- Mental Health
Academy Award winner Paul Williams felt at home on the stage at an early age. He describes himself as “one of those kids who showed up in the Midwest at talent shows singing ‘Danny Boy,’” and recalls his dad getting him up in the middle of the night to sing for him. Singing was a welcome distraction from the pain of always being the “new kid” – his father’s job as a construction project manager landed young Paul in nine different schools in as many years. But he almost gave up singing permanently when his dad died in an alcohol-related one-car crash in 1954 when Paul was just 13.
Shipped off to live with an aunt in Long Beach, California, Williams didn’t feel he had much to sing about anymore. Fortunately for all his future fans, though, his close proximity to Hollywood was too much to fight. It wasn’t long before he knew he wanted to act. A few breaks in the ‘60s seemed promising, but they didn’t pan out, and depression began to set in. It was then that Williams turned to writing songs as a form of home therapy. It was a true example of that old adage, “one door closes, another door opens,” and soon Paul Williams “the singer” was on his way.
Even as he became a household name, Williams was battling a family history of alcoholism. “We were raised in a household where alcohol was the reward for a hard day’s work,” he recalls. “It was always around.” Paul recalls his father as a sweet man but an alcoholic who never sought treatment or even recognized his addiction. It was the norm for his dad to stop by the local bootlegger’s house on Sundays and pick up a bottle.
His father’s untimely death didn’t deter Paul from drinking himself, though. “I drank with my buddies in high school—it was a rite of passage,” he recalls. “The thing I remember was not so much enjoying the alcohol as the feeling of being one of the guys. Looking back it was a temporary cure for feeling ‘different.’ Something I hear again and again from other recovering alcoholics.”
It’s not always easy for someone in the process of addiction to see when they cross the line from “use” to “abuse,” but Paul pinpoints a time in the late ‘70s when his career was thriving. “That decade was an amazing span of accomplishment, productivity and discipline … it’s also the decade when I went from ‘different’ to ‘special.’” He’s talking about reaching a celebrity status that he calls as addicting for some as any chemical substance invented. Finally, he felt like he belonged somewhere – and he used alcohol and drugs to celebrate the achievement. Before long, though, those substances were needed just to make Williams look like he could handle it all, to avoid the feelings of fear that fame brought with it.
What was Williams, who seemed to be on top of the world, trying to escape? “It’s interesting. We self-medicate our feelings away, and the awakening that comes with sobriety has a lot of information in it that slipped by during the storm,” he says, adding, “I had no idea I’d survived such a terrible childhood until I was many years sober.”
He now refers to the ‘80s as the “Ishtar” years. As his addiction escalated, he hid out, turning down job offers and avoiding appointments. The party was long over, and now Williams was left alone, hiding in his bedroom peering out the venetian blinds to look for the police he was sure were coming to get him. Psychosis began to creep into his psyche.
Williams finally went to treatment—twice. Once for a girl he thought was “the one,” a 22-year-old psych major who insisted he get help. He had left his wife and kids for this woman and didn’t want to lose her, so he entered treatment. But he slipped up seven months out of treatment and she eventually left anyway. She was just one of many things he used to try to fill what he calls “a God-shaped hole in the middle of my soul.” Eventually, he had enough all on his own and has been sober since March 15, 1990. Now that he has more than two decades under his belt, he calls sobriety “the single greatest gift I’ve ever been given.”
Anyone in recovery knows it’s an ongoing process, and getting clean and staying clean are two different things. To stay on the right path, Williams relies on an association that he says has given him a home, a group that meets all over the world and for which he is eternally grateful. As with many in recovery, gratitude is high on his list of priorities. In fact, he calls it “the fuel that drives us to that ‘new freedom and a new happiness,’” adding, “The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it. So I start my day with a quick word to the Big Amigo. ‘Surprise me, God!’” That simple action implies complete trust, a daily handing over the reins of his life.
That gratitude for his new life has led Williams to find ways to give back. His jazz musician friend Buddy Arnold, who once described himself as “the oldest living Jewish junkie,” got sober and went to work in recovery. Arnold went on to start an organization called the Musicians Assistance Program (MAP) and urged Williams to enroll in UCLA‘s Drug and Alcohol Counseling study program and get certified. For a year, he went to school two nights a week and worked every morning with Arnold at a local treatment center. There he traded services for a bed for musicians in need of treatment.
Williams never got his CADAC, but he worked as a volunteer for several years at MAP. Arnold died a few years ago and MAP became a part of MUSICARES, the NARAS program that has now helped thousands and thousands of musicians in crisis resulting from a multitude of problems. “MAP remains the treatment wing of their work,” Williams explains, adding, “It’s a great living tribute to the work Buddy began.” He refers to that time as his “Paulie Lama” period and remains grateful for the way it let him feel a part of something bigger than his problems.
Today, Williams remains active professionally and in the recovery community. He continues his work as a composer and as president and chairman of the board of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. When it comes to addiction, progress has been made, but there’s still much work to do. While there is greater awareness today about addiction, the problem continues. The choice of drugs may have changed, but they still result in devastated lives. Still, he believes there’s hope – and help — for everyone. Not that it won’t be hard work. “It’s a difficult task at any age,” Williams says, “and we’re ready when we’re ready.”
Transcribed by Wendy Lee Nentwig