Do we have control over our thoughts through the power of choice? 

Do we have control over our thoughts? Think about it for a second; do you believe that you control your thoughts? Sure, there are times when random thoughts pop into your head, and sometimes they may be downright twisted and strange, but if you become mindful, aren’t you able to direct your thoughts elsewhere? As a matter of fact, test it now; direct your thoughts in a direction of your choosing. When other thoughts creep in, as they sometimes do, simply think of something else. Did you do it? For some it may be easy while others may struggle a bit, but with practice, you can do it. It’s called mindfulness, and it is the only known “cure” for the world’s most common behavioral and emotional problems.

We suffered a sad loss this week; a man that spent nearly his entire life bringing joy to millions. Not only did he dedicate his life to entertaining us, but he made it his personal mission to help people in any way he could. He was generous with his money as well as his time and energy. Robin Williams touched the lives of those who grew up listening to his standup and watching his movies and television shows. He seemed, at least on screen, genuinely kind, gentle and caring. I remember two specific movies where his characters were more serious, Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society. Those characters depicted deeply introspective, caring men, who seemed to carry a heavy burden, and I remember thinking that his acting seemed so real; in fact, too real.

I knew about his struggles with addiction. It became a common thread in his stand up routines. And like so many comedians he used his struggles to mock himself and make others laugh. But underneath, we now know there was enormous emotional turmoil. That happy-go-lucky, easy going exterior may have actually been a mask for intense unhappiness and pain. As I have never met the man I can’t begin to tell you what he was thinking or why he decided to end his life. What I do know is he spent the better part of his life believing that he was powerless; believing that he suffered from an incurable disease called addiction. He spent nearly all of his adult life within what I have come to know as the ‘recovery society’, which ends up being a bit like a roach motel; you can check in but you can never check out; that is, until the day you die.

While I didn’t personally know Robin Williams, I do know a whole lot about the ‘recovery society’ having been part of it for many years. While in it, I too struggled with anxiety and bouts of severe depression. I contemplated suicide and became preoccupied with my own death and spent many hours thinking about it. Meetings were a bastion of negativity with everyone focused on how damaged we all were and how different we were from those close to us. We talked incessantly about what we couldn’t have or do and how we would be like this forever. While I was supposed to be building relationships with the people in “the rooms”, instead I became alienated from my family and close friends, and I felt more and more alone.

I am so grateful that I did find a way to escape the perpetual gloom of 12 step teachings and the recovery society, and thankfully I didn’t have to end my life to do it. I systematically refused to internalize the teachings of powerlessness, disease and helplessness. And even though I, too, struggled with emotional pain, severe anxiety and depression, I learned that I didn’t have to live with it and that I had the power to direct my thoughts in a positive direction. I learned the power of becoming mindful.

I would advise you not underestimate the fear, guilt and negative self talk that are an integral part of the 12 step program and treatment programs based on the addiction disease. Taking on negative labels such as addict and alcoholic and accepting you are powerless over substances and behaviors are completely counterproductive. Who wouldn’t begin to feel depressed and overwhelmed by life’s problems. Robin Williams seemed to do everything right, yet he continued to struggle. He accepted his disease and powerlessness, learned the lingo, talked the talk and walked the walk, yet he continued to struggle.

My question is did Robin Williams know he has the power of choice? Could he have learned to control his depressive, negative thoughts that ultimately led him down the path to think death was his best option? Could he have thwarted those raw emotions that exist deep in the pit of your gut that make you feel as if nothing will ever be right? What if he had been given different information so long ago? What if no one ever told him he was forever powerless? What if he didn’t come to believe he had a lifelong disease called addiction? What if he had come to believe he was not damaged at all; and he was, in fact, a great guy who had simply developed self-destructive habits over which he had complete control to change? What if he learned that he was not that different than everyone else; and that all people struggle with depression, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, fears, and feelings of isolation at points in their lives; because, all people do. Maybe, just maybe, things would have turned out much, much different. RIP Robin Williams.

Photo courtesy: Steve Jurvetson;