Note: This is the first time I’ve written about something outside my own personal experience, but it’s been on my mind enough that I felt moved to.
When Amy Winehouse’s body was found with a blood alcohol content of .4% (five times the DUI level), lying among scattered vodka bottles like so many smoking guns, most of the media and public understood that her death was caused by alcoholism.
Not so with the loss of Robin Williams – also caused by alcoholism, but in a much subtler sense. The press does note that he had checked into rehab a few weeks prior, but his prolonged suspension of active drinking causes them to dismiss his addiction as conquered. It seems to me only my fellow alcoholics are able to intuit the close relationship between his alcoholism, depression, and the unbearableness of being that led him to take his life.
Williams was very open about his 2003 relapse after 20 years’ sobriety. He told Parade:
“One day I walked into a store and saw a little bottle of Jack Daniel’s. And then that voice — I call it the ‘lower power’ — goes, ‘Hey. Just a taste. Just one.’ I drank it, and there was that brief moment of ‘Oh, I’m okay!’ But it escalated so quickly. Within a week I was buying so many bottles I sounded like a wind chime walking down the street. I knew it was really bad one Thanksgiving when I was so drunk they had to take me upstairs.”
A Guardian reporter asked if friend Christopher Reeves’ death was what triggered his relapse.
“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 added, about the demise of his second marriage in 2008, years after he’d managed to get sober again:
“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.”
If you’re an alcoholic, you don’t just read these words; you identify with them because you’ve lived them. You know that wheedling voice of the “lower power,” that all-pervading fear of existence, and the burden of shame Williams describes. And if you’re like me, you feel tremendous empathy for this man, who had recognized his depression as a spiritual malady linked to his alcoholic disease and had tried his best to combat it by strengthening his spiritual connection in treatment.
According to the press, over the previous year Williams had been shooting movies and shows back to back, maintaining a “manic pace.” To me, this frenzy of activity seems a way of trying desperately to live, to stay engaged in life. My friend Dave McC fought depression in a similar way in the year before his suicide, hiking the Cascade Mountains at a furious pace. But the disease catches up. It gets to us when we’re alone, worming into that inmost chamber of self where no one can reach us – except god. What most pains me and frightens me about Williams’ death is that he knew the solution. He had a program. He was trying to help himself. And yet for reasons we’ll never know, he could not access that “Power which pulls [us] back from the gates of death.”
So often, I want to think of sobriety as a set equation rather than a blessing. That is, I want to believe that if you take certain actions, working the three sides of the triangle by going to meetings, working with a sponsor, and doing service work, then you’re guaranteed a certain result: lasting sobriety. Williams’ death reminds me that’s anything but the case. In fact, it’s all grace. We’re guaranteed nothing. We’re never home free – not even with twenty years’ sobriety and all the talent, intelligence, and accomplishment a person could ask for.
Rather, the fact that I – an alcoholic child of alcoholic children going back many, many diseased generations – write this with 19 years and 7 months’ sobriety is nothing short of miraculous. The fact that you’re reading it with however many days or years you have sober – you, who are also hardwired to drink – is likewise a miracle. Every day that we live in the light of sanity and sobriety is a gift. It’s another day we can be grateful not to find ourselves in that tortuous nightmare of spiritually starving depression that led Williams – knowing alcohol and drugs would not help him – to choose the one-way exit of suicide.
From a broader perspective as an Near Death Experience survivor, I do believe Williams found not only relief but bliss in leaving his body. For whatever reason, though, we are born into these earthly lives with a sense of mission to carry them out, and a love for the material world that anchors us here for their duration. I’d like to live out mine, certainly. But my sobriety, my faith in a higher power, directions to love and honor others through kindness and service, and the happiness I’ve been granted by pursuing this path all unite to remind me I am never in charge. Certainly, I’m not in charge of my sobriety. I can take the steps I know to nurture it, but the results are out of my hands.
In the end, the loss of this talented, accomplished man who could no longer stand his life reminds me to be grateful for today. I don’t have a lot of the stuff our culture equates with success. But no gifts are more precious than sanity, sobriety, peace of mind, and the strength they grant me to love others freely.