The Reality of Depression and AA- What a Concept

In Loving Memory of Robin Williams

This happened.  I wanted to believe it was a hoax. 

On August 11, 2014, the world lost arguably the most talented comedic actor of our times, Grammy and Oscar winner Robin Williams.  The preliminary ruling was that he committed suicide. He was 63 years old.

Williams’ battled clinical depression, or possibly bipolar disorder.  He may have also had ADHD. If he was embracing a manic episode, or maybe ADHD, did he eschew medication in order to unleash his non-linear improvisational style for the sake of his performances?

We don’t know that.  But Williams was public about his cocaine and alcohol use.  In 1983, after the death of John Belushi and the birth of his son, he quit alcohol and drugs on his own.  He did not join a support group like AA.  There was no 12 Step rehab.

Then, after 20 years of successful self-willed abstinence, Williams was in Alaska shooting a movie when he says he returned to drinking because he felt lonely and afraid—two common human emotions not unique to addicts and alcoholics.  As an energetic personality who sought both stimulation and peace of mind, he was perhaps using alcohol to self-medicate.

Williams continued to drink for three years until, in 2006, he embarked on his first 12 Step rehab stint.  We may wonder if he was told his 3 years of binging proved he could not remain sober without the 12 Steps and AA meetings.  Or was he called a “dry drunk” for the twenty years of sobriety he navigated on his own?  He may have been told that AA and abstinence from alcohol could alleviate his depression?  If the last question was yes, did he begin to trust AA more than medicine or himself?

The Saturday before his death, Williams was sighted at an AA meeting. In July, his publicist revealed, Williams had gone to Hazelden in Minnesota for additional 12 Step treatment.

It seems appropriate Williams’ Grammy-winning album was titled: “Reality… What a Concept.”  Because in reality, the majority of people- famous or not- recover without intervention.  Albeit not unusual, this idea elicits groans from treatment center evangelists who parrot AA and call people who don’t go to meetings “dry drunks.”

All of this background suggests one larger issue: Which yielded better results, 20 years of recovery on his own with one relapse, or eight years of 12 Step therapy in rehab and AA that ended in his suicide? ‘

We might compare addiction treatment to the heart surgery Williams’ underwent at age 57: With heart disease, Williams’ experienced shortness of breath.   He was medically evaluated and then received an aortic valve replacement.  After the operation, he was obviously told to practice good health habits and to look after himself, with occasional visits to a doctor.

The main symptoms of alcoholism, on the other hand, is picking up a drink and ingesting it.  This is combined with a belief you cannot stop.  It seems that Williams was taught the odd 12-step admixture: that he was spiritually sick and that he had an incurable, lifelong disease.  Both of these things, he had learned, could be treated only with AA meetings. Bizarrely, treatment at even the highest-profile rehabs in America continues to be based on a program that cannot provide statistics of its success.

Contrast the normalcy of Williams’ 20 years clean to his Diane Sawyer interview in 2006, where he stated he was “extremely proud” of his sobriety.   Paraphrasing the AA folklore that the disease is getting worse, even while you are dry, Williams is quoted: “It lays in wait for the time when you think, ‘It’s fine now, I’m OK.’ Then, the next thing you know, it’s not OK.  Then you realize, ‘Where am I? I didn’t realize I was in Cleveland.'”  At AA, which I have also attended, we learn that our alcoholism does pushups in the parking lot while we are resting.  Most of all,  we learn that we are powerless over alcohol and our urge to drink. 

I have to ask if Robin Williams, on July 1 of this year, checked into Hazelden based on the wisdom he might learn in AA that depression caused him to drink, and once he drank there was no stopping.   In AA, the only solution is abstinence,  while members learn by repetition, “One drink equals one drunk.”  Instead of the occasional slip we might all experience in an area of life, AA members most often experience severe binge drinking relapses.  

There is great award, and applause, for maintaining abstinence in AA.  A celebrity accustomed to adoration, but who was after all deeply insecure, might gravitate to the adulation and respect he received in AA; Who else would celebrate with him his ability simply not to drink?  On the downside, when an AA member relapses, he often feels shame at his or her “failure to work the program.“

And, I’ve heard at meetings, “I’d rather die sober, than live drunk.”

