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Williams' Death: Addiction, Recovery, & Depression

Robin Williams, always the funny man, became well known for his hilarious stream-of-conscious rants and his myriad roles from genie to shrink; but for decades he battled addiction and depression behind the curtain. And most recently, undisclosed until days after his death, Williams was battling the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. We don’t really know the depth of the struggles he was facing, but we do know the torment was profound, devastating enough to lead him to suicide.

It was days after he was found dead in his Bay Area home that news spread disseminated about his Parkinson’s diagnosis. Celebrity news reporters recalled interview footage with Williams from years before, pointing out the telltale signs on air, “his left arm is trembling, see there?” they noted. At least one of these reporters conjectured it was this diagnosis that drove him to suicide.

It seems more likely his diagnosis was the apple that tipped the cart, as Williams had an arduous history with bipolar disorder, depression and substance abuse. To many, his suicide was not a surprise.

Williams was bullied as a child for being overweight and he often spent much of his free time alone, avoiding his tormentors. But he eventually quelled the stigma by joining the wrestling and track teams (in high school, Williams ran a 1:58.8 for 800 meters), and also discovered his knack for making people laugh, and by doing so gained the respect of the other students. Williams chose to pursue acting, and his talent was evident as he quickly earned a scholarship to the renowned Julliard School in New York City. His career soon flourished.

Williams first sought treatment for cocaine and alcohol in 1982, after his close friend, Blues Brother and Saturday Night Live star John Belushi died from an overdose. Williams was one of the last people to see Belushi alive, and his death was a wakeup call. Apparently his sobriety lasted two decades, but Robins admitted, after a relapse in 2006, that he was surprised at how easy it was to slip back into the cycle of abuse. A cycle many addicts and recovering addicts know all too well.

This is a very intersting episode of comedian, Marc Maron's podcast, WTF?. Here is a very open conversation with Robin Williams from 2010:

He spoke candidly about his failed marriages, and his struggles with substance abuse, but he was more guarded about his skirmishes with depression, usually making an attempt to be optimistic about it. In an interview with The Guardian in 1996, Williams said “Every time you get depressed, comedy will be there to drag your ass out of it.”

But his comedy was just part of the package, part of his brilliance. It was the result of a manic episode and the veil to disguise the inner turmoil. This is an interesting article by comic, Jim Norton, a recovering addict himself. Here Jim describes why the funniest people are sometimes the saddest.

Although his sobriety was intact, Williams long struggled with depression and bipolar disorder, and was seeking professional treatment at the time of his death.

Characteristics of bipolar disorder includes periods of mania or hypomania (hypomania is defined as a more functional type of mania, where a person may not do anything abnormal, just seem turbocharged, full of energy, a creative genius) followed by periods of depression. This cycle gives rise to many other problems, often substance abuse. People tend to behave recklessly and feel invincible during a manic or hypomanic episode, and will self medicate with alcohol or other drugs when they enter a state of depression. This only makes things worse. Alcohol triggers symptoms of depression, intensifies feelings of lethargy, sadness and hopelessness. Depression and substance abuse often feed into one another, and one condition will worsen the other. 

Back in 2006, after his relapse, in an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer Williams said that falling off the wagon was gradual, “It’s [addiction] not caused by anything, it’s just there. 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.’”

One can only speculate...

There is also evidence that survivors of open heart surgery often battle depression. Robin had open heart surgery to repair an aortic valve several years ago. Many speculated that this was a result of his earlier cocaine addiction, but his surgeon announced that the damage probably was not caused by drugs. Neverheless, this is still another factor in the equation that led to the tragic loss.

Robin's story is a microcosm of the struggle with addiction; depression can bring on substance abuse; fighting addiction can cause depression; recovery is a constant battle; relapses bring on depression; years of addiction can physically impair a person's ability to be happy; drugs and alcohol can damage the body; sickness can foster depression. This is happening all around us and it needs to stop.

Help us get treatment to those who need it and to lift the stigmas associated with the disease of addiction

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