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Everything Michael K. Williams Has Said About Addiction and His Mental Health Struggles

·5 min read

Nearly three weeks after Michael K. Williams, best known for his roles on The Wire, Lovecraft Country and When They See Us, unexpectedly died at age 54, his cause of death was revealed as an accidental overdose.

At the time of his death on September 6, a source from the New York Police Department told PEOPLE that Williams was found dead in his Brooklyn penthouse apartment. The Emmy nominee's nephew first discovered his body. On Friday, the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner announced that Williams died by "acute intoxication by the combined effects of fentanyl, p-fluorofentanyl, heroin and cocaine."

"It is with deep sorrow that the family announces the passing of Emmy nominated actor Michael Kenneth Williams," Williams' rep told PEOPLE earlier this month. "They ask for your privacy while grieving this unsurmountable loss."

Williams' death sent shockwaves throughout Hollywood, and he has since been remembered by stars including Spike Lee, Niecy Nash, Joel McHale and George Takei.

Williams had long been candid about his struggles with addiction and mental health. Below, a roundup of what he's said about both topics.

RELATED: Michael K. Williams Career in Photos

How His Addiction Struggles Started

In a 2020 interview with Men's Health, Williams said being in "a lot of pain" was what pushed him to start using drugs. "A lot of trauma early on that I didn't have the proper tools to deal with. My mom was very strict. The beatings were very severe growing up. She was determined to not have her two sons run amok," he said.

"She had a brother who passed. He was a fighter and went to jail for murdering someone with his bare hands. It was a way of protecting me," he continued. "It wasn't an easy childhood, being sensitive, vulnerable. I'm not alpha, in any sense the word of the title. And so I got picked on a lot. It plagued me, especially [during] my teenage years. It was one of the things that led me to attempt suicide. I was 17. I was lost. I was very awkward with the ladies. Drugs were there. And I was already self-medicating. And I just got lost."

Battling Addiction on The Wire

"I didn't feel worthy of opportunity like [the role on The Wire], and when I was given this character, Omar, I could've used it as a tool, as a nurturing tool for myself. It could've been cathartic for me," he told WAMU in 2016. "[But] I decided to wear it as a Spider-Man suit and just fly around and go, 'Whee! Look at me! I got web in my hands!' Instead of actually doing the work and finding out how I could use this character to make myself feel better about me, I used it instead of me. It was like my crutch."

michael k. williams
michael k. williams

Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

Williams continued, "So [when] The Wire and the character of Omar ended, I had zero tools, personally speaking, in how to deal with letting that go. I wasn't going around robbing people or anything stupid like that, but I definitely wore that dark energy that Omar was — he was a dark soul, a tortured soul — and I just … lived in that and that's what people was attracted to. … The lines got blurred."

On Choosing to Get Sober

Speaking to NJ.com about how bad his addiction battle got, Williams said: "I was playing with fire."

"It was just a matter of time before I got caught and my business ended up on the cover of a tabloid or I went to jail or, worse, I ended up dead. When I look back on it now, I don't know how I didn't end up in a body bag," he continued. "Eventually, I got so sick and tired of this charade. No one who was in my circle, who knew me as Mike, was allowing me to get high. I had to slip away to do drugs. I had to hide it."

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"I'd be gone for days at a time. I was lonely in that part of my life. I was broke, broken and beat up. Exhausted. Empty. I finally said, 'I can't do this no more.' I didn't want to end up dead," he added.

Learning How to Cope

"I have strategies that I go to. Number one, I keep a very good, solid team of people around me when I'm doing these dark roles. I call them my lasso. Tie a little lasso around my ankle and they're keeping me up," he told Deadline in 2017. "Now I practice new strategies for how to arrive at characters. I'm keeping good, healthy-minded people around, and just protecting myself. Being responsible."

Seeking Therapy After a Project

Shortly after filming HBO's Lovecraft Country, the late actor sought therapy. "I just started therapy, you know, and really taking that seriously and starting to unpack, like you said, the critic in my head and how that has affected my actions, my responses to certain situations, my relationships," he said on The Tamron Hall Show in February. "It was a very new process for me."

RELATED: Michael K. Williams Reflected on 'How Fragile Life Is' in Instagram Post 1 Year Before His Death

Michael K. Williams
Michael K. Williams

Eli Joshua Ade/HBO Michael K. Williams in Lovecraft Country

Addressing His Triggers

Speaking about his film Body Brokers on The Tamron Hall Show in February, he said working on the flick — which is about a fraudulent Los Angeles treatment center — "quite frankly, made me sick to my stomach."

"I was ignorant to the narrative and the subject of what this movie was addressing," he said. "And I remember personally, you know, one of those many nights when I was crying myself to sleep listening to BeBe & CeCe Winans, I would see these commercials about these elaborate, beautiful recovery centers. You know, most of them was in Malibu and I would say, 'Man, if I could get there, maybe I could get my life together.' And to think that that was never really the intent for them ever. ... I'm quite sure there are people there that care, it's just, you know, the capitalism aspect that goes into the [places]."

He added: "I don't think it was ever any good. I think that was always there."

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please contact the SAMHSA substance abuse helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.

If you or someone you know needs mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

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