Living amid substance abuse became Bobbi Kristina Brown’s reality


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The images are etched in Martha Jo Katz’s memory. Whitney Houston, beautiful, friendly and ever the doting mother, tending to her daughter’s every need.

Houston and Bobbi Kristina Brown enjoyed lunch with Brandy, Houston’s co-star in the 1997 movie “Cinderella,” in the Palm Restaurant of the then-Swissotel in Buckhead, where Katz was director of social events from 1991 to 2006.

“She was a toddler then,” Katz said of Bobbi Kristina Brown. “She was so cute.”

As mourners gather in Alpharetta on Saturday to pay their respects to the 22-year-old daughter of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, Katz hopes others will learn from the Brown family’s longtime struggle with substance abuse. It pained Katz to see Houston, the gregarious, gifted entertainer, become an emaciated shell of her former self in latter years.

Bobbi Kristina Brown died Sunday at a hospice in Duluth. Six months ago, she was found face-down and unresponsive in a bathtub in her suburban Atlanta town home, the victim of an apparent drowning. She was placed in a medically induced coma, and despite months of treatment, she never regained consciousness. The Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office did not detect an obvious cause of death following an initial autopsy.

Brown’s death comes three years after her mother’s eerily similar demise. In 2012, the Grammy-winning singer was found in the bathtub of a Los Angeles hotel on the eve of the awards show. In late March 2012, The Associated Press reported that coroner’s officials said Whitney Houston died from drowning, but heart disease and chronic cocaine use were contributing factors.

Houston’s death devastated her only daughter, who allegedly had her own issues with alcohol and drugs. In the short-lived 2012 Lifetime reality show “The Houstons: On Our Own,” Bobbi Kristina Brown, then 19, was seen drinking heavily, causing concern from her famous grandmother, Cissy Houston, and her aunt Pat Houston. Brown’s relationship with Nick Gordon was also spotlighted on the show.

Growing up in an environment where one or both parents are abusing drugs or alcohol can be particularly chaotic, said Dr. J. Kip Matthews, an Athens psychologist. And being the child of a celebrity amplifies those challenges, he said.

The child may never know what emotional state their parent is in. As a result, the child may become hyper-vigilant, on constant watch for any threatening or scary behavior their parent may engage in.

These behaviors may run from verbal rants to physically throwing objects to verbal and physical abuse. A coping strategy that some children may engage in is to be “super-perfect” to minimize the chance they will become the target of their parent’s drunken rage.

Drugs and alcohol were constants in the Houston-Brown household, a sad fact played out in the 2005 Bravo reality show “Being Bobby Brown,” which was filmed in Atlanta. Bobbi Kristina, then an adolescent, often seemed more mature than her parents.

Matthews describes this phenomenon as children becoming “parentified,” taking on the roles and responsibilities around the home that their parent may be neglecting. These children, he said, sometimes come to believe their parent’s substance abuse is their fault. This can set the stage for them to develop unhealthy coping strategies — which can include turning to drugs and alcohol themselves.

To minimize the risk, Matthews said children must learn and understand that their parents’ substance abuse is not their fault.

“This is critically important,” he said. “They need to hear the message that they are not responsible for their parent’s choices from someone close to them, whether it is an extended family member, a friend, clergy, or a teacher.”

Secondly, it’s important to develop healthy coping strategies. By connecting with a school counselor, a psychologist or another mental health professional, children can explore their feelings of disappointment, fear, anger, helplessness.

At some level, it is probably healthy for children in these situations to have a sense of mild defiance, he said, “seeing themselves as separate from the system in which this is occurring.” They can take actions to focus on goals set for themselves, directing their time and energy on things they can control, he said.

“This is a good example of how ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ can be realized,” he said. “We can help children learn that they are not alone and that they are, indeed, loved and cared about. By coming together and surrounding the children with open arms, we can facilitate their own sense of self-respect and create opportunities for them to thrive, thus breaking the cycle of abuse that so often happens.”

For Bobbi Kristina Brown, the pressures of her parents’ lifestyle and the glare of their celebrity may have overwhelmed her.

“Children grow up with their parents as examples, and this is what she knew and was comfortable with,” Katz said of Bobbi Kristina Brown. “She saw her mother escape some of the painful realities of life with the drugs and alcohol, so she thought it would give her an escape also. She felt comfortable in that environment since it was what she knew growing up.”

About a week before Brown passed away, Tyler Perry, a close family friend, posted on Facebook:

“This morning I woke up with Whitney on my mind,” wrote the grief-stricken actor and director. “I couldn’t help but think about all that she must have dreamed for her child. I know this was not her dream.”