I used to see that phrase in AA meetings all the time, but I never really understood it until people I knew who were formerly sober started drinking/using drugs again and started dying.
It’s been said that if you stay sober long enough you’ll start to go to a lot of funerals. I wish this wasn’t my experience. My first lost friend was a guy we called “Bank Robber Mike”. Bank Robber Mike was a hapless bank robber who had good luck robbing a certain bank down in Chinatown so he went back there two more times. The third time the cops waited for him at the place where he’d go to cop heroin and busted him. Since he wasn’t armed when he robbed them, he was offered a choice of jail or rehab and -DUH!- he chose rehab. But rehab kind of wormed his way into him and when I met him he had almost two years clean and sober. I was counting days and still not 100% sure that I was really an alcoholic and spent most of my time in meetings thinking things to myself like, “Damn, I wasn’t as bad as THAT GUY.” a total denial mechanism. However, one night I had major drink signals and horrible physical urges and Bank Robber Mike happened to be the guy I mentioned this to and he sat with me in a diner, talking until almost three in the morning, waiting for the urge to pass and keeping me sober one more day. I’m still here because of him. Not being melodramatic.
Bank Robber Mike’s drug of choice was heroin – something I never got into, but I’ve heard enough about withdrawal to understand that it’s not a good time. Mike slipped and used. He came right back to AA to try to kick again. He slipped again and used again. He came back to AA again to try and get help. This went on for a few months until I got a call from his girlfriend, crying: Mike had gotten tired of fighting and intentionally overdosed, ending his struggle. I was devastated. How can the guy who saved my life take his own? Why didn’t I or his other sober friends know how bad it was? How could we have done more to help him? There are no answers to these questions. There’s just no more Mike, and a vacant space in the world where his light used to shine.
Since Bank Robber Mike, there’s been a few more overdoses (intentional or otherwise), a few people I’ve known have literally drank themselves to death like Nicholas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas or have lost their lives in alcohol related accidents or physical illness related to years of substance abuse. Alcoholism is a vicious disease. An “old-timer” I know once told me “The disease of Alcoholism wants you dead…but it will settle for your misery.”
Robin Williams was very vocal about his mental health issues and history with substance abuse. Like most of us, the alcoholism had an underlying cause – depression, anxiety, an inability to cope with the world as it is, whatever. It’s totally about the alcohol until you take it away to see what’s driving it, almost like turning over a dead tree in the forest to see all the gross stuff underneath it. It’s that gross stuff that we need to examine and bring out into the light or else it will drive us drink or kill ourselves.
Every time one of us dies, I feel it like a disturbance in the Force. I feel like the disease is gloating. Heath Ledger, DJ AM, Whitney Houston, Corey Monteith, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, now Robin Williams. And these are just the famous people whose tragic substance-abuse related deaths have been splashed all over our news wire with the grave tones and the hand-wringing and the reminders for people to seek help.
Until the next big story.
But the state of mental health services in the United States HAVE NOT IMPROVED ONE IOTA since any of these folks have died. There is still a stigma. There are still people on facebook deriding these folks as assholes who “had everything” but threw their lives away…mean spirited comments from people who have been blessed not to have been personally touched by alcoholism, addiction, bi-polar disorder or any other serious mental illness that drive people to self-destruct.
Until the shame is stripped away, this will continue to happen. It could have been me. It could still be me – but for the grace of God, it is not. I am grateful to be sober today and to have a program and a strong network of help to reach out to if I need it.
I just wish Robin had that, and assuming he did, I wish he saw enough light in the darkness to want to reach out to them. I’m sorry he didn’t. My heart and prayers go out to his family.