Yesterday, the world was rocked by the death of one of the most beloved celebrities of our time. Oscar-winning actor/comic Robin Williams was found dead in his California home Monday, a possible suicide, according to investigators. He was 63.
Williams battled alcoholism and cocaine abuse in the early 1980s. He was close friends with John Belushi, and in fact he had been partying with the legendary “Saturday Night Live” comedian at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont hotel not long before Belushi overdosed on a lethal combination of heroin and cocaine in 1982. Belushi’s death was a wakeup call for Williams, who quit cold turkey shortly after the incident and remained sober for two decades.
In 2003, Robin Williams relapsed, after 20 years of sobriety. He returned to treatment in 2006, on the urging of his family. By most accounts, Williams has been sober since, though in early July of this year, he checked back into rehab again. He denied falling off the wagon, however, and said the treatment was only precautionary. The several weeks spent at Hazelton, were, according to his representatives, an “opportunity to fine-tune and focus on his continued commitment [to sobriety], of which he remains extremely proud.”
Two months later, he is dead, from an apparent suicide, and the actor’s representative said he had been “battling severe depression of late.”
Emotional Bottoms in Sobriety
I remember seeing the story of Robin Williams’ recent stint in rehab. Part of my job is to look for news regarding addiction and recovery, and the Williams’ story certainly qualified. But I didn’t assign the story to either of the department blog writers. Something about it made me hesitate. I was impressed that someone with long-term sobriety was seeking help, before it was too late, and I wanted to respect his privacy.
In 2006, Williams told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that falling back into abuse was “very gradual,” and that addiction is a sickness that knows no statute of limitations. “It waits,” he said. “It lays in wait for the time when you think, ‘It’s fine now, I’m OK.’ Then, the next thing you know, it’s not OK.”
I relate a lot to what Williams said back then, and I think perhaps we need more resources for those in long-term sobriety who are struggling. I myself have battled feelings of depression in sobriety, and I was hesitant to reach out for help. Twelve step groups have saved my life, but the standard response to someone struggling or relapsing after a period of sobriety in that group seems to be they were “doing recovery wrong.” Or that you aren’t “taking enough action.” This may or may not be true, but it’s not exactly helpful, particularly with someone, like Williams, who may be dealing with an untreated mental health condition, like depression. So often, these two go hand-in-hand. Admitting that you’re “not ok” when you “know what you need to do” is especially difficult in this environment.
Robin Williams did though, he reached out for help, even though he knew it would be plastered all over the news. He knew that various media outlets would speculate on his continued sobriety. He would have to admit, to the world, that he was not okay. And for this, I honor him.
I don’t pretend to know what was going on in Robin Williams’ head this summer, but I do know how I felt during a period of my life when I was struggling to remain abstinent. It is often said that for alcoholics and addicts, drugs and alcohol are not the problem, they are the solution, and at the time, I did not have any other solution. I was “white-knuckling” it, struggling to get through every day without using drugs and alcohol to numb the pain.
I knew that for me, to drink was to die, but it would be a slow suicide, and I would take everyone I loved down with me. I had caused so much destruction with my drinking and drug use in the past, and if I picked up again, I would hurt and alienate my family and friends. I would drive myself into financial ruin. I would be utterly disgraced. I would die and everyone I cared about would look at me in disgust. Some of them may even begin to hope for my death.
Robin Williams knew this too. In an interview with the Guardian in 2010, he says of his relapse: “You know, I was shameful, and you do stuff that causes disgust, and that’s hard to recover from. You can say, ‘I forgive you’ and all that stuff, but it’s not the same as recovering from it. It’s not coming back.”
Compared to that, suicide, that “most selfish” of acts, begins to look like the noble course of action. Why put myself and everyone I loved through the rollercoaster of my active addiction? Why not just end it now, if I knew it was going to end it anyway?
It’s like that age old “would you rather” question. Would you rather die a quick and relatively painless death or spend years battling an illness with a very low chance for survival? The extra twist, of course, with addiction, is that no one really feels much sympathy for the person battling addiction; nor the individual struggling with depression. Unlike those who face down cardiovascular disease or cancer, those with mental health disorders are usually told, at best, to “just stop” or “snap out of it.” At worst, well, I recently read a comment where the user said the best way to treat addiction would be to put all addicts of the world on an island, and have them fight to death on live TV like the Hunger Games. This is far from an uncommon attitude. Even those in positions of power and prestige have been known to use the words “crack ho,” “junkie,” or worse to describe addicts.
I ended up going back to the drugs, the drink. It would be another couple years before I got help again. This time, something changed. Someone turned on the light in the darkness, and I could finally see that I had a third option: Drink, Die, or Find a New Way to Live.
I’ve been clean and sober now for nearly three years, which isn’t very long at all in the grand scheme of things, but for me, it is an eternity. I’ve had emotional low points over those three years, but I’ve been able to avoid the utter state of despair I found myself in all those years ago. Today, I have a different solution.
I have no doubt that my life ahead will be filled with ups and downs just as everyone’s is, whether or not they suffer from the disease of alcoholism. I hope and pray that I’m always able to humble myself enough to ask for help when I need it, and to ask and ask again until I get it, no matter how much “sober time” I have accrued.
Robin Williams has inspired hundreds of comedians and actors. He has inspired children and adults of all ages. He has made us laugh, he has made us cry. And last night, Robin Williams inspired me to go to a meeting.
Rest in peace Robin Williams, the world is a darker place without you.