When actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died, I didn't write about it. It was just too depressing. Another long term sober addict who'd relapsed and hit the ultimate bottom was, for me, not news. This was just about someone famous and got a lot more attention. Besides, I wasn't super familiar with him as an actor, though I'd seen some of his work. But Robin Williams? What the eff? ROBIN WILLIAMS? This one hit home, in more ways than one. So I thought I'd share. Pardon the length. Some topics won't fit on an Instagram meme.
I used to hang out in a Starbucks in Northwest Portland, where I wrote my first book, The 12-Step Buddhist. There were a lot of local characters in the neighborhood where the movie Drugstore Cowboy was shot at a time when it was a ghetto. The area has since been upgraded to a place where affluent white people dressed in casual clothes can shop for expensive things. One of the locals was cartoonist John Callahan. John had become quadriplegic in a drunk driving incident at the age of 21. He died a few years ago of complications related to the accident. John, though he wasn't sober to my knowledge, knew everyone in AA and often counseled people in their recovery, right next to me at that Starbucks where I sat meditating and writing. At one point he was going to do a movie of his colorful life, starring Robin Williams. They were friends. Mr. Williams had, I think 21 or so years sober and had relapsed. He used to come to that same Starbucks when he went to Portland for treatment after relapsing. A lot of sober people hung out there, with their AA big books, studying recovery. It was kind of surreal for me because I grew up on Mork and Mindy and Williams' HBO specials and years and years of amazing comedy. He became a serious actor and I still followed him with amazement. I knew he had substance abuse issues and I've had similar experiences.
For one, I'm an addict. I did a lot of drugs and drank a lot of booze and fried my brain real good, all before I was 21. At certain periods of my life, I've wanted to die. In fact, I knew that I wouldn't make it to eighteen. But, somehow I did and had to deal with the wreckage of a life lived as if each day were my last. In fact, I'm still picking up those pieces at age 52. I got clean and sober in 1984 at age 22 and stayed sober in AA until I was 32. Then I decided it would be a cool idea to meditate on LSD. My logic was that since I had almost figured out the key to the universe as a fucked up, depressed teenager, I was surely more equipped as a clean and sober AA member with nearly a Master's Degree and 10 years of therapy, meditation and 12-Step work. I was wrong. The LSD and meditation combo gave me insight alright. I'll share the discovery with you: I was totally depressed. The acid took me deeper into it. So deep, in fact, that I had to drink. A few years later, I got sober in AA again, where I met now guru Noah Levine (Dharma Punx, Refuge Recovery) and tried to stitch together a new life. Again. But he couldn't help me. No one could. I needed to go on my journey and find my own way.
It took years and years of more therapy, more AA, more Buddhist meditation and meeting Tibetan teachers for me to find a bit of stability. I wrote a book, did well, hit another bottom and somehow have stayed sober. During the time of hanging out in that Starbucks, I had come to somewhat of a peak of my existence. People came in there to sit and talk with me. I was leading retreats, being asked to speak, writing columns. But the depression, suicidal tendencies, post hallucinogen perceptual disorder and other things always kept me struggling. There were times when I actually planned to jump off of Portland's Fremont bridge on my way home. But I remembered the teachings I'd been given. We don't kill ourselves. The reason is that it won't change anything. It'll make our consciousness worse, putting us in a karmic nightmare realm that is much, much more difficult to navigate out of than anything we have to deal with in the Human Realm. So I didn't do it. I trudged along, became a yoga teacher, moved to the less depressing and perennially sunny San Diego. Things are good. I'm working on a new book on integrating yoga and recovery. These are the best years of my life. Because I didn't drink and I didn't die.
I remember seeing Williams on Leno a few months after his stint in Portland. I knew he had to be fresh, raw and suffering. But he acted like nothing happened. I couldn't believe it. Having been through relapse with long term sobriety, I knew what it was like. I felt in my gut at that time that he wasn't going to make it sober again unless he got honest, publicly, as he did some time later. But he seemed to be suffering under the surface of that manic laughter. Maybe it was because of that that he was the funniest man alive, as Norm McDonald says. Gibran spoke to us of love. Love is all inclusive, good and bad. We must know the bitter to taste the sweet. But for Robin Williams, did we know his suffering? True, he made us laugh all of our laughter. And now, with his death, we should cry all of our tears. It is a sad, sad thing.
I wish I could have spoken with Mr. Williams. If he'd been open to it, I would have tried to share Buddhist and Yoga teachings with him. I'd have tried to teach him some techniques that have saved my ass for yet another 17 years of sobriety. But that didn't happen. Instead, he fell into the abyss. I'm sad for that and I'm sad for all of the suffering that all beings in all realms in all times suffer endlessly. Does that seem extreme? Buddha taught that life is, indeed, unsatisfactory. We should find a path of liberation from this suffering. Here's the trick: believing that there is a path. We have to believe that more than we believe the darkness. That's why it's said that Buddha was enlightened. The darkness was dispelled. If we don't believe in that possibility, we sink. And I'm sad for that. I nearly sank to the bottom. It's unnecessary.
And so the disease, of addiction, of mental illness and of samsara, the realm of attachment, ignorance and aversion, takes another one. This is why I do the work that I do, for myself, for others. May we all be free of suffering, and its causes. May we all become fully liberated Buddhas and clear the infinite oceans of samsara for the sake of all. If not me, who? If not now, when? I invite you to explore this question for yourself. Life is suffering, yes. And as we say in AA, there is a solution.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.