Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Afterword: On Robin Williams, David, and the Size of Hope

"The rest is up to me, and God." Robin Williams to Diane Sawyer, October 2, 2006
Comedian and actor Robin Williams died on Monday. He apparently committed suicide. He suffered from depression and addiction. So did my husband, whose death in May 2009 was the conclusion of both maladies.

The significance of this parallel has been growing in me all day. A couple of memories have pushed to the surface.

For the last nine of our fifteen years in San Francisco, David and I lived in a little backyard cottage just a few blocks from a grand house that we were told belonged to Robin Williams. I never caught sight of him there, though I walked by it frequently. But one Sunday afternoon while David and I were walking in Golden Gate Park, Robin Williams stumbled by us on roller blades. Sometime later (months? years?) I hurriedly exited a store a few blocks from our house and literally bumped into someone I at first thought was one of the priests from the grand gold-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral that loomed over the neighborhood. As we stepped back from each other, I apologized, but he just grinned and sparkled. My memory of that moment means more to me now than anything he could have said to me.

In one of the tribute videos about Robin Williams that I watched today, I learned that he was an advocate for the homeless, including helping to raise money through a nonprofit called Comic Relief and testifying before the Senate Health and Humans Services committee in favor of legislation to help prevent homelessness. I spent much of the past year editing and publishing a book about another nonprofit, OFF THE STREETS, which works to help end homelessness by providing security deposits and furniture and other household needs to people who are otherwise able to move into a room or apartment of their own but have no move-in resources. The book's author asked me to write an Afterword, which shares a very tiny bit about David's and my experience with addiction, depression, and homelessness. I now share that Afterword here, in memory and honor of David and Robin, with love to Robin's family and friends at this most painful time, and with hope for everyone who is or who loves someone who wrestles with addiction and depression.

Publisher’s Afterword
"The difference between 0 percent hope and 0.00001 percent hope is enormous." Dan Beutler*
EARLY IN 2008, I applied for a part-time job with a local retirement community. The application process included a thorough background check. Toward this end I was required to list all of the addresses I had called home during my entire life. When I was finished, I learned that my total number of official residences in less than fifty years was twenty-eight, if you count the three weeks I lived in a Tenderloin hotel after arriving in San Francisco in 1988, and the month in my early twenties when I lived in a rented fixer-upper until a week of rain revealed ceiling leaks in all the rooms. Fifteen of those dwellings were home for periods ranging from six months to a year and a half, and I managed to stay in three locations for nine years each (from ages 0–9, 9–18, and 35–44). For more than twenty of my adult years I have shared the costs of maintaining a residence with at least one other person, and for more than fifteen years I have lived alone and been solely responsible for all expenses—including a year and a half when, though we were still married, my husband lived first with a succession of friends, then in shelters and hotels and sometimes in parks, and then in a yearlong substance abuse rehab program, while I paid all the expenses for our little cottage in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

During the first six months of that period, David was essentially homeless. I had told him that as long as he continued to use alcohol and drugs, he could not live with me. Was that the right thing to do? I don’t know. Once during that period, after a three-day binge in a San Francisco hotel, he almost died—and would have if a willing stranger had not summoned medical personnel from a nearby emergency room, who arrived to find David not breathing and blue-skinned. They cut off his three layers of favorite shirts so they could get his heart beating again (I still have a large Teddy bear I sewed from the remains of those shirts), and they put a tube down his windpipe to restart his breathing. If he had died that day, I don’t know how I would have lived with the regret I know I would have felt.

Soon after that incident he found his way into a yearlong program, and for almost a year after he graduated from it, he remained, as far as I could tell, sober. But then, for whatever reason, the downward spiral started all over again. He managed to get himself into another recovery program in California, and I, by that time needing a form of recovery myself, returned, with the help of his family, to the East Coast. Again, was that the right thing to do? I don’t know, but at times I still wonder, what if?

David followed me to the East Coast not quite a year later. By that time I was renting rooms in the house of another woman and not prepared to live with him yet. He moved into his parents’ house, the house he’d grown up in, and spent the next eight months or so helping them get ready to move into an apartment in a retirement community. He also got a job with a former employer—at a liquor store.

By Christmas Eve that year he was back in the hospital, detoxing. I stopped to visit him on Christmas morning on my way to his parents’ house. On the basis of our conversation, I believed he no longer wanted to be married. In the next week I talked to a lawyer, and when I visited him on New Year’s Eve, I told him I would be filing for divorce. He looked as though a huge, heavy weight had literally been lifted off his shoulders—or so it seemed to me. Again, did I do the right thing? Again, I don’t know, but I wonder, what if?

A few months later his parents had been moved into their new home and David was again, in a sense, homeless; that is, he was living in his brother’s basement. And drinking. They told him the situation couldn’t continue. He found a recovery program a couple of hours away that would take him. His brother delivered him there on David’s forty-sixth birthday.

The formal program lasted thirty days. He then moved into a supervised residence, where he lived for six months while hunting for a job. After he landed one, he moved into an unsupervised house with ten or so other men in recovery. He stayed for three and a half years. Finally he moved into an apartment of his own—for the first time in his life. For him, it was a dream come true. Yet not quite a year later he was gone, dead from a drug-induced heart attack. He died alone (except for his two cats) and was found by a neighbor at least a day and a half later.

At the memorial service held on the grounds of the recovery program about six weeks after his death, several dozen people paid tribute to David. Virtually every one of them said, “He was my best friend.” He was certainly mine. Despite all we’d been through that last decade, he was still the person who knew me best. Yet I remember a phone conversation during those last five years when he told me, “I’m everyone else’s best friend, but who’s mine?” Was I? I don’t know. I do remember another phone conversation during the same period in which he told me, “You’re the first person I call when I want to tell someone something good that has happened, because I can tell you’re sincerely as happy about it as I am.”

If I were allowed one do-over, it would be to say yes when a couple of months after he settled into his apartment he invited me to come stay with him for a week. “I’ve got wireless Internet. I’ll give you a key. You can work while I’m at work. You can make it a retreat.” I knew that if I went, it would break my heart to come back to my own apartment. I didn’t want to go through that again. I’d given up. I wish I hadn’t.

In the nine bonus years that followed that time when he would have died but didn’t, the staff members and other residents of three rehab programs took a chance (and another and another) on David, as did several employers, landlords, and dozens of friends, coworkers, neighbors, and family members. The fact that, in the end, he did not succeed in remaining sober and alive is unrelated to the value of his life (to him and to all who knew and encountered him) during those nine years. His untimely death also does not invalidate the opportunities and support provided to him during those years—opportunities and support that should continue to be provided to others who have even a .00001 percent chance of success—the kind of support that OFF THE STREETS is willing to give to anyone who wants it.

The book Help the Homeless OFF THE STREETS One Person at a Time is available in both print and Kindle versions through All royalties are deposited directly to an account that is used only to pay security deposits for homeless persons coming off the streets.

*Dan Beutler is the husband of Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash). Quoted in “Congresswoman’s Miracle Baby Doing Well Nine Months After Doctors Said She’d Die.”