Robin Williams was an alcohol and drug addict. It is a struggle I understand as a seven-time recovering nicotine addict, though his drugs have more severe consequences. In one of the rare interviews where he had his game-face off, the interviewer asked him, “What do you do in rehab?” Robin answered, “You learn to say no.” He went on, “You think you can do it on your own strength but you can’t.”
Robin was dry for 20 years. They were his best performance years. By all accounts, he fell off the wagon in 2003. Addictions and performing well, however, are incompatible in the long run. The above recent photo shows how emaciated he looked in comparison to his former, barrel-chested self. Robin fought a battle every human being fights, the battle between the flesh and the Spirit. (Gal 5:13-26) It is a spiritual battle between love and fear that he sadly lost. He needed to be weak but he couldn’t get there.
The most striking aspect of watching and reading the various tributes to Robin Williams is that he was almost always on stage, even after the cameras stopped rolling. He presents himself as a man addicted first and foremost to being liked. Being funny is a great way to get attention and be popular. Paradoxically, it is also a way to keep attention away from your inner struggles. My wife had an uncle who committed suicide with similar characteristics – a funny, life-of-the-party guy who without warning, killed himself at age 41, leaving behind a wife and 9 year old son.
Addiction first and foremost causes mental torment in one phrase: self-doubt. On your own strength, you seek to win the battle to say no. When you succeed, your ego soars a little, proud that you pulled it off and convinced it wasn’t that difficult after all. When you fall, you fall hard. You’ve broken a promise you made to yourself and you feel devastated. Shame washes over you like an infectious skin disease that can’t be washed off.
Each time you stumble, the hole gets deeper. A little voice within says, “See, you can’t do it. You failed last time and you’ll fail this time too.” Trying to overcome the addiction on your own strength merely makes things worse. The inner conflict and constant failures eat you up.
Bill W and Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous got it right 75 years ago. The first three steps of the twelve step program are the key to success. We must become weak, not strong.
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
I met a recovering alcoholic whose humble faith amazed me. He earned a meager but honest living and sought primarily to help other addicts recover. He gave me a copy of the Big Book, one of the most authentic, moving books you will ever read. In all the stories I saw and read about Robin, never did he mention God or faith. We can surmise that somewhere along the line, someone presented him with the 12 steps but they didn’t take root for him.
Robin’s fame and success became his greatest enemies I believe. These are the rewards of the flesh. With fame, came the need to have something to hide in addition to his addiction – money troubles, broken marriages and an inauthentic relationship with himself. His ranch was up for sale and his recent television show was a bust after just one season. He was losing his touch, his money and his battle with drugs. His façade was crumbling. Marilyn Monroe and many other suicidal celebrities faced similarly daunting obstacles to lasting inner peace, crushed by externally-anchored self-esteem that is unsustainable.
This is where Jesus comes in. This is where we need to embrace having nothing to hide, nothing to prove and nothing to lose. The more “somethings” we have, the greater the grip the evil one has on us. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
How true that is for me. I conquered my nicotine addiction in 1998 only after I completely surrendered that I would be a smoker for life. I stopped trying. I accepted the cruel consequences fully and completely – that I would die young and in pain. Just one month later, I had a powerful, spiritual moment. At 2 o’clock in the morning, a voice said to me, “I make a covenant with you to never smoke again.” I never did and most amazingly, I have never felt tempted since.
Miracles happen when we become weak. While I might throw scripture at you to back it up, I would rather throw life at you. I have failed and surrendered often enough to fill five books with more to come. Each time I do, God steps in to do what I cannot do on my own strength. Even now, as I write this, I am once again in that position. My finances are weak and my writing and coaching ministry are barely above water. I have no idea what will happen but I have learned to trust that somehow, I will be okay in him.
Each of us is Robin Williams. Each of us craves financial success and the approval of others. When these are taken away through divorce or career failure, we are devastated. We must learn that God is knocking on our door in these moments, inviting us to be weak so that he can be strong. As the apostle Paul wrote, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)