Can’t We Learn From The Death of Robin Williams?
Instead of all the tributes, let's talk about what his death can teach us.
Posted August 12, 2014
We are in the wake of the death of Robin Williams. Whenever a celebrity—particularly one with a long, storied career, one who’s beloved by multiple generations for a myriad of roles—dies in a way related to addiction, the headlines pour in. Tributes. Facebook posts with heartfelt sentiments and videos of the celebrity’s best scenes. Tweets of personal feelings and news stories that gather together what other celebrities have to say about the tragedy. For days or weeks, the public conversation has a somber quality. It feels difficult to be snarky or really to discuss other issues. The one person’s death becomes everyone’s death.
And then things roll along just as they did before.
Nothing really changes in terms of the way the public perceives addiction and mental illness. Those who don’t suffer from it make grand statements about the moral failings of addicts and alcoholics; health care coverage—despite some improvements with Obamacare—continues to only minimally cover the sort of long-term treatment that hope-to-die addicts need; movie studios and agents and producers continue to dance around and enable the addictions of famous people upon whom they depend for their living. It could even be argued that the public is left even more confused after the media hoopla that surrounds a death like this, for anti-AA crusaders use every opportunity they can to try to make the case that 12-step kills people, failing to note that a program that saves millions of lives doesn’t kill people; addiction does. The fact that people are always trying to find someone or something to blame—it’s AA! It’s Dr. Drew! It’s whatever new scapegoat we can find!—shows just how confused we all are about addiction.
Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing. If you have a problem with the word disease, I invite you to calm down. That’s what it is. An addict loses the power of choice once a substance is in his or her system.
Depression is a disease as well. This somehow is easier for people to swallow. And yet there sure is a lot of confusion about how to treat it. This makes sense, of course; anti-depressants have only been used really since the 80s and in many ways, we’re all the case studies. In 100 years, people will probably take whatever blood test they need in order to determine whether or not they have a chemical imbalance and marvel at the fact that previous generations could only know if they needed a medication by trying it and seeing if it worked. Of course, even if someone suffering from depression could benefit from an SSRI or mood stabilizer or something of that ilk, that doesn’t mean the medication will work. Side effects, including far worse depression, are common. I feel incredibly lucky, as an addict who also suffers from depression, that I am helped by medication. And yet many times I’ve felt society’s—and my own—stigma, felt ashamed that I swallow a pill every morning, felt inferior to those who don’t. What can I say? In terms of mental health, we’re living in some messed up times. But I believe that mental health treatment, unlike many other aspects of society, will only improve.
Whether it’s the fact that I’m an addict or the fact that I have a chemical imbalance—but most likely the combination of the two—I know what it’s like to be so depressed that I feel like I’d do anything possible to escape it. I’ve never fashioned a noose or had anything close to a real plan but just before I got sober, I’d fantasize about swerving my car into oncoming traffic as a quick, “easy” exit from my overwhelming feelings (in alcoholic fashion, I never thought of the fact that I could kill the person driving the car that hit my car). Why did I never take the final step and others do? Why did I, as the saying goes, understand that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and others do not? Until we can get inside other people’s heads and souls, we’ll never be able to answer that. No wonder people are frustrated. We live in a society that prides itself on being able to figure stuff out. We want answers. We want solutions. We’re almost at the point where we can take a picture of a stranger and find out in minutes who they are, we should be able to have answers about addiction and mental illness so we can stop supremely talented people—not to mention everyone—from dying unnecessarily.
But addiction and mental illness don’t work that way. The solutions for them don’t work that way either. When I realized I was addicted to cocaine and thought I might have to quit, I wanted an easy fix, an easy answer. AA did not look like an easy fix or easy answer so I bought some anti AA literature and felt quite justified staying away from “those crazy people” a while longer, in turn getting so depressed that those oncoming traffic fantasies became more frequent. Finally, when I was out of any other answers, I was willing to try. And what I found shocked the hell out of me: within a certain amount of time, I had no desire to do cocaine or drink; it was like the part of me that craved and needed those things was removed from me, the same way my tonsils had once been removed. I wasn’t someone who was interested in God or praying or anything like that up until this point but suddenly I didn’t need any more proof of God’s existence than this. It didn’t make logical sense—I’d been trying to quit cocaine for years but had never been able to—and so all I could and can conclude is that the solution was spiritual. When I was early in sobriety, I remember hearing a guy say (and this certainly dates when I got sober) that he couldn’t explain how, when he put a video into his VCR, it ended up playing on his TV screen but he didn’t doubt that it worked so why couldn’t people accept that he knew spirituality worked but couldn’t explain how?
People, sober and non-sober alike, will often say that addicts who can’t get sober and happy just aren’t doing enough. They aren’t trying hard enough. They aren’t doing “the work.” They just don’t want it enough. I don’t believe that. I believe that some people have the disease far worse than others and those of us who don’t have it as bad as they do aren’t in a position to judge what it is they need. Some people have cancer that goes into remission and some get cancer that kills them immediately.
What we all are in a position to judge, however, is the lies we tell ourselves—in particular the lie that money, fame and adoration are the keys to happiness. One only needs to consider briefly the numerous people who’ve had all of those things that have died as a result of alcoholism and addiction to know that this is a lie. And yet every day we get up and act like the external things are going to do it for us. We let ourselves get depressed by how great other people’s lives look on Facebook. I am as guilty of this as anyone I know. So wouldn’t the best way to honor the life of a great talent be not to pour out glowing tribute after glowing tribute but to try to educate ourselves about what’s really going to make us happy and what addiction and recovery really is? Isn’t that the way to make it so that this glorious talent didn’t die in vain?