Robert Downey Jr. is a superhero in the movies and in real life. He went from having a long-term drug addiction and alcoholism to being an Avenger on the movie screen.

Addiction has been classified as a disease by the American Medical Association (AMA) since 1987 and is defined as a chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). Like most diseases, addiction doesn’t discriminate. Developing an addiction, also known as a substance use disorder, can happen to anyone. It can affect young people, older people, wealthy people, poor people — almost any demographic. 

Addiction is often highlighted when it affects someone wealthy and famous: celebrities. Although some people may forget that celebrities are people too, actors, singers and athletes can experience living with addiction as well. The only difference between their addiction and the rest of the general population is that more people may know about it. 

One of the most popular superhero franchises, “The Avengers”, features a hero on- and off-screen. Robert Downey Jr., who plays the iconic character Iron Man, has had a life-long battle with drug addiction and alcohol that began as early as six-years-old. Downey Jr.’s father, Robert Downey Sr., was the person who first gave him marijuana to try. 

Downey Jr. said in a 1988 book, “The New Breed” that, “There was always a lot of pot and coke around. 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.” Before Downey Jr. was a teenager, he would go on to experiment with marijuanaalcohol and illicit drugs.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Villain: Drug Addiction & Alcoholism

In 1995, Downey Jr. found himself in a vicious cycle of going from rehab, to set and then going on a binge of drugs and alcohol. Fellow actor and friend, Sean Penn drove Downey Jr. to a treatment center in an attempt to help his friend get treatment, but Downey Jr. broke out of the facility a few days later. In 1996, Downey Jr. was arrested for various crimes like speeding, driving under the influence and possession of drugs and firearms. 

During this time, he was once found unconscious and unresponsive by his neighbor and had to be resuscitated at USC medical center. The next day, he was court-ordered to attend a 24-hour drug rehabilitation program but escaped the facility and hitchhiked home. Four hours later, he was caught by the police and put in jail for nine days. Between 1997 and 2003, Downey Jr. was in and out of court and prison. 

In 2003, with the help of friends like Mel Gibson and his future wife, Susan Levin, Downey Jr. was able to maintain sobriety and start working again.

From Drug Addiction & Alcoholism to Avenger

In 2008, Downey Jr. played the role of Iron Man in the first Marvel comics movie that introduced the world to what’s now known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Downey Jr. has been sober for almost 16 years and attributes his recovery to his wife, Susan, kung fu and continuing to work the 12-step program. 

“Job one is to get out of that cave,” Downey Jr. told Vanity Fair in 2014, “A lot of people do get out but don’t change.” Robert Downey Jr. isn’t just a hero on screen, he’s a hero off-screen for many people with substance use disorders. He isn’t afraid to talk about his addiction, which has helped to de-stigmatize addiction and encourages conversations about getting help. 

Living with an addiction is difficult and may make someone with a substance use disorder think they’re alone. Maybe after recognizing that their favorite celebrity has struggled with addiction as well, they can start to understand that many people share their struggles. It’s important for celebrities and public figures to share their stories because it demonstrates a shared experience and can help encourage people with substance use disorder to seek treatment. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder, help is available. At The Recovery Village, a team of professionals will talk to you about your needs and a treatment program that could best work to address your substance use and any underlying co-occurring disorders.

Jennifer Kopf
Editor – Jennifer Kopf
Jennifer Kopf is a Florida-based writer who likes to balance creative writing with helpful and informative pieces. Her passion for helping people has translated into writing about the importance of treatment for substance use and mental health disorders. Read more
Sources “Definition of Addiction.” April 12, 2011. Accessed April 22, 2019.

Bettinardi-Angres, Kathy and Angres, Daniel H.  “Understanding the Disease of Addiction” Accessed April 22, 2019. “Robert Downey Jr. Speaks About His Addictions” October, 2014. Accessed April 22, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.