As media journalists run wild trying to get the latest facts surrounding Robin Williams’ death, there are two facts that stick out the most – his history of addiction and his history of depression. Robin Williams’ history of addiction spans decades, stopping cold turkey in 1982. However, after 20 years of sobriety, he relapsed several years ago. His relapse was compounded with a severe depression he has been dealing with recently.
It’s impossible to know exactly what Robin Williams was going through. We can judge from the outside and think that he had it all. But what we see are just the awards, the homes, the accolades, the money, and the superficial things of what our society deems as “success.” However, underlying all of those things appears to be a man going through things we all go through. We may not all battle “severe” depression, but we’ve all experienced some level of the “blues.” We may not have battled a particular substance use addiction, but we’ve all struggled to cope with difficult times.
Research can’t tell us exactly why people become addicted or depressed because the truth is that it varies from person to person and there are a multitude of factors that come together. However, research has told us that nearly half of the population will experience a major psychiatric illness at one point in their lives and a majority of those will meet diagnostic criteria for two or more illness (Kessler et al., 1994). Depression and substance use are two of the most co-occurring mental illnesses. And Robin Williams’ death is a reminder that it can affect anyone.
Even after years of sobriety, Robin Williams relapsed. He told Parade Magazine just last year that he walked into a store one day, saw a bottle of whisky, bought it and soon enough was on the path of buying several bottles at a time. We don’t know if depression was a factor in his relapse or if it was something else, but it’s important to understand the cues that trigger us towards our habits. For each person, cravings are evoked from different things. It can be as simple as seeing a bottle of whisky, smelling something reminiscent of a drug, a glass that reminds you of what you used to drink out of, or even driving through the area you used to use. Research has even shown that among alcoholics who are shown pictures of various images (including alcohol-related pictures vs. neutral-relaxing pictures), cravings can be elicited from the alcohol cues and are associated with increased anxiety and negative emotion (Sinha et al., 2009). And these translate to physiological changes, such as increased blood pressure.
This research tells us that cravings are a very real phenomena. It doesn’t matter if you’re 2 days sober or 20 years sober. The cravings may dampen; you may find new ways of coping with them; they may diminish, but to say that they’ll completely go away might make you naïve to the reality of the situation. Recovery is a process of unlearning old habits and relearning new habits.
What we also often neglect to realize is that, triggers can also come from internal states. Feelings of sadness, loneliness, or even euphoria can all be triggers to use. For those who use when they feel any of those feelings, it can become hard to know what to do with those feelings without using. Knowing that cravings may never go away, the question then becomes, how do we deal with them…
Robin Williams’ death is, of course, sad, but it is also a moment for us to reflect on what it can teach us. So with that, this process of uncovering the “truth” behind Williams’ death that we will see in the media, may not be as important as uncovering our own truth. What is going in our own lives that can help us in a way that others weren’t able to help themselves?
"You can accept your thoughts and feelings, be psychologically present, and connect with your values all you like, but without the commitment to take effective action, you won’t create a rich and meaningful life."
Are you willing to accept your thoughts, feelings, and temptations? And can you begin to take effective actions that move you in the direction you want to go? Use your life and use the lives of those around you to teach you something about yourself. Make choices that take you in the direction you want to go and know that even when you make a wrong turn, you can always go back.
Rubin Khoddam is a PhD student in Clinical Psychology at the University of Southern California whose research and clinical work focuses on substance use issues. He founded a website, Psych Connection, with the goal of connecting ideas, people, research, and self-help to better connect you to yourself and those around you.