During the last day or so many people have related personal stories about how Robin Williams touched their lives. Whether their anecdote comes from a movie, performance, interview or personal encounter, people have voiced their disbelief that such a carefree and mirthful human being could commit suicide. He rarely let his demons be known and, when he did, he made a joke about it or moved on quickly to less serious subjects.
But, for those of us in the mental health and substance abuse fields, those demons are very real and omnipresent. We see them in ourselves and in others. We never really know when the deep dark thoughts will take hold and the path to obliteration will set in. There are warning signs, of course, but the false alarms are many. At a certain point we become a little numb and a little less observant. We let our guard down. Complete and utter despair makes its entrance. There appears to be no way out. Self-annihilation appears in the guise of sweet relief. You know the rest.
I traveled in the same circles as Robin Williams did before he was famous in the mid 1970’s when he was performing in places like the Holy City Zoo and The Palms in San Francisco. I never knew him personally; he was among the many people I encountered in passing during the height of the disco era. He went on to become a celebrity and I took a circuitous path to academia. I heard about him from time to time in the media and in movies and on TV. I developed more interest in him as a person when he began to talk about his recovery from substance use. Our worlds began to look a little alike. I was in recovery myself and working with people with substance use and mental health problems. He was a well-known person who gave others hope when he talked about his struggle, even if fleetingly. When I would go on a run in San Francisco we sometimes nodded as we passed each other at Crissy Field. He was one of us. We were all doing what we had to do to contribute in whatever way we could to make up for our past sins.
Robin Williams death by suicide has taught me two things that I learn over and over again every time a thing like this happens. The first is that, no matter how many times you relapse, if you use this as a learning process, you can get clean and sober again. There is no “model” recovery and relapse is the rule rather than the exception. For anyone to hold themselves to an arbitrary standard can lead to a sense of inadequacy which can fuel the spiral downward into depression.
Secondly, always make sure there are at least two people (two in case one person is unavailable for some reason or another) that you can be absolutely truthful with and who you know will not judge you. Find these people through trial and error and, when you do, cultivate these relationships like there’s no tomorrow. These people will be invaluable to you when you are too ashamed to admit to others that you have descended into your own personal hell.
Unfortunately, Robin Williams’ celebrity didn’t protect him from the extreme emotional states that depression and substance abuse can bring on. He was well-loved and respected yet, it seems, this did not ensure his sense of well-being. It is a testament to his talent and generosity of spirit that his suicide affects many of us so deeply. On some level we feel that if only he could truly know how we felt about him he might now still be with us…