Amy Winehouse's mom opens up: "I did not expect to lose Amy when I did"

I have this dream where Amy says, "Oops, Mum, I really didn’t mean to do that. I went too far this time, didn’t I?"

Published January 22, 2016 11:12PM (EST)

Amy Winehouse       (AP/Matt Dunham)
Amy Winehouse (AP/Matt Dunham)

Excerpted from "LOVING AMY: A Mother’s Story by Janis Winehouse"

There are times when Amy catches me unawares. She’s right in front of me and in a second I am overwhelmed. This feeling comes with no warning. There is no route map for grief. There are no rules. I can’t predict what might trigger this: her face flashed up on the big screen at the BRIT Awards; a song of hers playing in the airport lounge en route to New York; the Japanese tea set she bought me from a Camden junk shop that I stumble across while sorting through a cupboard at home; the mention of her name. Whether these moments are intensely public or intensely private, they stop me in my tracks, and I am paralysed with emotion. Yet I find them strangely comforting. They are a reminder that I can still feel, that I am not numb.

I worry about a day when that might change. I worry about the day when Amy stops being alive in my head and in my heart. I don’t want that day ever to come. I don’t think it ever will. I loved her. I will always love her, and I miss everything about her. Amy, bless her, was larger than life.

I find myself saying ‘bless her’ in the same breath as Amy’s name a lot of the time. It’s my way of acknowledging that she was not a straightforward girl. Amy was one of those rare people who made an impact. Right from the very beginning, when she was a toddler, she was loud and boisterous and scared and sensitive. She was a bundle of emotions, at times adorable and at times unbearable. All this is consistent with the struggle she went through to overcome the addictions that eventually robbed her of her life. Amy’s passing did not follow a clear line. It was jumbled, and her life was unfinished – not life’s natural order at all. She left no answers, only questions, and in the years since her death I’ve found myself trying to make sense of the frayed ends of her extraordinary existence.

I lost Amy twice: once to drugs and alcohol, and finally on Saturday, 23 July 2011, when her short life ended. I don’t believe any of the endless speculation that Amy wanted to die. There was no doubt that she battled with who she was and what she had become, but she dreamed that one day she’d have children and there was a large part of Amy that had a zest for life and people. But she was a girl who kicked against authority, a person who always took things that bit further than everyone else around her. She used to say to me, ‘Mum, I hate mediocrity. I never want to be mediocre.’ Whatever else Amy was, she was anything but mediocre. She had a phenomenal talent and she pushed it to its limits; she pushed her life to its limits; she pushed her body beyond its limits. In her mind she was invincible, yet she was as vulnerable as any of us are. I have a recurring vision of her, wherever she is, saying to me through that mischievous smile of hers, ‘Oops, Mum, I really didn’t mean to do that. I went too far this time, didn’t I?’

I did not expect to lose Amy when I did. Since the first night I held her in my arms she had always been a constant and close part of my life. But during the worst years of Amy’s drugs dependency there were moments when I truly thought that every time I saw her it would be the last. Amy had become a slave to her drugs and parts of the daughter I’d raised were slowly being wiped away. In the past she’d have gone out of her way to get to me, wherever I was, but as her addictions took hold she became less reliable, less able to organize herself without an army of people clearing a path for her and clearing up after her. She became wildly sentimental and wildly ill-natured. She’d sit in front of me, her short skirt riding up her legs and her sharp bones protruding from her knees. I could see it happening. I could see her tiny body disintegrating, but there was nothing I could do. As her mother, I was completely helpless. I could ring her and I could visit her, but I couldn’t save her. I knew that if I tried to I would lose myself too.

For some time, Amy had tried to protect me from the reality of her life. She wanted to keep me as a ‘mummy’ figure, untainted by everything she was experiencing. Amy had looked out for me from a young age, in particular after the breakdown of my marriage to her father Mitchell, and I suspect she didn’t want to upset me. But mothers have a sixth sense and I was busy filling in the blanks. As Amy’s troubles escalated there were certain things that became more and more difficult for her to hide.

The ups and downs of those years took their toll on Amy and everyone around her. Loving Amy became a relentless cycle of thinking I would lose her, but not losing her, thinking I would lose her, but not losing her. It was a bit like holding your breath under­ water and gasping for air every time you reached the surface, then treading water while wondering what the next dive down might involve.

Also, by 2006 – the time when Amy’s addictions began to consume her – I had not long been officially diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I have suffered with the symptoms for more than thirty years, from just after I gave birth to Amy’s older brother Alex, and it is why I now walk with the aid of a stick. Amy’s unpredictability meant I lived constantly on tenterhooks, and my own health had reached crisis point too. I often caught myself thinking, ‘Are all these things really happening to my family?’ But then my own survival instinct kicked in.

I have always been a pragmatist, but thinking pragmatically about your own daughter’s addiction is one of the hardest things a mother can do. I worked as a pharmacist until my MS forced me to take early retirement, so my medical background helped me to see Amy’s problems more clearly as an illness. Even armed with that know­ ledge, however, I desperately struggled to keep myself together. I relied on counselling to make sense of everything that was dis­ integrating around me. I needed to talk things through with someone who wasn’t emotionally wrapped up in the drama of our lives. Step by step I began to refocus my own life. I took time for myself, and although there were moments when I felt guilty about doing so, I stopped telling myself it was wrong. A new relationship with my now husband Richard, whom I’ve known since I was twelve years old, began to blossom. I am convinced that all those things, combined with my inner resolve, have given me an enormous amount of insight and strength both during Amy’s life and after her passing.

