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RIP Robin Williams

RIP Robin Williams

Suicides, whether famous or not, leave behind a legacy of pain for their families and friends.

My first thought on hearing the news of Robin Williams’ death was that it was shocking because he was “only” 63. Just a moment later, when it came out that he probably had killed himself, that was even more shocking.

But although it was shocking and disturbing it wasn’t so very surprising. It had been clear for a long, long time that Williams’ genius came hand in hand with some pretty formidable demons.

Williams was an overwhelming comic talent and huge personality, as well as a serious actor of considerable gifts. But still, it seems a bit much that cable news has been devoting hour after hour to Williams’ death, as though he’d been Lincoln or Churchill or some other major historic figure.

That sort of blanket coverage might have surprised Williams himself, had he known about it; after all, it’s not as though we lack for news these days. But people did love Williams, who in the old cliché made them laugh and made them cry, and was also a generous man who donated his time to many charities and entertaining the troops.

Reports are that Williams had suffered from “severe depression of late.” Severe depression is a different animal from ordinary run-of-the-mill depression, which is bad enough. Severe depression can make a person who is successful, adulated, rich, famous, and possessed of a loving family take his/her own life in a moment of terrible but hard-to-resist impulse because he/she sees no hope of respite.

We may never know what really happened with Williams. But it is tragic.

Suicides, whether famous or not, leave behind a legacy of pain for their families and friends. Williams was a man who seems to have wanted to bring joy to people instead, and mostly that’s just what he did.


[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]


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I keep reflecting on a parallel issue: Both Robin Williams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman were long-time chemical dependency patients, and both had been in treatment within months before death. The efficacy of chemical dependency treatment seems to be an issue that nobody is allowed to question. But the results seem to invite examination. I realize that there can be a chicken-and-egg relationship between CD treatment and bad outcomes, but I’m surprised that the topic is almost never raised, given how exhaustively these events are discussed.

    Henry Hawkins in reply to billdyszel. | August 12, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    I’m a clinician in substance abuse treatment, own and operate my own agency, full time in the field since 1984.

    Not sure who’s preventing you from asking about the efficacy of SA treatment, but I can tell you the efficacy is not good at all, nor has there been any real progress over the decades. Research into causes, genetic connections, the bio-physics and neurology involved, etc., goes on apace, but just knowing what causes an addiction does nothing to help stop drinking or drugging.

    One thing that separates addiction from illnesses such as appendicitis or lung cancer, for examples, is that, for the sake of argument, one can be cured of appendicitis or lung cancer without your own participation whatsoever. Again, for the sake of argument, you could be handcuffed, drugged, and forced to have the appendectomy – and it would work, 100% cure whether you wanted it or not. Addiction is not like that. There is no mechanical ‘fix’, and all current modalities of SA treatment requires the full cooperation of the addict coupled with a strong desire to stop use. Even then, there are more failures than victories.

    One problem fits in with this blog and this group of readers conservatism like a glove. Since my agency provides SA programs and counseling for people who’ve been court-ordered to complete them as a condition of probation, I’d guess that at least 90% of my clients lack either the willingness to cooperate fully or any internal, personal desire to quit, and many posses neither. They are here because of the threat of jail only. This is an example of good intentions gone awry when the government sticks its nose into practices of which it knows nothing and inadvertantly screws it all up.

    Of the 10% of my clients who are cooperative and willing to ttry their best, half were conicidentally already there when they came to enroll, and the other half of that 10% were moved by good counseling. “Dammit, we’ll make you quit or we’ll put you in jail” is their policy. Rule #1 in SA treatment is you can’t make someone quit.

    When you get out of the criminal justice related SA programs and into the private sector agencies and centers, the expense is so high a client needs available MH/SA insurance or cash. Many policies have no such coverage, while most of those that do have a ‘one treatment program covered per lifetime’ clause. A lot of addicts/alcoholoics expend that to look good in court, externally motivated to be in the program, just my guys.

    Other coercive entities: DMV, DOT, employers, trade and/or pro practice boards, etc., each of whom withhold something of value to the client until he/she completes treatment: Driver license, CDL endorsement, job, operator’s license.

    Not to mention that a primary symptom of SA is denial, that we are trying to help someone whose condition has a symptom that tells him he doesn’t have the condition at all, don’t listen to these clowns.

    But, wherever and however one gets SA treatment, if you don’t do as counseled upon discharge, guess what? You fail and relapse, typically sooner rather than later. Same as for a diabetic – don’t change your diet and don’t take your pills and/or shots and you stay sick.

    I am a pariah in my own field, because I’d guess at least 95% of MH/SA treatment staff are quite liberal in outlook and politics and see conservative me as some perverse Jesse Helms/Rush Limbaugh hybrid with a Ph.D. But I am quite vocal at whatever symposiums and panels I somehow still get invited to from time to time – I tell them we stink at treating substance abuse, we’ve had zero breakthroughs in decades, and our still-in-recovery rate at one year past discharge is abysmal. We are clearly stuck on the wrong path. Yeah, they love hearing that.

