This morning I read a transcript of the coroner’s press conference about the scene of Robin Williams’s suicide. (I came across it on Facebook, where it was posted by Salon’s social media person with the strange warning, “Proceed with caution.” Badly done, Salon. Linking to a gruesome description of someone’s hanging body with a note that sounds flippant is at the very least mean.)
I read the transcript three times. I read it the second time because, the first time around, I couldn’t understand how his body was positioned. I still can’t. Frankly the first thing I thought of was that scene in season 2 of “The Wire” when D’Angelo is strangled to death by Stringer’s guy, but Dee’s body is left to look as if he’d hanged himself by a belt suspended from a door. It doesn’t work: there’s not enough gravitation to cut off the airway.
But I read the transcript a third time because I couldn’t understand how Williams could have been left alone for so long. In other words, how he could have been found so many hours after he had died.
He was living in a house in Tiburon, on San Francisco Bay, with his wife of three years. The report said she’d last seen her husband at 10:30 p.m. Sunday night, when she went to bed. Or, as the report said,
when she retired for the evening in a room of the home.
By herself, is the tacit qualification here. I mean, if she’d been sleeping in the same room, to say nothing of the same bed, as her husband, it would have been more likely that she’d have noticed him getting out of bed in the middle of the night and scurrying off down the hall to loop a belt around his neck, shove the other end between the door and the jamb, and somehow—I don’t understand how, probably because I don’t really want to understand—suspend his body to hang himself.
So they were probably sleeping in separate rooms.
And here’s the thing. He wasn’t found by his wife. He was found by his personal assistant. The employee knocked on the door at 11:45 a.m., more than 12 hours after Williams’s wife had last seen her husband, and couldn’t raise his boss. So the assistant went into the room, the assistant found the body.
I’m thinking about this report in this way because I think a lot these days about the commonalities of people who are suffering for various reasons. If Williams died in this supremely lonely way, then you can bet there are hundreds, thousands of others who have died this way: sneaking off to loop belts around their necks, suck on exhaust pipes, take too many pills, shoot too much dope. Stick guns in their mouths. Jump off bridges.
I’m also thinking about the fact that Williams went back to drinking after having quit for more than 20 years. One of my friends, who has several more years sober than I do, wrote on Facebook yesterday afternoon:
It’s hard to describe the agoraphobic, upside-down sensation that strikes me when I read the words “falling off the wagon after 20 years of sobriety.”
That’s what the press kept saying about Williams: he’d fallen off the wagon after 20 years.
(They also kept saying he went into rehab last year to “fine-tune” his sobriety. Which doesn’t mean a damn thing. The fact that this statement by his publicist was accepted without question is proof of the huge gray area in which addiction treatment is allowed to operate.)
But most of all I’m thinking that stories like this one—which are emblematic of the untold stories of ordinary people who die similar deaths, who wade through similar struggles to stay sober, do their work, love their kids, pay their bills, survive divorces, and just be human—make me grateful for a quiet, ordinary life. Famous people can’t go anywhere without people recognizing them and wanting a piece of them. While this may not generally be something to pity them for, it puts real restrictions on recovery practices. Eminem, for example, doesn’t go to meetings, because when he does, people want shit from him all the time. This is true of most famous people. When Williams went to rehab last year he clearly couldn’t even buy an ice cream cone without the dipper asking him to pose for a picture and without some fucking journalist (we pain in the ass journalists, oh man) writing a bit about it.
When I was using I used to think that no amount of fame or money would be enough to make me safe and prove I was worth the space that my feet take up on the planet. I used to lie in bed, eyes riveted open by hunger and whacked out diurnal cycles and fear, wondering what was the amount that would make me safe—$1 million? $5 million?
Any amount is too much, and no amount is enough.
Of course on the other side of this statement is the quiet little whispering voice that Williams himself called “the lower power,” the voice that whispers You can have just one little bottle of Jack Daniels or You can steal those Vicodin and be OK. Or: $5 million, I think about $5 million would do it. Which is exactly the reason I go to meetings, because none of those options are possible. Even if I had $5 million, which I don’t, $5 million would be way too much and not nearly enough to solve the problem of the kind of sickness Williams had. That I have.
Williams (Winehouse, Houston, Ledger, Jackson, Hoffman) had big houses, cars, fans, millions of Twitter followers, check-mark-verified social media accounts. They had personal assistants or private physicians or physical trainers who shot them up with drugs (in Jackson’s case) and knocked on their doors in the morning, couldn’t rouse them, called the cops (or strangely enough, in Ledger’s case, called either Mary Kate or Ashley Olsen—I can’t remember which. As if it matters).
They had all that stuff. But they didn’t have the component of life that, in Stephen King’s words, “stills the demons.”
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