Right up until that summer of 2011 I believed she had turned a corner – we all did. She had been clean of drugs for almost three years and we could see glimpses of a future again, even though her life was still punctuated with bouts of heavy drinking. Nevertheless, our expectations had shifted and I felt optimistic about what lay in store for her. Instead of questioning if or when Amy was going to die, I had begun to imagine a time when she would be better. Sadly, that day never came, and I will always feel tortured by a sense of what could have been, even though I have had to accept the reality.

Amy came into my life like a whirlwind and changed it forever. Although I lived through it with her, sometimes her story does not feel real. I am a proud mother who watched her daughter achieve the success and recognition she desperately wanted. But soon that private and intense bond between us became public property. Amy’s entire life became public property and I guess, as a family, we were always in tow. Everybody who took an interest in Amy believed they knew her, and everyone wanted a piece of her, in ways we were completely unprepared for. She, herself, walked an endlessly unsteady tightrope between withdrawing from the limelight and needing to be noticed.

In that way, Amy and I were different. Throughout her life and even now, the limelight was and is a place in which I feel uneasy. Unlike Mitchell, I struggle with being in the public eye. I have never felt comfortable walking on the red carpet, even though my husband Richard tells me I look as cool as a cucumber. Whether accepting awards on Amy’s behalf or raising money for Amy’s foundation – the charity Mitchell and I set up in the months after her passing – I’ve graced more stages than I ever thought possible. I do everything now with Amy in my heart. And if anything extraordinary happens – and since Amy’s death lots of extraordinary things have happened – I think, ‘Janis, it’s all part of the story.’ I’m just not sure yet whether it’s my story or whether I’m watching the events of my life as if they were someone else’s feature film. So much of what has happened to me and my family has been almost impossible to process. I find myself filing things in a ‘surreal box’ in my mind, to deal with later, just so I can carry on.

Telling the story of my life with Amy was first mooted back in 2007 when I was approached by a literary agent and asked whether I would consider writing a book. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea, but I came away from the meeting thinking I might like to, but only when Amy was well again. I called her and asked her what she thought of the proposal. ‘Don’t do it, Mum,’ she told me in no uncertain terms. ‘I don’t want people to know who I am.’ Enough said. Amy was happy to let the beehive and the eyeliner and the car-crash lifestyle become the only side of her the public saw, even though we knew she was a much more complex person than that.

Back then, I never considered going against her wishes. Now life has changed. I thought long and hard before finally agreeing to tell our story, but once I made the decision I found that the trepidation I felt at the beginning slowly disappeared. Recalling happy times as well as confronting some uncomfortable truths has helped me in my own journey. It has helped me understand how our ordinary life grew in so many fantastic ways, and self-destructed in so many others. I rediscovered parts of Amy’s life too, the sort of precious memories that fade in the maelstrom of a working mother’s life and get buried by the avalanche of fame and addiction. Over time, memories get eroded, and MS makes that process worse – that loss of sharpness is, regrettably, part of this degenerative condition – so I wanted to put mine on record before they are lost forever. I have read and heard so many false truths about Amy over the years there was also a strong desire to set the record straight.

My family and friends, photos and Amy’s own notebooks have all helped me piece our lives back together again. In sorting through the fragments it has struck me how, at various points, Amy’s life closely mirrored aspects of my own in the years before she was born. Physically, Amy has my features. Our school reports are almost identical. We both loved adventure and, in our own ways, we both pushed the boundaries without necessarily thinking of the consequences. I quietly rebelled against a life of domesticity in 1970s and 1980s suburbia. Amy achieved superstardom by rebelling against the manufactured world of pop music. In the end, she rebelled against everything else too, and turned it inwards on herself.

Despite the obvious heartbreak, I am uplifted when I am reminded of what Amy achieved – what we achieved. I graduated with two degrees while bringing up Alex and Amy and I wanted to motivate both my children to imagine what it was possible to achieve. Amy grabbed opportunities with both hands and realized her potential early in life. My only hope is that she would approve of this book as a frank account of her life, although I can picture her shrugging her shoulders and saying, ‘Mum, there’s nothing to say about me, honest.’

Today, I wear Amy’s necklace. It’s a gold Star of David that she was given as a baby. I never take it off. I wear her ring too. On some days I even wear her clothes – her T-shirts – and I feel closer to her. As I said, there are no rules for grief. There are days when I feel at peace with Amy and there are nights when I wake up crying. But I try not to dwell on the negative parts of her life, nor on how her death devastated my family. I keep going, as I have always done, busying myself with anything I can. It seems to be the only way I can get through each day.

I celebrate Amy’s talent and appreciate the great gift she gave to the world. It will live on well after I and my family have gone. The Amy Winehouse Foundation, too, has already begun to make a difference to the lives of other children who, for whatever reason, are set on a wayward and downward path in life. It means so much to me that all my proceeds from this book will be donated to Amy’s charity. We want to work with many more children in the future and help them realize their potential, and I know Amy is with us every step of the way.

I choose not to mourn Amy. I have her albums and a live concert she performed in São Paulo on my iPod. Hers is the only voice that spurs me upstairs and on to my exercise bike to go through the workouts I do to alleviate the discomfort of my MS. I’m not sure I’d get there otherwise. There are moments, though, when I hear the nakedness of her voice and I wonder how much the world under­ stood of Amy’s vulnerability.

She was a singer, a superstar, an addict and a young woman who hurtled towards an untimely death. To me, though, she is simply Amy. She was my daughter and my friend, and she will be with me forever.

Excerpted from "LOVING AMY: A Mother’s Story" by Janis Winehouse. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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