    MH treatment modality long ago abandoned counseling beyond bi-weekly stop-in-and-hug appts and is all about medications, which pharm companies are R&D-ing by the dozens. SA treatment has few helpful meds, thank God.

    My informed opinion, seen as blasphemy among my peers, is that substance abusers are not best served by the current model of counselors, nurses, soical workers, psychologists, and MDs, who signature everything. In my 30 years of direct counseling, I am 99.9% certain than organizations such as AA and NA have a far better record for getting people off alc/drugs and into a livable recovery.

    When I conduct an assessment to find a well-motived, I’ll do anything, get me off the booze client, and we have the flexibility given this client’s particular court order, I’ll conduct my own version of Brief Therapy – about three one-hour appts bang/bang/bang, a day or two apart, explaining and recommending AA & NA, as needed, providing directions, meeting schedules, etc. I’ll even take them to their first meeting if they’re group shy. These folks do far better with this than with a standard 6, 10, or 16 week program of groups and individual appts with me. (Perhaps that’s a measure of my own ineptitude, lol).

    ERs are often choked with people who don’t really need medical assistance. Much of the SA field is choked with coerced clients who need it but don’t want it. Yet. But the court or whomever says ‘now’ regardless.

    There is much more to this, but I’m running overlong on LI again.

    By all means – ask that question and keep asking it. Your doubts are merited.

      Thanks, Henry, for sharing this and for speaking up at the ‘meetings.’

      From a small bit of personal experience I would agree with your assessment of substance abuse counseling and especially as tied to probation requirements. I’ve seen the ambiguous effects in juvenile court – not involving me, but a child I pray for daily.

      As long as the SA person goes back to his friends, his neighborhood, his family situation, he is surrounded by the same anxieties, the same ‘temptations.’ The person likely has already set up a self-defeating system of access to drugs/alcohol in case their anxiety returns.

      Also, as I understand it, drugs and alcohol increase dopamine in the brain. This ‘pleasure’ spike creates a temporary sense of happiness, calm and security.

      If the person remains alone in his/her struggle and simply refuses to listen to others about his/her blind spots (which is usually the case in family situations) then he/she gives in. A feeling of self-induced hopelessness replays itself over and over: “Nobody understands me.”

      With third party groups like AA, NA and in many churches you are surrounded by those whose life situations have often been devastated by SA. The group is able to commiserate out of their own life stories. The group can also hold the substance abuser accountable on a familial level, weekly or as needed. And, the fact that you are made to name your addiction out loud each time you gather is a big step in the healing process. This speaks against the denial the substance abuser had used to bring him/herself to the end of themselves. Naming the problem together as a group gives one a sense of communal knowledge, self-empowerment and echoes the great depth of their problem.

        Henry Hawkins in reply to jennifer a johnson. | August 13, 2014 at 12:44 pm

        With AA & NA, peer immersion is just a part of it, of course, to let one know one is not alone. They have an actual program, the ’12 Steps’, of course, which are numbered for a reason.

        The major difference between 12 Step recovery and others is that AA & NA say, “we are alcoholics and addicts who got clean, here’s how we did it”, and the 12 step process is how, while other modalities say, “we’ve never been hooked personally, but our research and best thinking says this ought to work,” and they lay out what is often the ‘therapy of the week’ that the therapist heard about on Oprah. We call it ‘fad treatment’. I’ve seen a NC county’s SA unit go all in for ‘Therapeutic Touch’, a practice that had been and remains thoroughly and completely debunked as total pseudoscientific nonsense.

        BTW, pastoral counseling for SA has shown the most improvement by far among all forms of counseling over the last 25-30 years. There are some priests/rabbis/reverends/etc. out there who are excellent SA counselors. This wasn’t always the case.

        I just remembered that August 16, 2014 marks my 30 year anniversary without alcohol or drugs. Assuming I make it, of course.

          30 years – three decades – this Saturday! What a blessing that must be and what a help you’ve been to others along that difficult path! Good for you!

          JackRussellTerrierist in reply to Henry Hawkins. | August 13, 2014 at 2:52 pm

          “The major difference between 12 Step recovery and others is that AA & NA say, “we are alcoholics and addicts who got clean, here’s how we did it”, and the 12 step process is how, while other modalities say, “we’ve never been hooked personally, but our research and best thinking says this ought to work,” and they lay out what is often the ‘therapy of the week’ that the therapist heard about on Oprah. We call it ‘fad treatment’. I’ve seen a NC county’s SA unit go all in for ‘Therapeutic Touch’, a practice that had been and remains thoroughly and completely debunked as total pseudoscientific nonsense.”

