When Robin Williams died by suicide in 2014, I spoke on the phone with a comedian friend of mine. This friend suffers from depression and felt a sense of relief when it was revealed that Williams had not only been depressed but had also been suffering from degenerative physical health problems. Perhaps his death was not an inevitable consequence of mental illness. It’s impossible to know why someone might take their own life, but my friend wanted to believe Williams’s death was a tragic but pragmatic choice, intended to avoid years of suffering, rather than a desperate act of despair carried out by someone who did not want to live.
“There are people you need to see who are older than you and survived what you are trying to survive,” the friend said. “I couldn’t stand the idea he might have struggled on for this long, then the depression won anyway.”
I thought of this exchange after hearing that the actor Matthew Perry, best known for playing Chandler Bing in the sitcom Friends, had died in the hot tub at his Hollywood home on 28 October, aged 54. Perry had been an addict from a young age – he wrote about his struggles in a 2022 memoir – and I dreaded the possibility that his death might have been the result of a relapse. (There is no indication that illegal drugs were found at the scene; the autopsy results are pending at time of writing.) I felt the impulse to wish him a clean death, one for which he could not be blamed or judged. Then, I felt guilt. Why should an untimely death like his be any less tragic if drugs or alcohol were involved?
I can’t stand moral puritans who sniff about free will and justify the deaths of addicts by saying they are “chosen”. Anyone who has known or been a person with substance issues knows that “choice” is a very spurious concept in active addiction. Even if we were to accept that an addict “chooses” to destroy themselves, is bringing about your own ruin not devastating enough to warrant our sympathy? Oscar Wilde said, “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell,” which seems to me a more intolerable sort of misery than sudden acts of God.
And yet I still wanted Perry’s death to be a freak health event, unrelated to substance abuse. Like my friend who couldn’t bear the idea of Williams being claimed by the thing he fought so valiantly against, it made me too sad to think of Perry’s years of struggle being underwritten by a certain kind of sad death, seen as inevitable by the world.
[See also: How Friends changed the way we laugh]
Perry’s memoir, which I read last year and returned to in the days after he died, contains uncomfortably direct foreshadowing. Perry describes not just the details of his addiction but how it brought him very close to death. At the time of writing, he’d been sober for 18 months, but there is nothing conclusive or triumphant in his tone. His was a story of countless attempts at sobriety and their failures – of the depleting repetition of trying to get back up again, to get better again, to believe that this time things could be different.
This is what makes Perry’s discussion of his illness so moving: there is no rewarding narrative arc. Even before the publication of his book, he spoke about his issues when still deeply mired in them. It’s hard to overstate the bravery of being open about addiction when you have not emerged into sobriety.
Our culture loves a reformed addict story. We gulp down memoirs and gasp at acts of self-abuse. We allow ourselves to be titillated because we know the story’s arc will follow the addict into recovery. Recovery may be its own long and devastating process, but it leads to a clean, sober person – not necessarily a fairy-tale ending, but a definitive one. There is no room for the person who still uses or relapses to speak about addiction. It is too uncomfortable for the listener, who needs the resolution of a full recovery.
The social pressure to never acknowledge that you have a problem unless you have already solved it means that we know less about how addiction functions than we might. To rarely hear the experiences of the many addicts who are never fully clean is to be ignorant of the reality of the disease.
The framing of recovery as a clear-cut before-and-after may act as a deterrent to recovery for some: such as those who fear their drinking is out of control, but who – being alcoholics – can’t face quitting. Not everyone has a rock bottom; many people destroy their lives and health at a perfectly sustainable pace. To such people, lacking the pressure point of acute crisis, simply putting down the glass and never picking it up may be unthinkable.
Allowing those with ongoing addictions into the conversation, to concede the reality that many experience relapses, helps those who are unsure about how or if to seek help. Admitting to the existence of failure – possibly repeated failure – can be a freeing gift to the person frightened by their own habits but unable to imagine being part of a far-off dreamworld populated by sober folk.
Addiction, like depression, is a disease that feeds off privacy. Part of its horror is that it first relieves the pain of solitude, then reproduces it, many times over. The loneliness of the addict who is not yet clean hinders their chances of becoming so. People like Perry, generous enough to share their experience of addiction while in its thrall, do a huge service to those suffering alone. No matter what led to his death, the example of his persistence and vulnerability will stay with me.
[See also: Who runs the show?]
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts