I, like so many of us, feel heart sick at the news of Robin William’s passing. How could someone so talented, so brilliant, so funny take his own life? How could his public persona and his private demons be so incongruous?
Yes, we all knew about Robin’s struggles with addiction over the years. He made us laugh with his comic routine chronicling his relapses. Robin joked about his Lower Power telling him it was ok to have one drink. But perhaps because Robin transcended his pain through his art, we thought he could transcend it in his personal life as well.
In the last year, three of my favorite performers have died, though very differently, as a consequence of addiction. Lou Reed, the exquisite poet and father of alternative music, died of liver disease connected to his history of alcohol and drug abuse. We remember Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic fate with a needle after two decades of sobriety. Now we are facing Robin William’s suicide after his long battle with addiction and mood disorder.
Why do some of our most talented performers struggle with addiction?
One of the reasons may lie in the relationship between trauma and creativity. Research conducted by Robert Miller and David Johnson revealed post-traumatic stress disorder correlates with a greater capacity for symbolic representation, a talent necessary for artistic endeavors. In other words, the parts of the brain that are affected by trauma are the parts of the brain that are needed for creativity.
(As an aside, this is why creative arts therapies like my specialty, psychodrama, are affective in treating trauma and addiction. They tap into the more primitive parts of the brain where trauma memories are stored and held in our bodies, and release the emotions trapped there. Our brains then can integrate the traumatic experience more wholly.)
We lament when we lose our stars. But what about those with tremendous trauma and resulting addictions that aren’t famous? We never hear about the countless, talented souls who die on the streets penniless, ravaged by addiction and mental illness. They do not trend on social media. They all have stories, and have left behind devastated family and friends.
As an addictions therapist who has worked with everyone from crack babies to upper class, addicted adults, I have never seen an addict who does not have some kind of serious trauma in their history, whatever their background. Add the complexity of mental illness and resulting self-medication with substances, and you have a perfect storm.
We know addiction kills. How many people, including celebrities, need to die before we recognize this as, in part, a public health issue that needs more funding for recovery programs, less punitive consequences, and more public awareness, both for the addict and for friends and families.
No one wants to be an addict. I seriously doubt that Philip Seymour Hoffman or Robin Williams wanted to leave their children fatherless. Nor do any of the less famous, but equally important, who die everyday from this disease.
Losing our beloved Robin Williams reminds us, addiction isn’t funny.
If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, you are not alone. Please call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Please visit my resources page for help with addiction.
© 2014 Valerie Simon, LCSW, PAT