          Hmmmm…..sort of like the dude caught in the blizzard being told by the global warming nutburgers that, according to their ‘model’, he’s really NOT freezing to death.

          JackRussellTerrierist in reply to Henry Hawkins. | August 13, 2014 at 2:55 pm

          I second what Jennifer said. Congrats, Henry, and God bless.

While I have sympathy for his family, I have nothing but contempt for him. I say this as the brother of a suicide. I have no good feeling towards anyone that takes that path. 1 brother, 2 uncles, and various people I’ve known chose to say f it to their families and friends and that made them less than worthy of sympathy. Rot in purgatory is the only rip I’ll give.

At times like this I tend to ponder on what protected me in the past from succumbing completely to despair. For those willing to empathize on some level, many may reflect on Robin Williams and say: “there, but for the grace of God, is me.” Perhaps we can use this opportunity to more meaningfully be present, observant and available to those at risk for depression and despair. Some burdens are just too crushing to carry alone.

    Some burdens are too crushing to carry regardless, alone or not. Its easy to condemn if you have never looked down into that abyss. And its hard to convey how non-physical pain can be worse than death.

    So maybe lighten on the contempt, unless you’ve really been there yourself.

      Fen in reply to Fen. | August 12, 2014 at 7:53 pm

      Oh sorry not you Mark, I meant in general.

      That said, yes – my social media has been 24hrs of people grieving for a comedian they never knew. And all I can think of is those Iraqis that are going to die on that mountain tonight.

    David R. Graham in reply to Mark30339. | August 12, 2014 at 11:32 pm

    Believe me, please, you cannot carry anyone’s burden for them, or even help them carry it. Only God can do that. You may be able to lighten it for them, or help relieve them of it, but carry it for them, no. That is not in your power to do. Karma is personal, not collective, and God only knows the weight, extent and destiny of it. And your quote and grammar are bad: “There, but for the Grace of God, go I.”

BannedbytheGuardian | August 12, 2014 at 6:47 pm

FGS . I can’t stand the fake emoting over a person one never knew.

He had his troubles we got ours .

David R. Graham | August 12, 2014 at 11:39 pm

I never liked Robin Williams. He was sarcastic and smug, qualities that, regrettably for the character of the country, made his career. I am sorry for his family and friends. Comedians tend to be schizo the way firemen tend to be pyro, shrinks looney, professors rent-seeking and theologians agnostic. Tragedy inheres in life. The cause of death is birth. I think that Robin Williams’ passing being treated as that of a hero is insane.

    Henry Hawkins in reply to David R. Graham. | August 13, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    Odd that you left preachers off your list of cliches.

    JackRussellTerrierist in reply to David R. Graham. | August 13, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    Not to make light of your comment because I basically agree, but, speaking of the insane practice of the public lionizing the unworthy, wrap your mind around the hero worship of Trayvon Martin and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Williams looks damn worthy by comparison. 🙂

Richard Aubrey | August 13, 2014 at 7:32 am

I notified Next of Kin several times, back in the day. Kept up with two families.
In one, Mom killed herself five years later although I didn’t find out about how she died for many years after that. I just knew she was gone.
In another, Mom was, on a trip to Europe with Dad, trying to jump out hotel windows. She pulled out of it after a couple of more years.
It is hard to imagine an imaginary burden that heavy.

MaggotAtBroadAndWall | August 13, 2014 at 1:59 pm

David Foster Wallace suffered from depression his whole life. He finally succumbed to the demons and hung himself at the age of 46 a few years ago.

He graduated summa cum laude from Amherst and published in the Amherst literary magazine while a student there. This is how he described depression based on his experience with it. As excerpted from a Rolling Stone tribute article about DFW shortly after he died:

“You are the sickness yourself…. You realize all this…when you look at the black hole and it’s wearing your face. That’s when the Bad Thing just absolutely eats you up, or rather when you just eat yourself up. When you kill yourself. All this business about people committing suicide when they’re “severely depressed;” we say, “Holy cow, we must do something to stop them from killing themselves!” That’s wrong. Because all these people have, you see, by this time already killed themselves, where it really counts…. When they “commit suicide,” they’re just being orderly.”

JackRussellTerrierist | August 13, 2014 at 3:16 pm

Williams was a talented man whom I didn’t particularly like. I do not mourn him anymore than I did Michael Jackson, another talented person whom I also didn’t particularly like. Since I dislike at least 90% of those Hollywood people, an early death of any of them from suicide or drugs is of no consequence to me.

Unless the person is a heinous criminal, any suicide must be devastating to a family and close friends. I’m sure the guilt they feel, probably more often than not unwarranted, is tremendous. The same is probably true when a loved one dies from an overdose. It is they who have my sympathy.