Today, when I heard that Robin Williams had committed suicide, I spent hours choking back tears. I met him a few times when I would visit Wil when he was filming Flubber up in San Francisco. Mr. Williams was kind, funny, and gave his full attention to me and to our kids when we talked. My heart breaks for what his family and friends are going through at this loss because he is a reminder of the funny things I watched him on as a kid, but also a reminder of my own experience with this kind of loss. There are so many signs of depression and addiction, that I hope in sharing my own story, maybe it will help even one person who may be living something similar and will get help.
I grew up in a seemingly “normal” household. I don’t have any negative memories of anything being wrong or off with my parents when I was little. My grandma would visit us often, always by herself. When I was about 5 years old, I asked my grandma if she had a husband. She told me that she had had two husbands, but they had both passed away. I didn’t really get what that meant, but she had answered my question which seemed to be enough to satisfy my curiosity.
By the time I was about 7, I was aware of my parents having a martini in the evening when my dad would come home from work. Occasionally on the weekend, they would have beer while they did work around the house or in the yard. But by the time I was in 6th grade and my grandma had married for the third time, I saw a sadness in my mom that I had never seen before. Shortly after my grandma’s wedding, my mom began a rapid downward spiral of drinking excessively and becoming withdrawn and angry.
By the time I was 15, my mom’s drinking was pretty bad. One evening, I came into her room where she was sitting next to the phone, crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she explained to me that she had just tried to have a phone conversation with my grandma to tell her that my grandma’s second husband had molested my mom when she was twelve. This husband had died by the time my mom was 18, but my mom had felt so bad for my grandma for having lost two husbands that she never shared this information before. This secret had been eating at her for so long that she had become depressed and addicted to alcohol, and just wanted to get it off her chest and have the support of her family to help her through it.
When my mom told me this, I had no words. This was not something I knew how to handle as a teenager, so I just hugged her, and then I figured my dad and my grandma would know how to help her through it. I was completely wrong. My grandma was so shocked by this news that had happened 25 years earlier, that she was in total denial and blamed it on my mom having issues with alcohol and an unhappy relationship with my dad. My dad was the opposite of supportive of my mom, which had made her become so withdrawn that I didn’t have much of a relationship with her myself for years after that day.
I moved out when I was 18, hoping not being under the same roof would ease her anger issues and we could have a new, more adult relationship instead of a parent/child one. I would schedule lunches with her, but she would either cancel last minute because she was sick (hangover) or meet me for lunch and spend the whole time downing margaritas or wine. I didn’t understand that her addiction was merely how she had decided to “deal” with her depression and the unresolved issues she experienced as a child. I honestly felt like she was choosing booze over a relationship with me.
When I was 20, my mom had told my dad she needed a break and decided she was going to take herself to Laguna Beach for the weekend. Her relationship with my dad had turned to angry, drunk fights and she was miserable. At the end of that weekend, my dad called to tell me my mom was in the hospital because she had “fallen” off part of a cliff at the beach. She wasn’t injured badly, but the police were involved because a couple had witnessed my mom trying to jump off of the cliff. She was in the hospital on a psychiatric hold, finally getting released to my dad with the promise of her getting help.
The help never came from my dad. It came from me two years later, when I went to their house after she had canceled our lunch date again and I saw how bad her alcoholism had escalated and how much her health had deteriorated. I immediately called my grandma, who found a rehab facility near her (grandma was now in Oregon while we had since moved to California). She got my mom registered after my mom agreed she needed help, and booked two plane tickets so I could fly up with my mom and help get her settled in.
Between March and October of 1993, my mom had been in and out of 3 rehab centers. She had been trying to get help for her addiction but she also needed help for her depression and therapy to deal with her childhood. We would talk on the phone weekly, but she mostly wanted to know how I was doing and didn’t go into detail about her ongoing treatment. My last conversation with her was on October 22, when she told me she knew her relationship with my dad was toxic and never going to be good for her to be around again. She had purchased a car from a graduated college student and was planning to go out the next day to look for an apartment and start a new life.
On the afternoon of October 23, 1993, I got a phone call that my mom had died in a car accident. There were multiple cars involved, but my mom was the only one hurt. Instead of starting a new life on her own, she had gone to a liquor store and consumed a 32 ounce bottle of vodka. She then started her car and drove, without a seatbelt, over a narrow bridge, bouncing off the walls of the bridge before hitting the two cars waiting on the other side (who had seen her coming but had nowhere to go, so they braced themselves for impact.) No one else was hurt, but the impact on my mom was fatal. She was 47 years old.
I knew my mom had consumed all of that alcohol and chose not to wear a seatbelt, and to drive a car while intoxicated. But I was shocked when the coroner called to tell me the cause of death was partly due to the accident, but the death certificate was going to read “acute ethanol alcohol poisoning” because that is really what killed her. He then went on to ask me if my mom was depressed and/or suicidal, and the rest of the conversation was and still is a blur to me.
It’s been 21 years since her death. I was just 24 years old when it happened. My older brother and I have never had any problems with addiction or depression. I always hear people talk about how it’s genetic, but my mom was the only person in her family to have this happen and I know it’s because of the things that happened to her. One of her counselors from the last rehab center she was in (she died 10 days after checking out of the last one) told me “there are some people that just can’t be helped.” Not exactly the ideal thing to tell someone at their mom’s funeral, but I later understood what he meant after reading all of my mom’s rehab journals in the weeks that followed.
Because of the things I saw my mom go through, I saw the signs of depression in Wil and encouraged him to get help for himself, which he did. We all deserve to enjoy life, to enjoy our time with our family and friends, and to get help when we know something isn’t right in our body and our brain. If you or someone you love is experiencing issues with this, please seek help. You matter and you absolutely deserve it.