August 11, 2014 – Social media exploded with the news that Robin McLaurin Williams had died. Within hours, rumors had already begun circulating that the legendary comedian and Academy Award winning actor had taken his own life. As fast as a tweet could be read, the world grew a little bit sadder. The actor we marveled at, the voice that so many had grown up with, the man who made us all feel it was somehow his mission to make us smile… was suddenly and tragically no longer with us. President Barack Obama said of Williams: “He was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit.”
Beginning his career in in the 1970s as a stand-up comedian, Williams is credited as an inspiration for many up-and-coming comics at the time, as well as for paving the way for the (then) burgeoning San Francisco comedy scene. Williams quickly went on to gain national attention with his portrayal of Mork the Ork in the hit TV series’ Happy Days and Mork & Mindy. But most remember Williams for his prestigious film career, where he seamlessly transcended his comedic persona, and displayed the true depth of his talent. Whether playing a derisive Vietnam-era shock jock, a flamboyant animated genie, or a bereaved psychology professor… Williams’ talent will forever be memorialized for future generations to enjoy. But as is the case with most icons, William’s life wasn’t without its share of complications.
At the height of his first celebrity in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Williams battled alcoholism and cocaine abuse. But between the infamous overdose and death of his close friend, John Belushi, and the birth of his eldest son in 1983, Williams saw the writing on the wall and gave up both. Maintaining sobriety for 20 years, it wasn’t until William’s was working on a film in Alaska that he began to drink once again. “I was in a small town where it’s not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there, and then I thought: drinking. I just thought, hey, maybe drinking will help. Because I felt alone and afraid. It was that thing of working so much, and going fuck, maybe that will help. And it was the worst thing in the world… you feel warm and kind of wonderful. And then the next thing you know, it’s a problem, and you’re isolated.”
For Williams, the slide back into alcoholism was slow, starting with what he described as a small voice that whispers to a person just to try one drink. However, Williams pointed out that for someone with a tendency for addiction and a limited ability to tolerate alcohol, even one drink can begin a long downward slide. It only took a week of drinking before he knew he was in trouble, though. “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.” By 2006, with the help of family intervention, Williams checked himself into residential rehab and positively regained his sobriety. Robin once admitted in an interview that for years he thought he could handle his addiction on his own. “But you can’t. That’s the bottom line,” he said. “You really think you can, then you realize, I need help, and that’s the word … It’s hard admitting it, then once you’ve done that, it’s real easy.”
In early July of 2014, Williams reportedly checked back into rehab again, though this time he denied falling off the wagon and said the treatment was only precautionary. According to William’s wife, Robin remained sober in the period before his death, but had been diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s disease. It was also commented that he was suffering from severe depression prior to his death.
In the wake of the tragedy that is Robin William’s death, it should also serve as an important reminder. Robin had his battles with substance-abuse, but his life showed that even in the face of complete relapse, you always have the strength to overcome your addictions. And in death, he reminds us that no matter the public face that we often see in people, sometimes a smile can conceal despair. We should never take the people we love or respect for granted. Recovery is always an option.