Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Lesson I Want To Take From Robin Williams' Death

The nation is in shock over the news that Robin Williams killed himself yesterday.

You can see it on the TV, in the newspapers, on social media - the coverage of Williams' death is everywhere this morning and the recurring pattern in that coverage is shock that Williams would take his own life.

But I'm not in shock over the news of Williams' death.

The darkness that lived inside Robin Williams that ultimately led him to hang himself yesterday was evident in his stand-up comedy, his movie performances, his TV talk show appearances.

As someone who comes from a family that suffers from all three diseases Robin Williams suffered from - depression, addiction and alcoholism - I know the darkness that lives within and the struggle to keep the lights on and the sun shining in.

The good news about those struggles is that they often help people to lead extraordinary lives.

I can't psychoanalyze Robin Williams from afar - I know nothing about his life as a child, his growing up, the experiences and physiology that led to his suffering from depression and becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol at different points in his life.

But I can say that those experiences that brought about the darkness and the sadness in him also brought about the comedic talent and skill he shared with us during his life, the mania he displayed on stage that led to his comic heights, the pathos he hit in many of his better film roles that touched film-goers the world over.

Without the darkness and sadness, Robin Williams never would have been the "Robin Williams" we knew.

By all accounts,Williams was a decent man as well, a generous man, a nice man who treated people with respect - those character traits also came in part from whatever experiences Williams had that brought about the darkness and sadness inside him.

And of course the darkness and sadness led to his cocaine addiction and alcoholism, two of the more destructive ways humans can try and numb soul pain and heartache.

Williams was said to have been sober for many years after kicking his cocaine habit early in his career and he used those experiences as material for his stand-up (most notably in Robin Williams at the Met.)

He relapsed in the late 2000's, began drinking again, then entered rehab and got clean again.

He used these experiences as comic material in Weapons of Self-Destruction and seemed, from the outside at least, to have a handle on the darkness and sadness.

The Guardian obituary has this:

In a Guardian interview in 2010, he spoke about a relapse into alcoholism, his rehabilitation and his open-heart surgery.

Asked if he felt happier, Williams replied: “I think so. And not afraid to be unhappy. That’s OK too. And then you can be like, all is good. And that is the thing, that is the gift.”

Last month news came that Williams had entered another rehab, this time for "sobriety maintenance":

Robin Williams is at a rehab facility again ...but his people tell TMZ it's NOT because he fell off the wagon.

Williams is at Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center near Lindstrom, Minnesota.

Robin is in a part of the facility called The Lodge -- there are lots of fancy descriptions, but it's essentially a program to maintain long-term sobriety.

We're told Robin will be staying for several weeks.

I saw that story and remarked at the time to my wife that it wasn't a good sign that Williams was entering a rehab again, even if it was described as a program to help people in recovery "maintain long-term sobriety."

I sent out a little message to the universe - Gee, I hope Robin Williams is all right - then went on with my own life.

But when news came last night that Williams had killed himself, after the initial "O My God!" reaction, I realized that part of me wasn't surprised at all.

Drug addiction and alcoholism are life-long soul sicknesses, they do not go away no matter how successful a person is, no matter how many years somebody has in recovery, and depression is a mental illness that often remains life-long as well - health can be maintained but one must always be vigilant and even then, well, you never know.

Williams covered this himself in an interview with The Guardian in 2010

Williams used to be a big-drinking cocaine addict, but quit both before the birth of his eldest son in 1983, and stayed sober for 20 years. On location in Alaska in 2003, however, he started drinking again. He brings this up himself, and the minute he does he becomes more engaged.
"I was in a small town where it's not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there, and then I thought: drinking. I just thought, hey, maybe drinking will help. Because I felt alone and afraid. It was that thing of working so much, and going fuck, maybe that will help. And it was the worst thing in the world." What did he feel like when he had his first drink? "You feel warm and kind of wonderful. And then the next thing you know, it's a problem, and you're isolated."

Some have suggested it was Reeve's death that turned him back to drink. "No," he says quietly, "it's more selfish than that. It's just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn't." What was he afraid of? "Everything. It's just a general all-round arggghhh. It's fearfulness and anxiety."

He didn't take up cocaine again, because "I knew that would kill me". I'd have thought it would be a case of in for a penny – "In for a gram?" he smiles. "No. Cocaine – paranoid and impotent, what fun. There was no bit of me thinking, ooh, let's go back to that. Useless conversations until midnight, waking up at dawn feeling like a vampire on a day pass. No."

It only took a week of drinking before he knew he was in trouble, though. "For that first week you lie to yourself, and tell yourself you can stop, and then your body kicks back and says, no, stop later. And then it took about three years, and finally you do stop."

It wasn't, he says, fun while it lasted, but three years sounds like a long time not to be having fun. "That's right. Most of the time you just realise you've started to do embarrassing things." He recalls drinking at a charity auction hosted by Sharon Stone at Cannes: "And I realised I was pretty baked, and I look out and I see all of a sudden a wall of paparazzi. And I go, 'Oh well, I guess it's out now'."
In the end it was a family intervention that put him into residential rehab. I wonder if he was "Robin Williams" in rehab, and he agrees. "Yeah, you start off initially riffing, and kind of being real funny. But the weird thing is, how can you do a comic turn without betraying the precepts of group therapy? Eventually you shed it."

Williams still attends AA meetings at least once a week – "Have to. It's good to go" – and I suspect this accounts for a fair bit of his Zen solemnity. At times it verges on sentimental: he asks if I have children, and when I tell him I have a baby son he nods gravely, as if I've just shared. "Congrats. Good luck. It's a pretty wonderful thing." But it may well be down to the open-heart surgery he underwent early last year, when surgeons replaced his aortic valve with one from a pig.

