Robin Williams: Drugs Legal and Illegal

Robin Williams

“It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, [the alcohol] will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.” This is Robin Williams, four years ago, speaking with an interviewer from the British newspaper The Guardian. He is explaining what it was that drove him to relapse into drinking in 2003, after 20 years of sobriety. “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.” He stopped, getting into rehab and then settling into a routine of attending weekly AA meetings as much as he could, because “it’s good to go.” Williams managed to maintain his sobriety for several years, through to the date of the Guardian interview, and onward until 2014, when he checked into rehab at the Hazelden center in Minnesota. He claimed to be going back to rehab as a precautionary measure, but whether or not that is true we can infer that he felt like he was losing control and was at risk of relapsing. A month later, he was found dead in his home in a wealthy suburb north of San Francisco, an apparent suicide by hanging from a belt.

The bout with alcohol abuse in the last decade was not Robin William’s first experience with addiction. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s, the early days of his celebrity when he was young and famous for the first time, he was notorious as a heavy drinking, cocaine using wildman. He found his inspiration to quit in a pair of events that followed in short succession, one a tragedy and the other a blessing. His close friend, the comedian John Belushi, died of overdose on heroin and cocaine in 1982, and then his first child was born in 1983. He credited these two experiences with spurring him to quit drinking and using drugs, and he managed to maintain his sobriety for the next two decades. It was while filming in Alaska in 2003 that he relapsed. He described this again last year in Parade magazine, saying:

“One day [when I relapsed] 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…”

One day [when I relapsed] 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.

This description will sound familiar to anyone who has suffered a relapse after quitting drugs or alcohol, and it was a story that Williams was all too willing to share in the years after his recovery. He often spoke in interviews and during his stand-up shows about addiction, mocking the irrational but irresistible urges that drive an addict to drink or get high.

We may never know what happened that led Robin Williams back into rehab in July, but given what happened only a month later, we know that his time there was not effective in helping him to recover. Without specific details about what treatment he received and what happened in the days and hours before his suicide, we are left to speculate based on the available evidence. The circumstances that we do know about, however, raise several important issues about addiction, rehab and long-term recovery. The Hazelden center touts itself as specializing in the treatment of co-occurring disorders, such as depression and alcoholism. William’s publicist’s statement on the news of the actor’s death confirmed that he was battling depression at the time of his death, so it is likely that he chose the Hazelden center for this reason.

In materials on the Hazelden website, there is an indication that they are one of the many drug rehab centers that use anti-depressant drugs in the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction. It may be that Williams was under treatment with anti-depressants at the time of his death. This would not be surprising in light of the fact that SSRIs are required by the FDA to carry a black-box warning about the increased incidence of suicidal thoughts, a well-known side-effect of this type of medication. Many drug rehab centers use this approach, of treating drug addiction with other drugs, but others recognize the problems with this method and choose a different path.

Narconon was founded on the concept of treating addiction without drugs, and it is recognized as being one of the most effective rehab programs in terms of stable, long-term recovery. This approach to rehab works, and it does not leave the person exposed to the risks associated with medications that have dangerous side effects. We still don’t know whether Robin William’s death was associated with SSRIs, but it does look like we are looking at yet another life cut short by struggles with addiction.


Sue Birkenshaw

Sue has worked in the addiction field with the Narconon network for three decades. She has developed and administered drug prevention programs worldwide and worked with numerous drug rehabilitation centers over the years. Sue is also a fine artist and painter, who enjoys traveling the world which continues to provide unlimited inspiration for her work. You can follow Sue on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.