The Case Files: Robert Downey, Jr.

Sigh. RDJ. I remember when I fell in love with Robert Downey, Jr. I was walking through my living room getting ready for the day. I used to put on VH1 in the early morning hours as a soundtrack to my routine. I was brushing my teeth and Elton John’s video for “I Want Love” just came on and there was RDJ looking at the camera with the sweetest, most forlorn expression. He had some scruff and big brown eyes and I just loved him in that moment.

I was just breaking into my adulthood and had completely missed the memo about RDJ being such a bad boy for the majority of my life. Just as well, because I happen to find reformed bad boys to be just as interesting.

So, Robert Downey, Jr. is like many of our other Case File alums who found their mental health journeys intertwined with that of their parents’. Much like Lindsay Lohan and Drew Barrymore, RDJ got his start in showbiz through his parents. Much like Lindsay and Drew, Downey, Jr. (man that is annoying to actually write out, darn comma) also started using drugs because of his father. At the age of six, Downey, Sr. introduced young Robbie (I’m calling him that) to marijuana.

Father of the Year, I tell you what.

Since that time, RDJ’s appetites were nourished by his father. He starred in his father’s movies and productions while also enjoying the taste of illegal drugs along with his father’s company and approval.

“When my dad and I would do drugs together, it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how.” — Robert Downey, Jr.

Onward and downward, RDJ’s career continued to grow in spite of his drug use and trouble with the law in connection with what had developed into a full-blown addiction by his early teens. Things really got going from 1996 to 2001, when RDJ was arrested several times related to his drug use and risky behavior, including an arrest for possession of cocaine, heroin, and an unloaded .357 Magnum handgun while speeding down Sunset Boulevard. It just sounds so Hollywood, doesn’t it?

Well, the sneaky hate spiral didn’t stop there. RDJ was already on three years of probation for the previously mentioned incident, had one of his most infamous moments when he stumbled into his neighbor’s house and fell asleep on their child’s bed. That had to be an awkward story to explain to a kid. [insert joke about how you're only supposed to wake up to strange men in your bed as an adult after several alcoholic beverages]

“It’s like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal.” — Robert Downey, Jr.

There are a lot more little nuggets to this story, but it eventually leads up to four years of jail for RDJ. He was released after one year. He immediately joined the cast of Ally MacBeal playing Ally’s love interest. People naturally ate up everything he did and this stint was no exception. Unfortunately, RDJ was still in the throes of addiction and had not yet reached that point of ‘rock-bottom’ well-known in addictions treatment. The average number of relapses until full recovery and sobriety is about 8, which means RDJ was just hitting right down the middle in this case. He relapsed pretty hard (two arrests, one involving walking around aimlessly barefoot and high on cocaine in Culver City) and lost his spot on Ally MacBeal.

“It was my lowest point in terms of addictions. At that stage, I didn’t give a fuck whether I ever acted again.” — Robert Downey, Jr.

There’s been a fair amount of hubbub over RDJ’s mental state in regards to bipolar disorder. His mother was quoted by People magazine saying he had gotten a previous bipolar diagnosis and several celebudoctors of course weighed in on the issue at the time. Now that he is sober, he maintains he is not bipolar. While bipolar disorder is incredibly common among addicts because they use mood-altering substances to control bipolar mood swings, you cannot and should not diagnose anyone until they are sober.

Oh wait, spoiler alert. Robert Downey, Jr. got sober.

You know how I mentioned rock-bottom? Well it might take longer for celebrities, but everyone reaches rock-bottom. It’s an essential part of the recovery process. RDJ hit rock-bottom.

“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.” –Robert Downey, Jr.

He was looking down a long road of jail time or a stint in rehab.

“I finally 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 actually do it.” – Robert Downey, Jr.

Guess what his first comeback job was?

His video for Elton John! Another reason why I think I’m a good therapist, I just read this stuff in people. I knew he was ready for my adoration.

So we know the rest of the story. RDJ fully recovered and has been sober since 2001. He’s completely revived his career, becoming Tony Stark/Iron Man (could anyone do it better, really?) and Sherlock Holmes. I just adore him.

The Case File

Surprise, surprise… family matters. The people who care for you and the genetics they give you play heavily into your mental well-being from the way you choose to behave from modeling their behavior to already having the genes predisposing you to becoming an addict. I don’t know much about RDJ’s family other than his notorious father, but I can imagine when you choose to walk the same career path as your parent, you idolize everything about them – not just their ability to perform. The role of fathers in modeling for their children is crucial. Your children become the best and worst parts of you, unless you are paying very close attention to the person who you are becoming.

Also, let’s talk about resilience. Yeah, yeah I know. I talk about it in like every other post. Can you imagine being six years old and being allowed to smoke marijuana, wait scratch that. Not only allowed, but encouraged? RDJ had about 20 years of serious addiction and hardcore maladaptive behaviors under his belt. It takes a very strong and very resourceful person to look inside themselves and say, “I’m ready to change“. Not only that, but he probably had so little self-awareness considering a lot of that time traditionally spent cultivating oneself was spent drowning out the self. He had to likely start from scratch to some extent. That’s courage. If RDJ can come back from that and live a fulfilling, successful, and downright sexy life, then I think the majority of us can get over most of the small first world problems that plague us. What a model for resilience!

Downey attributes his sobriety to his family, therapy, meditation, yoga, and Wing Chun Kung Fu. Proof that staying busy (with things that enrich the person) is an excellent way to stay away from the bad stuff and focus on what is truly worthwhile. Like, more Iron Man movies, perhaps? Yes.

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Posted on by Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA Posted in Addiction, Family, Individual, Mind, The Case Files
Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA

About Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA

Hi, I’m Jen. I’m a mental health counselor newly residing in Seattle, Washington. I strongly believe in the mind-body connection as the cornerstone of my professional ideology, along with the healing possibilities of puppies, a good glass of red wine, the smell of a new book, and the importance of travel.