Two Illnesses, One Debate

By William Moyers

March 2, 2012 5 min read

Let's compare and contrast the lives and deaths of Anthony Shadid and Whitney Houston.

First, in life, both were enormously successful. For Shadid, a newspaper reporter, that meant the coveted Pulitzer Prize. He won two within six years, covering the conflicts in the Middle East for The New York Times. For Houston, that meant six Grammys and a string of No. 1 hits as one of the world's great singers.

Second, both were way too young to die, in their 40s.

Third, they likely succumbed to chronic illnesses they couldn't overcome. Shadid had asthma and apparently suffered a severe attack while being smuggled across the border into Turkey from Syria, where he'd been reporting on the rebellion. Houston battled drug addiction, and though the cause of death is pending, all reports point to alcohol or other drugs or a toxic combination of both.

Houston died Feb. 11, and within hours her public autopsy began on radio and television talk shows, blogs and Facebook comments. The last few days of her life were picked apart to make the case that her entourage should have stopped her from self-destructing or, worse, that she herself was to blame for not pulling herself together. There are girders of truth in both.

Shadid died five days later. His death sparked tributes but no finger-pointing or second-guessing about whether his own choices had put him at risk for an attack of his chronic illness. It turns out that a week earlier, Shadid had suffered a less serious asthma attack while crossing the border on guide horses. His fatal recurrence happened under similar circumstances. His father said, "He was walking behind some horses — he's more allergic to those than anything else — and he had an asthma attack."

In considering this column, I was apprehensive about trying to compare what happened to Shadid to what happened to Houston. For one thing, I don't have asthma. So I can't grasp all the day-to-day dynamics of managing this tricky illness. Also, Shadid was in a remote place far away from medical attention that could have saved his life. It's not my place or my point to suggest Shadid neglected to take care of himself. It's just that I am surprised that in the aftermath of his death, much of the media attention and Internet chat focused on the dangers of asthma and not the role of the asthmatic in living or dying with it. It'd be a heck of a debate on a show hosted by Dr. Drew or Bill O'Reilly. "You're asthmatic and you know the risks. So how far should you go to keep it from killing you?"

Of course, we don't have this debate with asthma or similar illnesses, because we're empathetic to those whose illnesses they don't deserve and didn't ask for. Besides, we recognize that many people have learned to enjoy productive, fulfilling and long lives by taking care of these chronic conditions. When they don't, we rarely find them at fault. Such is life and death with an illness.

Not so when it's Whitney Houston and the illness is alcoholism or drug dependence. Society is quick to jump to conclusions that ultimately come back to the addict and her poor choices. "She should have known better," ruled the jury of expert pundits. And indeed, addicted people do have a responsibility to take care of themselves by doing everything they can to keep their illness in remission. That means staying away from that which can kill us.

A popular phrase among people in recovery is that their illness is an "allergy of the body and an obsession of the mind." The allergy causes adverse reactions, including the risk of death, when the substance is near — just like a horse with an asthma sufferer.

William Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Foundation and the author of "Broken," his best-selling memoirs, and "A New Day, A New Life." Please send your questions to William Moyers at [email protected] To find out more about William Moyers and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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