Comedy, Addiction, And Depression: Robin Williams’ Suicide From The Perspective Of A Sober Comedian

I need to start this post with some context as to my state of mind right now: last week my therapist (the first and only therapist I have ever had, the person to whom I bared my entire soul and whom I love like a family member) was put into a medically induced coma on the night before our weekly session. Something happened to him (I still don’t know what, as the hospital staff can’t legally tell me) and I’ve been having to deal with my feelings about his sudden illness without the use of a therapist. Surprisingly, I had been able to keep it together emotionally for the last couple of days (hardly any public weeping). And then came the news of the apparent suicide of Robin Williams, and now I’m really f*cked.

At this very moment, thousands of comedians from all over the world are writing pretty much the exact same piece about suicide of Robin Williams (except for the therapist coma thing) and about how much he meant not only to them personally but to comedians and comedy audiences everywhere. My perspective on the genius and tragedy of Robin Williams is not going to be much different from the hundred thousand other articles you could read, so I feel compelled to share my own deeply personal feelings about the factors that could have led to his suicide. I feel compelled to write something like this every time an addict takes his or her life, whether intentionally or accidentally, because as someone who has battled addiction (or, rather, surrendered to it) I feel like I can offer some perspective to those people who can’t understand why someone would destroy themselves willingly. But then I get discouraged by the voices in my head, those disembodied nay-saying ghosts that say “what the hell do you know about this level of torment? What gives you the right? Nay! Naaay! NAAAAAAAYYYY I SAAAAYYYYY!”

I tend to agree with these ghosts. I was in active addiction for less than a decade, and only 3 of those years were objectively brutal. My first few years of drug use were actually pretty fun. Drugs and alcohol kind of helped me; they loosened me up socially, they helped me control my depression and I could seemingly stop and start at will. The drugs stopped working around four years in and only then did I experience that classic junkie anguish that looks so sexy in movies and television but is life-changingly traumatic in reality. It’s because of my comparably limited suffering that I’ve never opened my mouth publicly or put pen to paper regarding my feelings about the death of a famous addict. But when I heard that Robin Williams had been found dead of an apparent suicide at his home in Marin, I decided “f*ck it. And f*ck those nay-saying ghosts in my head telling me to keep my feelings to myself. They can eat infinity ghost dicks.” I’ve got something to say about depression, addiction, and stand-up comedy.

I remember very early on in recovery I went to a 12-step meeting and shared about how I wanted kill myself. I was 24 years old, living back at my parents house in LA after being run out of the Bay Area by my friends who just didn’t want to enable me anymore, and I was still detoxing from a pretty hefty Dilaudid binge. At this point in my life, I was so overwhelmed by hitting bottom that I became disgusted with drugs and alcohol and knew that complete abstinence was my only recourse. Despite this “moment of clarity,” I was irrevocably miserable. My depression was deep and unrelenting, and for the first time in years I was seriously considering blowing my brains out. After I shared this at a meeting I was approached by another addict who asked me “so… instead of wanting to go out and use drugs again, your new solution is to just blow your head off?” I responded candidly in the affirmative. “Well, that sounds like progress to me.” I suppose his point was that I was no longer looking at drugs and alcohol as a solution to my depression. Hell of a silver lining, but I could see how that looked like recovery. Hopelessness is square one.

Depression and addiction are kind of a chicken-egg situation. It’s seems logical to assume that the depression comes first and people self-medicate in order to treat it. But some would argue that addiction is genetic and therefore depression is just a symptom of addict mind. In my experience, it doesn’t really matter what comes first because the end result seems to be the same, if left untreated. In a strange way, I feel like I lucked out by being a junkie. Heroin is one hell of an anti-depressant. And so are 12-step meetings which I would have never set foot in if not for my addiction to heroin (so, lucky me?). But I am also lucky enough to have an other method of treating my depression: stand-up comedy.

Stand-up comedians are often unfairly stereotyped as being depressed alcoholics who laugh to keep from crying, and who need the validation of the crowd in order to fill the gaping hole inside of their porous and wretched souls. This is unfair, as it assumes that stand-up comedians have souls. *rimshot* But seriously folks… many stand-up comedians are pretty f*cked up and can seem like heartless dickfaces. (Go to any open mic on the day that a beloved figure dies and see how many people take cheap shots at their death under the guise of “oh this is just how I process my feelings.” Bullsh*t. You’re just being a soulless troll. And I know this because I’ve done it as well. Sorry Steve Jobs’s ghost.) But that link between stand-up, depression and addiction does seem to be shockingly consistent. And I wish I could say I knew why. Is it that comedians and addicts are both inherently selfish? One could make a convincing argument. Selfishness can motivate people to drink, use drugs, use people, backstab friends, get mad at their therapist for being in a coma (that’s mostly me); it can also motivate people to get clean, get a better job, tell jokes, write blogs, do yoga, and seek therapy. However, to call drug addiction, depression or suicide “selfish” implies choice and, as hard as it is for most people to believe, no one choses this torment. It is not a choice, the same way mental illness is not a choice. Suicide is not an act of selfishness, it’s an act of desperation. To call it selfishness is to imply that the victim did not consider those he/she would be leaving behind. This is horrifyingly inaccurate. Believe me, as someone who has been there, the frightening truth is that you DO consider them, and you come to the conclusion that they’d be better off without you. That is despair. That is hopelessness.

I remember reading an interview with Robin Williams where he admitted that he relapsed in 2003 after 20 years sober. “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.” I remember reading this and thinking that he was in trouble. Starting at square 1 for the second time – starting at 1 day sober – I honestly don’t know if I could go through that again. The hopelessness is almost unbearable. I’ve heard people say “I know I have another relapse in me, but I don’t think I have another recovery.” I never really identified with that sentiment until yesterday.

If Robin Williams hadn’t relapsed in 2003, would he still be alive today? Who the f*ck knows. All I know is that I am not willing relapse and find out.