"Oh, God, you find yourself getting emotional. It breaks through your barrier, you've literally cracked the armour. And you've got no choice, it literally breaks you open. And you feel really mortal." Does the intimation of mortality live with him still? "Totally." Is it a blessing? "Totally."

He takes everything, he says, more slowly now. His second marriage, to a film producer, ended in 2008 – largely because of his drinking, even though by then he was sober. "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."

Williams gets at the crux of alcoholism and addiction here:

"It's just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn't." What was he afraid of? "Everything. It's just a general all-round arggghhh. It's fearfulness and anxiety."

I've already seen pieces this morning calling for more drug research to find new and better drugs to help people suffering from mental illness and depression to recover but the truth is, often at the bottom of all of that is FEAR and I'm not sure medicating that fear with drugs - even those prescribed by a doctor - really gets to the root of the issue.

Listen, I'm not a doctor, I know that some people have chemical imbalances that need to be adjusted and that doctors, prescribing medication, can do that and help them lead better and healthier lives.

But for many, the kind of depression that leads to alcohol and drug abuse is not a chemical imbalance that can be fixed with more drugs but a soul sickness that needs a more complex treatment than just a drug prescription.

I don't know Robin Williams, don't know his story other than what is in the public record and what he told about himself in interviews and revealed about himself in his stand-up.

But from what I do know about Williams, it doesn't sound like medical treatment alone was enough to heal him of his darkness and sadness.

And that's the point I most want to get across in this post:

We live in a culture that wants the easiest, quickest way to solve problems and we believe that we can ALWAYS solve problems if we just put our shoulders to the wheel and push at something hard enough.

But depression, drug addiction, alcoholism - these are complex things and they cannot be "solved" so easily, perhaps will never be solved so long as we live our mortal lives.

It would be better if we lived in a society and a culture that handled sadness and darkness better, but we do not.

Part of that is because we live in a capitalist society and nothing sells stuff better than sadness and darkness in people.

"Feeling sad? Feeling bad about yourself?"

"Have we got just thing for you!"

"Try this car, house, pill, drink, dress, hair style, diet..."

No, this not a culture that lends itself to letting people be with their darkness and sadness for a bit and understanding just where it's coming from.

Instead we live in a culture and society that has an instantaneous solution for them - for a price, of course.

But this is a false solution.

Williams got at the complexity of this in that 2010 interview:

Asked if he felt happier, Williams replied: “I think so. And not afraid to be unhappy. That’s OK too. And then you can be like, all is good. And that is the thing, that is the gift.”

In the end, that's the message I wish we could take from Williams' suicide.

It's okay to be sad, it's okay to be unhappy, it's okay to be afraid and fearful, these are human feelings and we are simply being human when we feel them.

The key is, to find safe ways to express them, to share them with others, to shine some light on them, to feel them, to accept them and then let them go.

That's the struggle, one which Robin Williams shared with the rest of us very publicly and courageously, with insight, humor and empathy.

And that's the lesson I wish to take from his death.


  1. That's a very nice piece. I don't agree with you on many of your posts, but that's a very insightful, heartfelt piece. I learned a lot from it.

    1. I am glad it touched you. I was just trying to make some sense of his suicide for myself.

      Here's a piece I found quite illuminating from Salon:

  2. nice piece! but my guess....had he stayed on meds he'd be alive whether you approve or not.

    1. Maybe, but it depends on what you mean by "alive." You ever see some people who have had the life taken out of them by their meds?

      Also, I would note that some meds paradoxically make some people have suicidal thoughts:

      Please note that I wrote in the piece I am not a doctor and I know that some people absolutely need medication.

      But 70% of Amerians are on prescription medication and 1 in 10 use anti-depressants.

      Think there might be a ulterior motive for why so many Americans are told they must be on meds?

    2. I don't know about those meds. I read about Del Shannon killing himself while on those meds. I was going through a particularly rough time when my MD prescribed Lexpro or something. I took it for one or two days, felt great, then slept almost not at all and flushed it. It was odd because the doctor said it wouldn't kick in for a few weeks. I was pretty happy. But I figured if I walked around happy without sleeping I'd crash a car or something, and that was the end of it for me. at least.

    3. I knew someone else that turned into a zombie on the meds. She went off them and actually felt a little better.

      Again, I'm not a doctor, so I think people have to make their own decisions about medication, in consultation with their doctors.

      But the more I've read about Williams' state in the last few years, the more I think he needed help beyond medication.

      He talked an awful lot about "shame" around his actions while drinking, he was said to have "survivor's guilt" around the deaths of his friends John Belushi and Christopher Reeve and his brother Toad, and he regretted some of the actions that he felt forced him to take roles in crap films he didn't want to do.

      I know in AA, that would be some of the "wreckage of the past" that could be worked through using the 12 steps. Therapy would help, as perhaps would some spiritual stuff too.

  3. I struggle with clinical depression. I only came to that realization about three years ago after putting my husband and kids through hell while I was trapped in my own pit of despair. I come from at least three generations of alcoholics and my mom struggled with depression, alcoholism, and Valium addiction throughtout her life. Being a NYC teacher in a dysfunctional school brought me to the brink of suicide while back. Medications help me function and allow me to go to work and care for my kids every day. I still don't know if my marriage will survive. However, the meds alone are not enough. I have a wonderful therapist whom I see regularly, and a marriage counselor. I agree that Americans are way too fixated on the shallow, short term solutions and see depression as something one can "get over". However, medication does have a place as we try to care for our families and ourselves as we cope with this living nightmare.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, anon. I wish you all the best in your continued recovery, both personal, and in your marriage.

    2. when in depression one must come out of it first with meds, if they work, before any other therapy can work