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James Ferragut: Williams' final gift to all of us

No words can describe the feeling when you learn of the unexpected death of someone you know. When death is suicide, feelings can be very heavy. The death of Robin Williams resonates with everyone who was touched by his gentle genius.

The deeper story of his suffering must be confronted. Alcoholism, addiction and depression weren’t eased by the love of family and friends. Talent earned him prestige: an Oscar, Emmys, Grammys, Golden Globes, AFI and People’s Choice. But adoring audiences and reassurances he was loved did not silence “a little voice” in his head.

Williams spoke openly about the voice. After 20 years of sobriety, he started drinking again and in 2006 checked himself into rehab. “That little voice that goes ‘Just one, have just one drink’ ... and the idea that ‘just one’ for someone who has no tolerance for it, that’s not a possibility ... because that person wakes up and says ‘how the f*&% did I end up in Cleveland?’ ”

He spoke about depression and suicide: “You’re standing at a precipice and you look down, there’s a voice. It’s a quiet little voice that goes ‘JUMP.’ I have to put that little voice in a ‘do-not-discuss’ box over in a far corner of my brain.”

He was on the precipice Monday and it’s likely he wasn’t thinking about adoration from his fans, his awards and career or the love of his 25-year-old daughter, Zelda.

The first thing addicts (alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex) learn in rehab is that their brains are different. Genetics and measureable physiological factors cause addiction. It’s impossible for their brains to self-moderate. Addicts learn their disease is no different from diabetes or cancer. It just happens to have hundreds of years of baggage that defines the addict’s disease as a cultural and social liability.

Williams was a genius and gentle soul. He was loved. He had money beyond his dreams and, more importantly, he had access to the tools to help him navigate his internal storms. But he didn’t, and if Williams couldn’t do it ... who can?

My hope is that the suicide of a national treasure like Robin Williams will be a stimulus for deeper understanding of addiction and depression. It’s time to acknowledge that mental illness, alcoholism and addiction are not behaviors of social pariah or of weak souls, but diseases that can live in the face of every human being.

And maybe Robin Williams, as his final gift to us, becomes that face.

Ferragut is a marketing consultant and regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary page. Email