Robin Williams’ struggle with addiction seems to defy the stigma that others with the same affliction endure. The tolerance, understanding, and compassion that have poured forth following his death are beautiful examples of perhaps the way the world ought to respond to addiction in general. Unlike the media’s response to other celebrities who ended up with mug shots or some other unappealing photo on television (Mel Gibson, Lindsay Lohan, and Charlie Sheen), Robin Williams’ addiction was arguably better understood and received, even while he was alive. We admire and even respect the afflicted when they are rich, powerful, talented, and in proper attire, but if they fall too hard, and we discover the person behind the mask (in a mug shot for example) — suddenly they are good-for-nothings. When they die, we perceive the reality of their battle and feel sad. They then become the tragic hero of the story whom we keep forever safe on the pedestal that death profited them. Yet we are supposed to be the ones with our heads on straight.
Addiction is a powerful and sinister affliction. Those who suffer endure unimaginable difficulties just trying to function on a daily basis. Many have suffered some trauma or are struggling with mental illness that is so unbearable they need something or someone to “fix” it. Many of us are “fortunate” in that we can take a drink or a prescription pill to ease the pain or calm our nerves, but those who are prone to addiction do not have such a “luxury.” When they reach for a “fix,” it doesn’t stop at just one. It becomes an obsession and compulsion that takes over and controls their thoughts, actions, personalities, and eventually their lives. When they try to abstain, living in their own skin may again become unbearable until or unless they get professional help, support, and tools to survive. It is a horrific journey, one that should be supported and not judged.
The next time you see the face of someone who has been caught in the throes of addiction on the news or standing on the street corner, put the face of Robin Williams in his/her place. There is likely to be a shift in your attitude towards the individual. Ask yourself, “why?” What is this person doing that is so different than those celebrities who have died from complications related to addiction; those famous people you admire and respect? Why the stigma? And most importantly, what can you do to make a difference? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: educate yourself if you want to help. If not, at least cut the judging. Express empathy and compassion as if it was Robin, Elvis, or Marilyn. And do it before the person is dead.