Robin Williams Was a Powerful Voice on the Issue of Addiction

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Robin Williams died this week. He was 63. His death, reportedly a suicide by asphyxia, serves as a stark reminder of the insidiousness of addiction and mental illness.

As an actor and comedian, Williams was both legendary and beloved. Among many other memorable roles, he was the goofy dad-in-drag in Mrs. Doubtfire; he was the genie in Alladin; he was a lovable alien in Mork and Mindy; he was the empathetic therapist in Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Oscar. He could oscillate between gut-wrenchingly funny and heart-achingly sincere—both on screen and off.

Williams was also a powerful voice for the addiction community. A recovering cocaine addict and alcoholic who spent much of his life sober, his eloquence, honesty and humor on the subject were unparalleled—both in his stand-up comedy and with the press. ”[Addiction is] not caused by anything, it’s just there,” he said on Good Morning America in 2006. “It waits. 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. Then you realize, ‘Where am I? I didn’t realize I was in Cleveland.’”

Months before that interview, Williams had checked himself into rehab after 20 years of sobriety. He said that his return to drinking had been “very gradual” and that he’d convinced himself he could have “just one” drink, though “the idea of just one for someone who has no tolerance for it, that’s not the possibility.”

In an interview with the Guardian around the same time, he spoke candidly about the circumstances of his relapse, which took place while he was on location in Alaska. “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,” he said. ”And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.”

In his youth, he battled with an addiction to cocaine—which he famously described as “God’s way of saying you’re making too much money”—as well as alcohol. He eventually got sober in his mid-thirties, before the birth of his first son and after fatal overdose of his friend, John Belushi. Williams did it “on his own, without any help,” as he later explained in an interview (video below). “After I quit drinking, I realized I am the same asshole I always was,” he once quipped. “I just have fewer dents in my car.”

Though he drank again almost two decades later, he said he never returned to cocaine, out of fear it would kill him. Still, after his relapse, things spiraled: “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.”

Ultimately, a family intervention led him to seek inpatient treatment. “You think people don’t notice,” he said. “Then you find out later, ‘We knew. … You went outside naked.’ No, I didn’t. But even the dog was like, ‘What’s wrong, boy?’ Humiliation gives you humility.”

That 2006 relapse transformed his view of whether it was possible to address his addiction on his own. ”But you can’t. That’s the bottom line,” he said. “You really think you can, then you realize, I need help, and that’s the word … It’s hard admitting it, then once you’ve done that, it’s real easy.” After getting sober for the second time, he attended 12-step meetings.

Just last month, Williams checked himself into into Hazelden treatment center. Rumors of another relapse were denied by his publicist, who claimed he simply wanted to “fine-tune and focus on his continued commitment [to sobriety], of which he remains extremely proud.”

His death yesterday came as a shock to a lot of people. His enormous fan base knew him as a gregarious, energetic and brilliantly funny performer, who seemed to fully give himself to every role he played—whether it was an Oscar-worthy film or a failing sitcom. In the hours following his death, the Internet has lit up with firsthand accounts of his kindness, patience and generosity to his fans.

His death has also inspired a wave of awareness about addiction and mental illness, with many people responding to his death by posting about their own battles with addiction and depression. Messages like “I’ve struggled, too” and ”you’re not alone” abound on Facebook and Twitter. Comedian Chris Gethard posted a photo of himself during a bout of depression, captioned: ”This is the face of my mental illness, and I’m ok with you seeing it. #NoShame #RIPRobinWilliams”

At the end of his Guardian interview in 2006, Williams was asked if he was happy. He 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.”

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