Michael K. Williams was a renowned American actor and producer, best known for his portrayal of Omar – a vigilante and stick-up man who robbed drug dealers – on HBO’s “The Wire.” However, Michael K. Williams was more than just Omar Little. In addition to his extensive filmography, Williams was also recognized as an identity for Black Americans. Through his character on “The Wire,” he represented Black queer people everywhere – a demographic not often portrayed on television. He was also an icon in the addiction recovery community, as the actor was long open about his struggles with substance addiction and mental health. He hoped his own addiction story would help another person in some way.
Michael K. Williams’ life was cut short at 54 years old. On September 6, 2021, he was found dead in his apartment due to a suspected drug overdose. While the cause of death has not been confirmed, drug paraphernalia was found on the scene and seemed to signal an opioid overdose.
His death came just months after he revealed he was seeking mental health treatment, which came about after playing Montrose Freeman in HBO’s “Lovecraft County.” Williams was nominated for a 2021 Emmy award for this role, but recognized that he was triggered by the work. He described the show as “waking up generational trauma” and stirring up a lot of unresolved issues that he’d faced in the past. Following the first season, he pursued therapy to better unpack his traumas and struggles with drug abuse. At the time, Williams had also just finished “Body Brokers,” a movie about a nefarious drug treatment center that, as Williams said in an interview, “made me sick to my stomach.”
This was not the first time that Williams expressed struggles with his mental health, or even a character he’d played, but it was a time in which he recognized that therapy was more important than ever. It was also not the first time Michael K. Williams was upfront about his ongoing struggles with drug addiction. The star had always been transparent about his journey, in hopes to reduce the stigma and help others see through the pain. We highlight just pieces of Michael K. Williams’ story with drug abuse and recovery below.
Michael K. Williams on Drug and Alcohol Abuse
As noted above, one of Michael K. Williams’ most memorable roles was Omar Little on “The Wire,” a complicated, gay stick-up man who stole from fellow drug-dealers – and who, simultaneously, also stole the hearts of viewers everywhere. What many fans did not know, however, is that this role also triggered Williams’ battle with substance abuse.
In 2016, Michael K. Williams told NPR that he was at the height of his addiction during his run on “The Wire.” He explains that the lines were blurred between the person he was, and the dark soul he played in the series. When he wasn’t filming, he would go to New Jersey to get drugs and fuel his addiction. He would sometimes show up high to the scene, but the producers were afraid to fire him, worried he would become “truly untethered.”
Eventually, the actor recognized the dangers of his charade. In an interview with Inside Jersey, he admitted, “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.”
That’s when he realized that he could turn things around. “I thought, ‘Why me? Why did I get spared?’ I should’ve been dead. I have the scars. I’ve stuck my head in the lion’s mouth. Obviously, God saved me for a purpose. So, I decided to get clean and then come clean. I’m hoping I can reach that one person.”
Of course, he knew it would not be a perfect recovery journey. There would be obstacles. When Michael K. Williams relapsed, he saw it as part of his story. When he got sober, he recognized there was still work needed to be done. When he was talking to others about addiction, he recognized the need for ongoing commitment and care. He said to New York Times, “Addiction doesn’t go away. It’s an everyday struggle for me, but I’m fighting.”
Michael K. Williams Said His Struggles with Mental Health Triggered His Drug Abuse
In an interview with Men’s Health in October 2020, Williams expressed that his drug use stemmed from “a lot of pain” and “a lot of trauma” in his early life. When he was 17, he attempted suicide for the first time. He explained, “Drugs were there. And I was already self-medicating.” He took a bottle of pills and woke up to his stomach being pumped. This is not uncommon. Among addicted individuals, many started using drugs to cope with symptoms of deep-seated mental health issues.
Williams’ struggles continued into his adult years, along with the substance abuse. He recognized that, although people often assume that the struggles go away after the drugs and alcohol stop, they do not. His struggles were rooted in mental health, which must be addressed in order to recover fully. He said:
“Drugs and alcohol are not the problems, they’re merely symptoms of the problem. And once those things go away, the real work begins, you know…working on all the character defects, the moral compass… Those are the things that need to be addressed. Those are the reasons we got high in the first place, and our inability to deal with life on life’s terms.”
This resonates deeply with many in the recovery community, particularly those battling co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. Co-occurring disorders, such as opioid addiction and depression, for example, must be addressed with an integrated approach to treatment and care. In order to work through these disorders, it is important that both are addressed simultaneously.
Reducing the Stigma of Addiction and Mental Health Disorders
Courtney B. Vance, an actor who worked closely with Williams on “Lovecraft County,” made a statement about the actor’s death and, in light of it, the importance of prioritizing mental health and reducing the stigma around it. He also knew that Michael K. Williams carried a lot of trauma that was re-surfaced during the filming of the HBO series.
“As for what the industry can do to help support actors [who deal with] emotional trauma as they confront storylines and/or characters that may serve as a trigger, I’d like to lean into that a bit. Mental health is such an important part of our overall health, and it should not be taken for granted. Nor is needing help anything to be ashamed of.”
“Therapy is essential to taking care of your overall health, and therapy is like a marriage. It’s all about the connection and being able to talk to the right person so you can get to what you need to get to quickly. There’s a stigma that if you’re in therapy, something is wrong with you. No, something is right. Everybody needs a tune-up. You’ve got to do your mental health check. You know when you’re not doing well. We all have our high and low points. There’s no shame in it. But societal issues make us feel shame.”
He continued, “We all struggle with things that have to be overcome. Sometimes in the struggle we win and sometimes we don’t. [Michael] lost. But in terms of what his life message and mission was, he won. He has passed that on and people are celebrating and learning lessons from him.”
What We Can Take Away from Michael K. Williams’ Story
Whether or not drugs played a role in Williams’ death, there is a lot we can take away from the story and the struggles of Michael K. Williams. First and foremost, we can recognize that it’s ever important to be open about (and open to) one’s struggles with mental health and addiction. Many people are fighting these battles behind closed doors, because they are scared of what others might think. They may be scared to get help, but help is exactly what can help them see through their darkest days. By talking about mental health and drug abuse, we can help reduce the stigma and help others get the help they deserve.
Additionally, we can learn that mental health issues and substance addiction can affect anyone – no matter your background, your gender, or your socio-economic status. However, it is important to note that Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the consequences of drug abuse, as well as generational traumas that may lead one to use drugs. Trauma is a leading cause of substance addiction and mental health issues, and it is important to address it as part of the recovery process.
If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, trauma, loss, or mental health, know that there is help available to you. Do not be ashamed to ask for it. This is your story, and you have the power to write the chapters ahead. Call Turnbridge confidentially at 877-581-1793 for help with addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. We are here for you.