Aug. 12 2014 12:00 AM

Locals share stories of depression, addiction and stigma

Robin Williams

TUESDAY, Aug. 12 – Many of us who are grieving the Monday death of comedian and actor Robin Williams are taking to our social media accounts sharing quotes, favorite movies and changing our profile pictures and cover photos.

@robinwilliams dead of suicide, @AP says.... Legendary talent, clearly unsurmountable demons...

Williams died of an apparent suicide Monday in his home. He was reported to have been battling depression and a relapse with substance abuse.

Williams was a native of Chicago but spent his youth in Bloomfield Hills and attended the Detroit Country Day School. His comedy tour came to the MSU Auditorium in 2009.

While there are plenty of exasperated comments of shock and "RIP," unlike some celebrity suicides, this one isn't generating criticism for a life that struggled with addiction. Instead there's empathy and calls to raise awareness about depression and addiction.

The constant theme was that of eliminating the stigma and creating movements that mobilize us to heal and help one another. People shared their stories freely, sometimes in confession and other times in triumph.


"I feel for the man," wrote Kate Sumbler, on Facebook.  "It's hard getting through life with depression. You never really know when it's gonna hit you hardest and how you're gonna get out of it... Feeling that there is nothing more for you in the world is terrifying, even when you tell yourself that it's not real."

Sumbler, 46, a longtime East Lansing and Okemos resident who now lives in Ferndale, agreed to an interview. She said she has lived with depression most of her life.

"I wavered back and forth on seeking treatment for years, the depression itself almost immobilizes you in many ways making it hard to take the first steps," Sumbler said. "Eventually, with the help and support of my husband, who has always been the most amazing and understanding ally in my fight, I started medication and have been able to keep the worst of it under control. I think until you suffer from it, or share in the experience with a loved one who is suffering, you just can’t understand how devastating an illness this is. For me it's still a daily fight, a battle against myself, or my brain, to just keep moving forward.

"I was truly surprised to hear of Robin Williams’ death, and then when I heard that it was a suicide I felt a knot in my gut. One thing that has always stood out to me about Robin was a lingering sense of sadness in his eyes, even when they sparkled with laughter. I hadn’t heard that he suffered from depression until yesterday, but in a way I feel like I knew. His amazing talent and ability to keep us laughing may have been a facade for the darkness and hopelessness that he felt as a depressed person. It really brings it home to realize someone like him, who really had it all, could still feel so lost under the same dark feelings that I can relate to all too well. "

She said it's hard for celebrities to get a break when their mental health issues are made public.

"It's funny how society treats mental illness in celebrities," Sumbler said. "With some, we see people like Lindsey Lohan or Britney Spears mocked for their “eccentric” behaviors, when what they probably need is our sympathy and support. Then you have someone like Robin Williams who has been more respected throughout his career and we are seeing articles sympathetic to the issues surrounding depression. It definitely helps to know you’re not alone in your feelings, that others go through this too. Maybe this will encourage someone to seek support, ask for help or just admit to themselves that they have an illness that needs treatment. Perhaps the stigma of depression and mental illness overall will finally be lifted? "


Kathy Reddington, an Okemos woman who works with people in substance recovery, said Robin Williams' death wasn't very shocking.

"I'm a person in long-term recovery," she said. " I haven't had to use alcohol since August 1990 and because of that my life is rich and full… The disease of addiction is devastating.  But the shame and stigma associated with that disease are more deadly than the disease itself ."

Reddington teaches a special yoga class for people in substance recovery  with Holden House and the Glass House, long-term treatment facilities in Lansing. She works with the National Council on Alcoholism to extend programing to those in need.

"I've worked with a lot of residents who do have depression, some who have many times attempted suicide," Reddington said. "Once in treatment they learn that there  is hope and there is a solution for the disease - not a cure, but a solution. And that solution is recovery."

Williams succeeded in remaining sober from alcohol and drugs for 20 years until a relapse in 2006. 

Williams "was a wonderful funny and endearing man who had a deadly disease that eventually led to his own suicide, leaving a family behind," Reddington said. "It's tragic. So the story of his death does not necessarily bring a message of hope to anyone in recovery ."

Reddington said those battling addictions need a message of strength and support.

"There are over 2.5 million Americans living in long-term recovery. We need to find a voice that will be heard."

Reddington wants to help create that voice in Lansing with a new group, Capital Area Project Vox. 

"Our goal is to dispel  the myth and stigmas attached to addiction - to educate and support," she said.

Capital Area Project Vox plans its first-ever Walk for Recovery, Sept. 13 at 12:30 p.m.

Participants will walk from the Brenke Fish Ladder to the Capitol stairs where there will be speakers and a memorial ceremony "honoring and remembering all those we've lost. "

"The walk will be a time of celebration and opportunity to put a face and a voice on recovery,"  she said.

Reddington said the temptation to relapse can reside below a thin surface of even a long-term sobriety.

"I’ve got 24 years clean," she said. Recently, "a drop of wine dropped on my thumb. The compulsion I had to lick it off and drink the bottle was frightening... The compulsion overtook me so much that I had to run to the sink wash it off and run out onto my deck…I was white hot and all I wanted to do was lick that thumb. I felt on the verge of a huge relapse I had never felt."

She said that incident proves the disease is real and education and support is a must.

"If I can help one person, save just one life, maybe those who have died didn't die in vain," she said.