What It’s Like to Be Dual Diagnosis: My Thoughts on Robin Williams
This post is probably going to be less about Mr. Robin Williams and more about me. Or rather, how his life, and more specifically, his death has affected me and thousands others.
As a blog writer, the way my day goes is like this: I come in to the office, open my email and read my assignments for the day. Initially, the death of comic genius Robin Williams was not a blog topic assigned to me. And, I felt a little sense of relief. I’ll tell you why in a moment.
Last night, at home, when I first read of the tragic news, I felt certain that, when I came into work the next day, I would be writing about his passing, especially since he was a person in recovery and, since I blog for a treatment center, we tend to write about people and topics that are addiction- and recovery-related.
I knew why I felt a sense of relief; it hit close to home. Williams’ death was reported to be a result of a suicide and he had reportedly been struggling with severe depression as of late. I am someone who has what’s called dysthymia, a fancy name for chronic depression. And by “chronic” I mean that I started experiencing depression at an early age, around 11, which was many years before I ever picked up a drink or a drug, and I still experience it to this day. Along with the depression came something called “suicidal ideation,” which is a term that refers to “thoughts about or an unusual preoccupation with suicide.” In fact, at one time in my active addiction, I even intentionally attempted suicide.
For me, alcohol and other drugs had become a solution to “curing” (read: numbing) my depression and “dark thoughts” – the term I had come to euphemistically use for the suicidal ideation. I’ve written a lot of blogs about dual diagnosis, which happens to be quite common among people with a history substance abuse and/or addiction. It can be quite the process untangling which came first: the mental illness or the substance abuse. In some cases, the person turns to substances as a way of self-medicating their mental anguish. Others seem to “develop” psychological disorders in the midst of their addiction, that’s because substances have such a profound effect on brain chemistry that they can mimic mental illness. In these cases, when the person gets clean and begins the healing and recovery process, the mental fog lifts and their brain situation, if you will, also heals.
That is not the case for me. I am in the first group. My mood disorder preceded my substance abuse. When I got clean, it definitely got better. Removing all the other chemicals I was putting in my body (and therefore my brain) gives my meds a fighting chance to actually work. But I have good days and I have bad days. And I still have those “dark thoughts” from time to time, just not nearly as often.
When I heard about Robin Williams’ untimely death, of course I was saddened. But I was also morbidly curious. I always am when I hear about a suicide. I think about how terribly sad and lonely the person must have felt to lead them to such an act of desperation. And I can relate. Then I see how profoundly hurt and saddened their loved ones are by their actions. And I feel a sting of guilt for feeling a little bit jealous that they went through with it.
I think it’s important to speak out about my experiences with addiction and depression because, let’s face it – it’s kind of like being hit with a double-whammy of imposed shame. Both disorders still carry very negative stigma, culturally and socially speaking, even though they are legitimate medical conditions.
Mr. Williams had over 20 years of sobriety when he experienced a relapse and did the honorable thing, seeking help by going to rehab back in 2006. He preemptively returned to rehab just this summer, obviously realizing he was in a bad spot and willing to do something proactive about it. Both addiction and depression require lifelong vigilance and it can be overwhelming and taxing.
Rest easy, good sir.
It might be cliché to say that the world is a little bit darker today, without Williams’ bright light. But it’s true. He was larger-than-life.
“The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” – Lao Tzu
If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, addiction, and/or mental illness, help is available. Please call toll-free 1-800-777-9588 to speak directly with an Addiction Specialist who can answer your questions day or night. You are not alone.