Pressure Cooker


When I was in my teens, one of my close friends worked at Merriweather Post Pavilion, an indoor-outdoor concert arena not too far from home. She shared with me probably true and often shocking stories about musical artists, which I filed away, never knowing whether I would access the information again.

One of those stories was that Whitney Houston surrounded herself with women. That she may have been a lesbian. That she didn’t trust men.

If I was 17 or 18 at the time, Whitney was probably 19 or 20 (do the math if you care how old I am). Not yet a full-blown star but well-known enough to headline at a venue where many of the biggest musical tours stopped to play.

I remember thinking Whitney was beautiful and that she had a big voice. Her songs never rose to the top of my favorites list but I can’t imagine anybody would claim that she lacked talent (or beauty). I never changed my opinion on those two things and probably never will, despite all we know about how she lived her life and how she probably died.

A friend (thanks LE) directed me to a blog post by Steve K, called Midnight Ramblings, which voiced this man’s sadness at not only the simple tragedy of musicians and other creative people dying before their time due to drug or alcohol addictions but the tremendous loss to humanity of the depth of what those voices, those people had to give. Steve provides an edited list of those artists he admired who died from substance abuse and it is full of people with true talent and genius.

I can’t explain how this makes me feel. I am deeply affected by the creative voices that come into my life. I am deeply saddened by the destructiveness present in many of their lives. But I am also angry at myself (and others) because of our unrealistic expectations of people, be they stars or neighbors or family or friends. I think we  make things harder on ourselves and others, and we know we do this, yet we don’t stop. Or we won’t.

Every year a speaker from the Wellness Collaborative comes to speak about substance abuse with the middle schoolers and then with their parents at my daughter’s school. At this year’s parent meeting, which happened to be this past Friday, Will Slotnick gave us a statistic that really surprised me. He said that peer pressure is not the number one reason teenagers start drinking or doing drugs.

The number one reason teenagers drink or do drugs: stress. They can’t handle the pressure put on them by their culture, their family, their peers, themselves and turn to something that can and does relieve some of that pressure. It may not be a wise choice in a long-term sense, but in the short-term, they actually do get relief.

I remember feeling pressure as a high schooler and I was living in a time when decent grades, decent scores, and decent recommendations got you into a decent college where you got a degree and then got a decent job. I never felt like I had to be a star athlete or a student entrepreneur or a classical violinist to get a shot at making it in the world. But my kids are already worried about whether they will get into the colleges they want to go to and whether they will have a job when they get out.

I take some of the blame for their stressing over their futures. In my world, people are talking about what our kids need in order to get into good colleges and it isn’t just good grades and a desire to achieve. They need to be a ranked tennis player or a Senator’s child or a Broadway actress.

Now I know I’m exaggerating but I’m not too far off from what I hear and see regularly. And I want my children to have as many of the opportunities to succeed that are out there as they can get. So I push them to try new things, to find what they’re good at and excel, to think about what will make them stand out on a college application and beyond.

Which means I create part of the stress that my kids have to deal with daily. And I don’t know how to stop because I can’t pretend that doing what I did in high school is going to help them get where they want to go when so many others are working the system, a system that has the power to destroy the people it is supposed to support.

Whitney Houston is a casualty of our culture. So is the boy who committed suicide because he tried so hard to be straight and finally gave into being himself (gay) and was terrorized because of it.

What scares me is that my decent children (and yours) will feel so much pressure that they turn to short-term relief and then develop a habit which they depend upon so they can move forward without feeling like they are a disappointment or not able to keep up or not what they have been told they are supposed to be.

I don’t know if what my friend told me thirty years ago is true. The distrust of men comment could easily have been an 18 year old’s misinterpretation of a young singer wanting to be surrounded by her sisters and mother and close girlfriends because they gave her love. Or not. It doesn’t matter in the scheme of things.

What matters is that this beautiful talent is dead long before her time. How many more addiction-related deaths do we have to see before we take a step back and take some responsibility for the pressure-cooker culture we perpetuate? How many more do we have to see before we work smarter to make some necessary change?


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12 thoughts on “Pressure Cooker

  1. I love this post and agree with everything you’ve said. I think it’s just so sad. I hate seeing all this talent go to waste, hate knowing that something dark inside them drew them toward such self-hatred and…depression.

    1. It is sad. And a loss for all of us every time somebody succumbs to their addictions, celebrity or regular person. Thanks for commenting, April.

