What are we to make of the recent deaths of two of Hollywood’s Greats: Philip Seymour Hoffman and now, Robin Williams? While they both died at the top of their professional careers, their deaths hit home that fame and fortune are not ingredients of a fulfilled life, and that we don’t have all the answers when it comes to addiction and mental illness (since both received treatment for their challenges).
Yet both of these talented men have left us some important clues about life and addiction that can be life-saving for those still struggling. The clues relate to how we understand and define addiction, and how we should be treating it.
Three Failed Relationships
Addiction is best defined by examining the relationship one has with self, others and faith. It’s within these three types of relationships that we come to understand addiction fully, and find answers as to how to overcome it. Sadly, if we examine the lives of Robin and Philip, we see that they struggled in all three types of relationships.
1) Relationship with Self
For those who struggle with addiction the relationship with Self is characterized by shame. A deep down sense that the Self is damaged, broken, irreparable. The shame comes from many places, most often early life adverse childhood experiences and from the consequences of acting out behaviors later in life.
While I have no knowledge of the events that shaped the early life of Robin and Philip, I believe they both experienced life in painful ways that necessitated finding methods to numb challenging emotions, the most intense likely coming from fear and anxiety characteristic of all forms of trauma. And for both, alcohol and drugs solved the problem, at least temporarily.
But I would also argue that the one addiction that likely caused the most damage over time was work. They both were so incredibly productive and successful in their careers, that work became just as seductive as alcohol and drugs, serving a similar purpose at keeping them disconnected from the turmoil of their inner worlds. When they were engaged in roles, playing other people, they did not have to be themselves, and thus did not have to wrestle with the inner demons of their own lives.
They were also big stars, which meant that the Self – the Ego – became all powerful. When the ego runs the show, life is very much a rollercoaster ride, lived through the ups and downs of pleasure and pain. Unfortunately, while the highs of being a star took them to the clouds, their lows were responsible for ending their lives.
You know, I was shameful, and you do stuff that causes disgust, and that’s hard to recover from. You can say, ‘I forgive you’ and all that stuff, but it’s not the same as recovering from it. It’s not coming back. Robin Williams Interview with The Guardian 2010
On Fear and Anxiety
It’s more selfish than that. It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.” What was he afraid of? “Everything. It’s just a general all-round arggghhh. It’s fearfulness and anxiety. Robin Williams Interview with The Guardian 2010
Treatments for addiction need to transform shame into acceptance. This is done by helping those who suffer appropriately process and treat unresolved adverse childhood experiences (or trauma).
Most important in this therapeutic work is safely releasing the trapped residual fear in the body that perpetuates ongoing addictive behavior, which has been brilliantly written about by Peter Levin and Bessel van der Kolk among many.
2) Relationship with Others
For both Robin and Philip their relationships with others could best be characterized by isolation. This does not mean they were not around other people, or did not have many loving people in their lives, just that at their core, the depth of those relationships was constricted in many ways not easily identified by the outside world (or even perhaps by them).
Most adverse childhood experiences occur at the hands of other people, often by those who are supposed to be protective caregivers. When this happens, the natural reaction is to pull away from people, from the danger and pain, and retreat to a place of safety. Unfortunately, this survival mechanism leads to a process of gradually turning towards soothing objects and experiences (ie addiction) over people, that over time, constricts emotional development and impedes the abilities to initiate, develop and maintain healthy relationships with others.
Robin was married three times and Philip separated with his partner prior to his overdose. While no expert on their personal lives, they clearly struggled with intimacy and took their lives in part because they felt no one really knew or accepted them for who they were.
To successfully overcome addiction it’s necessary to developmentally close the gap between one’s emotional age (most often the age when early trauma occurs), and one’s chronological age, eventually transforming isolation into connection.
3) Relationship with Faith
One of the dark sides of fame is that it has the power to usurp the Self or ego in a way that leaves very little room for contemplative work. This means big stars have scant time to discover their true nature because they are constantly being brought back to ego by the nature of being a star! For those who struggle with addiction, the relationship with one’s faith is largely characterized by ignorance. Unfortunately, when the ego is left in charge, suffering without an evolving relationship with faith (without meaning and purpose) can become unbearable.
All the great religious and spiritual mystics throughout time have basically said the same thing: the suffering we endure in life is to help us wake up to our true nature, to the timeless and infinite part of ourselves that is connected to the source of all things. And for our suffering to have meaning, for it to be used to awaken to our true nature, contemplative time must be spent nurturing our relationship with the source beyond self and others. Consistent time must be spent alone, meditatively, in nature, in the present moment, for the relationship to evolve.
This work is not easy, and incredible challenging for those who feel fear when they take time to just be in their bodies, in the present moment. This is why the therapeutic work of the self is so important in paving the way to evolve one’s faith.
Addiction is just one of many life challenges that exist to help us find our way to God (or whatever you chose to call that which is beyond self, beyond our earthly world, beyond time and space, and really beyond words).
There are many paths to awakening to our true nature, but what they all have in common is the necessity of contemplative time. This can include meditation, spiritual reading, time in nature, prayer, and many other practices that are wonderfully discussed in Wayne Teasdall’s timeless read The Mystic Heart.
Just the other night I watched A Most Wanted Man with Philip in the lead role. He was amazing as usual, but this time watching him perform in one of his last movies was a bit distracting because I kept thinking about the fact that he is now gone.
The deaths of Philip and Robin remind us that Hollywood is not reality, and that real life is challenging, sometimes unbearably so. I too will miss their presence in the world.