Photo by Ben Hershey / Unsplash

STARS! They're just like us. How art imitates life imitates art

I love most of Guy Ritchie's films, if you disregard the bust version of King Arthur. Lately I've been watching and re-watching his two Sherlock Holmes films, with Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role, playing a perfect quirky and brilliant inspector to Jude Law's equally-perfect Dr. Watson.

I really love Downey's work. My favorite Avenger story is Iron Man, which Downey plays pitch-perfecly as an unrepentant but still admirable asshole. Sad truth is that too many Americans want to be Tony Stark, not the humbled version of same. It's the humbled version that Downey knows all too well, which is why he nails that part of the character.

During a slow motel night on this business/vacay trip, which ends when I roll back into Eugene tonight, I took some time to look Downey up. I'm not a fan girl, and I don't follow stars much. However I knew a little about Downey's substance abuse issues. What I read surprised me, then didn't, and it also caused me to realize how closely I came to a parallel path.

Downey's father, both a drug addict and an alcoholic, had been supplying his son with drugs since the age of eight. Now I can't speak for that family but this is what we might refer to as child abuse. Downey leaned towards bipolar. Sadly, so did my big brother, who, given my father's alcoholism, learned from our father that alcohol was a fine escape. From there, as a very young man, he swiftly graduated into drugs. In the Sixties in Florida, that state was Drug Central, with massive shipments making their way up I-95 for broad distribution.

My big brother was a big help to that cause.

My father, a brilliant and talented man, an actor who lived on Broadway with Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and Burgess Meredith in the 1920s but who eschewed the trip West to Hollywood, was a chicken farmer when my brother and I were born. He tried to get me to drink with him, with the family, out of what he called "fellowship."

Dad was deeply insulted when I said no. I meant no, and no meant never. Even very young, I saw what substance abuse had done to my father. I was on the receiving end of the evil my big brother perpetrated upon me in the quiet of the night too far for my parents to hear. And I knew that had I approached my parents about my brothers nighttime behavior I would have been punished for lying about it.

Drugs and alcohol make us into evil incarnations of ourselves. Downey's father twisted him early. Downey Jr. was  brilliant, people clearly saw his talent and wanted to invest in it. Just as with my big brother, people saw the potential but he regularly imploded.

Peter was a natural writer, athlete, musician, artist. Everything was easy to him; he was a genius and didn't have to work his gifts for his gifts to work. Perhaps that was part of the problem.

In reading Downey's story I was struck by the number of people who both enabled him and those who came to his rescue. Famously talented and equally-troubled Mel Gibson, who became a friend during the filming of Air America, showed up for Downey when he needed seriously big insurance coverage to get back on his feet in the industry. Gibson still hasn't tamed his demons entirely, but to his credit, he likely saved a massive talent in Downey with his generosity.

Happily for Downey and those of us who appreciate his talents, he did make it back from the precipice.

What struck me was what Downey said about his rehab. This is the piece of his story which spoke so directly to me:

After five years of substance abuse, arrests, rehab, and relapse, Downey was ready to work toward a full recovery from drugs and return to his career. In discussing his failed attempts to control his addictive behavior in the past, Downey told Oprah Winfrey in November 2004 that "when someone says, 'I really wonder if maybe I should go to rehab?' Well, uh, you're a wreck, you just lost your job, and your wife left you. Uh, you might want to give it a shot."[62] He added that after his last arrest in April 2001, when he knew he would likely be facing another stint in prison or another form of incarceration such as court-ordered rehab, "I said, 'You know what? I don't think I can continue doing this.' And I reached out for help, and I ran with it. You can reach out for help in kind of a half-assed way and you'll get it and you won't take advantage of it. It's not that difficult to overcome these seemingly ghastly problems ... what's hard is to decide to do it."

That last line has inspired a separate story. Stay tuned.

Downey's father, my father, so many of us pinball off people and places and opportunities during our lives, depressed and devolving, drunk and doped up. All too often parents  take us with them. When I was sixteen, I asked my brother for a Vivarin pill, which is just caffeine, for I had a long drive from our home town back to Ocala, Florida, where I was living at the time.

He gave me a speed pill. I had no idea what I'd taken. I couldn't sleep for three days. Peter thought that was hilarious. He had also fully intended to get me hooked. For fellowship, I guess, on the sinking ship that was his life, from which he never quite recovered.

While I have most certainly had my own battles with obsessive compulsive disorders, and too often sugar has been my drug of choice, substance abuse was not my thing this life. Especially since the Army, in all its wisdom, plied me with endless supplies of oxy to help me deal with post-dental surgery pain, I threw away most of the pills. I never liked what the drugs did to my brain.  

One parent can permanently ruin a life, as my father did to my big brother, albeit Peter had plenty of opportunities to recalibrate his trajectory. Dad didn't possess the moral courage to intervene, and spent the rest of his life trying to fix Peter by throwing money at him. At some level I'm quite convinced that Dad was trying to save  himself.

My brother, like Downey, suffered from bipolar tendencies, and refused to take any kind of meds to help him cope. He finally took his life at 62 when the cumulative effects of years of abuse and his utter inability to take care of himself and his life became too much.

While too many of us lionize The 27 Club, believing in our heated emotions that early death of terrific talent is somehow romantic, I might argue strenuously that the opposite is true. Parents are supposed to be examples, to teach us coping techniques, not co-opt us into stunted lives marked by abuse and failure. We have plenty of failure ahead as it is; life is great at ensuring that.

My dad not only never went to Hollywood, but he also walked away from a potential career in the nascent TV industry. He'd created the country's first courses in radio and TV for American University and was WMAL's announcer for the then-Redskins in 1948.

He walked away, a deeply insecure man, an emotionally illiterate human being with massive talent, a fertile mind and huge potential. I'm lucky he made it far enough to father me, but I am even more fortunate that his fathering didn't extend to enlisting me in his addictions.

One kid was enough.

My refusal to join my father in his substance abuse cost me my relationship with him forever. My sobriety threatened him. When I had rough times, which are inevitable, he liked to trumpet to his friends that he had raised a loser. The unfortunate impact of such language is that it wasn't until after my father's death that my life took off: publishing prize-winning books, a successful corporate and speaking career, and turning myself into an adventure traveler.

I understand the dynamic at work. I wanted my father's approval. I only got it when I didn't outshine him. What an awful dance that is.

One can only imagine what would have happened had I joined my brother in Dad's fellowship.

I regularly thank my father for a great many gifts. One of them, on the dark side of the ledger, was the example of what it costs to slide down that road to addiction. Downey slid, many times over, and found the moral courage to get back on his feet. Many if not most of us don't. Downey had powerful friends.

Still. Ultimately they didn't save him. He had to do that himself, a lesson his father didn't teach him.

When we have friends who love us enough, first, they don't invite us to join them in their addiction. Second, they invite us to get out of ours and fully into life.

My father taught me what not to do. That cost me a father in more ways than one, but the cost to get close to my father would have been deadly.

These days Downey's handsome face shows the wear and tear not just of age, but of the price he paid for sobriety. It's the same look around the eyes I have seen in others who have walked through that fire.  

Hollywood is full of such stories, people whose art ended up being the arrow which killed them off. And others brave enough to heal themselves, by allowing love into the narrow spaces left after addiction took over.

I admire Downey's art. More so, I admire his example. When I watch his movies, I am reminded of what we might not have seen. Like the father I wish I'd had, but never knew.

Father holding his baby boy with matching haircut
Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

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