  2. As a homeschooler, I battle the pressure daily to find the balance between what my kids are capable of and what I should allow. For example, I know my younger son is capable of straight As in Math — but is the grade itself truly important (particularly in 4th grade) as long as he understands the concepts and can apply them when necessary. I try to lean towards the latter … then fight the guilt that I’m not expecting enough of him and am allowing him to get away with less than his best. It’s a constant battle.

    1. It is difficult to know what is right at any given moment. It certainly helps to have a strong sense of what matters to you as a parent and a member of society. Sounds like you know how you lean, which is a great accomplishment as far as I’m concerned.

  3. Great post, Sara. I, too, agree with everything you’ve said. My 2 girls don’t learn differently than most of their peers yet they are only offered one path through the education system, one path for “success”. I often fantasize about pulling them out of school and traveling around the world for the next several years, giving them some home instruction along the way so they can be shielded from the insanity that is our education system and definition of success. I can’t say that I’m without fault, though, in buying into some of it because like you, I want them to be successful and have the opportunities they want and deserve.

    1. I’ve had the same fantasy, perhaps for slightly different reasons. What they (and we) could learn traveling the world and experiencing life outside of the classroom. But there is so much that keeps me tied to the system, too. Thanks for responding to this post. It helps to know others are trying to figure it all out too.

  4. I just read an interesting blog on the Huffington Post that, among other things, compares Whitney Houston to Judy Garland (here’s a link: I think it’s a valid comparison, and I think it relates to your argument from the perspective that here were two amazingly talented women, separated by forty or so years, but who shared so many similarities. The realities of their daily lives were different, but their demons were the same. I guess I hope that while the realities of my kids’ lives are very different than what I experienced in the ’70’s and ’80’s, their outcomes will be similar to my own. There’s always been pressure on kids, and there have always been unhealthy ways of dealing with it. I think/hope that my kids are resilient enough to handle what life throws at them.

    1. I love the way you look at the situation. I do think that the realities are very different for our kids but hope that you are right and like we did before them, they will make it through, hopefully not too beaten up. Thanks for commenting, Liv.

  5. It is really sad about Whitney and other super talented people who get addicted to alcohol or drugs and die. What a waste. Once you’re in that world, it’s hard to get out.

    You’re right about the pressure on even just regular kids today and I wonder how we got here. I look at what is expected of all of them now and what was expected of me as a kid and teen and it feels completely different.

    I don’t know if it can or will ease up on them. I guess we can just do our best in our own houses.

    Great post, Sara!

    1. I do think that our children have some wonderful things that we didn’t have that perhaps balances out the equation some. My girls certainly have more opportunities in terms of athletics and academics than they did back in the day. If we all did our best in our own houses maybe we’d see a shift in some of the things about our culture that bothers us. Thanks for your thoughts Kim.

  6. This post touches upon a couple of reasons why I homeschool. One big one is giving my kids enough time to sleep. Kids, especially teens, don’t get enough sleep and that adversely affects their performance and judgment. Do I want sleep-deprived teenagers behind the wheel? Heck, no!

    And second, I want my kids to not be stressed about getting it all done. I want them to enjoy learning, have the time to explore their passions, and the flexibility to readjust when a curriculum or program or routine is not working.

    We’ve already started talking about alternatives to immediately going from high school to college with our oldest (he’s 7). We’ve talked to him about vocation schools, apprenticeships, gap years, state schools and community colleges.

    I went to a great college right after high school and I was not equipped to take advantage of all the opportunities it afforded. I did well–don’t get me wrong–but I didn’t really know *what* I wanted out of my college experience. i was trying to please myself and my parents at the same time, and, well, the compromise didn’t really make sense for me. I want my kids to plan their college careers with more thought–it is TOO expensive now days to spend four or more years experimenting your way through it. The debt burden is not worth it.

    Sorry, that is tangential a bit. But I am constantly surprised by how much stress American culture puts on everyone–children, teens, women, men. I’m from Pakistan, and we have our own societal pressures, but not in this way.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful reply. I completely agree with you about kids not getting enough sleep and about giving them the time to explore their passions as well as the gap year options. I also felt like my college experience, while fun, did not serve me well because I wasn’t ready for it.

      I’d love to know more about the role stress plays in other cultures. Sometimes we live in such a provincial way, assuming it is the same everywhere even when we know this can’t be true.

So what do you think?