Attending AA made me feel more depressed so that I needed additional counseling.  Even though Robin Williams humbly, honestly admitted his drug and alcohol problems, AA labels all alcoholics as dishonest and egocentric.  It is sickening that the very thoughts that trigger and exacerbate depression are taught in rehab:  You are powerless, defective, and wrong all the time.   Without AA, you will die.  But Williams’ experience proves that you can die with AA too.  Depression and the 12 Steps are a toxic mix.

Fame does not exclude people from feeling lonely and afraid, or choosing to end it all rather than risk a relapse.  America, and the world, must know that the idea people can’t recover without AA is a lie.  This belief can be deadly, both for ordinary folks and celebrities, including one like Robin Williams who built a life without drinking for 20 years without AA.  

If Williams’ heart surgeon botched the job, the surgeon would be held responsible.  If Williams’ 12 Step immersion contributed to his death, they it too should be held accountable.   I would have rather heard Robin Williams relapsed and lived then that he remained sober and killed himself.  Who in the world could feel otherwise? 

That is the reality.  What a concept.

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4 thoughts on “The Reality of Depression and AA- What a Concept

  1. I too suffer from depression but I’ve been treated successfully with an anti-depressant for several years. Iv’e been sober n A.A. for 26 years. I delayed getting professional help for depression because early on in A.A., the advice that I was given for depression was to “pray about it”, “work with others”, “get out of yourself”. Go figure, but none of that happy crap worked.

    After getting a prescription for depression, everything changed for me. I’m lucky that I survived all those years trying to cure mental illness with prayer and good works.

    It blows me a way that many in A.A. so quickly agree that alcoholism is a disease, but won’t give the same consideration to mental illness. I blame the language of the literature referring to a spiritual malady, being spiritually sick, and of course the dreaded “dry drunk”.

    I don’t hear the kind of advice in A.A. as often as I did in my earlier days, but I know it still happens. It may be that I just avoid the A.A. fundamentalists and they avoid me.

    Back to Robin Williams. I was ignoring the story because of the mass ignorance and judgemental attitudes. I still carry the pain of my mother’s suicide after 30 years. It’s always just below the surface. I don’t know what went on with Robin Williams. I hope he didn’t receive idiotic advice, thought I doubt he would in liberal California. We will never know. The thing about mental illness and suicide is that it’s impossible to make any sense of it. The best thing anyone can do is get real help, from a psychiatrist or psychologist.

    • I agree that there is reluctance in AA to approach mental illness with help outside of AA- some must confuse depression and anxiety issues with the irritable, restless and discontentment symptoms from the Big Book. Although I can’t say for certain what drove Williams to suicide, I can say he went to Hazelden (12 Step rehab) and attended AA meetings shortly before his death. (Although he did not drink, he did this to maintain his sobriety.) I can only speculate. AA has a brochure (if your meeting orders one, they may not) warning against playing doctor. I’d urge all meetings to make that brochure a PRIORITY!

      Some are more sensitive, or drawn to, the fundamentalists despite a warning- they can be very persuasive with their “I’m a real alcoholic,” speak, or “I’m a real AA” kind of speaking. If simply warning people to avoid fundamentalists who were against medications or therapy was going to work, there’d be an AA pamphlet warning AA members not to be fundamentalists. I don’t see why not, since so many in AA agree they are not hard-headed and have much saner interpretations of AA literature. (Whereas, in my opinion, the fundamentalists are using the Big Book and 12 x 12 literally against others, so to speak.)

      The real solution- the best solution- for AA is to update their literature and take out anything that would be misconstrued. I know that’s unlikely to happen, and that’s sad because too many are told not to give up on AA, to work the steps harder, to call their sponsors, and they end up avoiding other kinds of help they may truly need.

      I am glad you were able to find the right combination of help that works for you, and are able to see where AA alone was not enough to help for some of your other issues.

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