to push her feelings aside. The effect of such a psychological defense against her sadness and grief was devastating. With feelings too overwhelming to manage without help, Amy turned to bulimia. Her compulsion to binge and purge makes perfect sense if the unconscious fantasies in bulimia are understood.

Bulimia – Making Needs Disappear

Three months after her Nan died Amy was recording at Island Studios, drinking whiskeys while she sang.  She ordered a massive plate of food for lunch and a big dessert as well. She finished it all off and disappeared for a while, coming back 45 minutes later, dazed. In the women’s bathroom, her manager discovered Amy had thrown everything up. The bathroom was a mess.We know that bulimia expresses itself in binging on food and immediately vomiting. The psychological conflict is expressed in the following way: “I’m starving. I can’t get enough (“I want it all”). I hate myself for needing anyone. If I need them, I’ll lose them. I don’t really need love at all.” Amy was becoming thinner and thinner. As Hip Hop artist Yasin Bey said about Amy: “This was someone who was trying to disappear.” The unconscious fantasy for a bulimic/anorexic is to make all emotional need non-existent. Amy would control loss by needing nothing. This was Amy’s “Freudian fate.” After the loss of her father, if she loved anyone or had anything at all (including fame), she was terrified. There was way too much to lose.

History Repeated – Back To Black

Early history repeats itself in later love relationships. Amy’s fears, originating in her father’s leaving, were repeated in 2005 when she fell in love with Blake Fielder-Civil. She needed him. When he returned to his girlfriend, she fell apart. What emerged full force was the nine-year-old Amy who lost her dad to another woman and never got over it unconsciously.Amy’s song Back To Black tells us her reaction: “I tread a troubled track. My odds are stacked. You go back to her. I go back to black.” Black is Amy’s childhood depression. With Blake Fielder-Civil’s leaving, Amy spiraled into the black abyss of her Freudian nightmare: “Dad’s gone. He doesn’t love me.” This is a child’s troubled fantasy. Blake became, in Amy’s mind, her father. She spiraled into major depression. She lost her appetite. She didn’t eat. She drank all day. She agreed to go to rehab if her Dad thought she needed it. He said, once again: “She doesn’t have to go to rehab. She’s fine.” Her song, Rehab, earned her a Grammy in 2007 (“I won’t go to rehab. No, No, No.”), but as the lyrics show all too well, her odds were stacked. Amy wasn’t fine at all. When she married Blake, in 2007, her anxiety about losing him was so severe she couldn’t get close enough: “I want to feel what he’s feeling. I want to be on the same level. Otherwise he’s there and I’m here.” Any kind of separateness meant too much space and, in that space, she panicked that loss was coming at any moment. Space, then, needed to be controlled. Amy couldn’t say no to crack cocaine. She couldn’t say no to anything Blake did. He cut his arm. She nicked hers. Blake represented an internal voice pulling her away from sanity and sobriety: “Love is somehow killing me.” The real nightmare was Amy’s belief that “love is a losing game.” When Blake went to jail in 2008, Amy’s bulimia and addictive behaviors escalated. She needed him but Blake was gone. She had to get rid of that need.

Love Is A Losing Game

Both with Blake and without Blake, Amy deteriorated. She couldn’t handle her fears of loss and she certainly couldn’t handle loss itself. She turned to alcohol and she turned to other men. After discovering that Amy was with another man on St. Lucia while he was still incarcerated, Blake divorced her. Yet, he’d left her first. She had to strike back, as the words to Love Is A Losing Game say so well: “You always hurt the one you love. That’s why I had to twist the blade. Just like you did to me. Goodbyes ain’t my forte.” They certainly weren’t. She couldn’t handle losses and the worst blade she turned was against her – for wanting love at all. Amy’s losses were deeply sad, but she couldn’t feel her sadness. She got rid of it with drugs and alcohol and purging. She expressed it in her lyrics, but no one heard it in her symptoms. She’d felt sad her whole life without any help. She couldn’t bear the sadness alone; no one could. On July 23, 2011, Amy was drinking. Her broken heart, weakened by years of bulimia, stopped. Amy Winehouse was dead. Despite several attempts at rehab that Amy said “No, No, No” to, what she really needed was intensive psychoanalytic therapy. She needed someone to hear her sadness and to help her with her terror of love and loss. If she’d had therapy, perhaps over time Amy might have come to know that needing someone doesn’t always end badly  – and not all love is a losing game.

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