Astronaut Buzz Aldrin has seen and done a lot in his 88 years on Earth — and in outer space.
Most notably, he was the second man to walk on the moon, right behind Neil Armstrong in 1969. Prior to this historic event, he became an Air Force command pilot after graduating third in his class from the U.S. Military Academy in 1951. He flew 66 combat missions during the Korean War and shot down two MiG jets in Seoul. He earned a Ph.D. from MIT in 1963. He’s been married three times. He’s written numerous books, two of which recount his struggles with clinical depression and alcoholism after retiring from NASA.
Perhaps some of his greatest accomplishments include winning his battle with depression and securing 40 years of sobriety. Those are some big hurdles for anyone to overcome, even for our beloved heroes. No one is immune to depression or alcoholism. Aldrin has been very open about his struggles over the years.
In a 2016 interview with National Geographic, Aldrin talked about his abrupt rise to fame along with his family history of depression and suicide. His mother overdosed and died in 1968 before the historic moon landing.
“When I returned from the moon I became a celebrity, a hero, with ticker tape parades and speeches,’’ Aldrin told National Geographic. “But that’s not really what I looked for or desired. My mother had been unsettled by my celebrity status after my first space flight with Gemini 12 a few years earlier. And my older sister and I both came to the conclusion that perhaps that, along with other things, caused her to take her life. Her father, my grandfather, had also committed suicide, and my uncle had daughters who had committed suicide.”
It’s easy to feel doomed if you know mental illness and alcoholism run in the family. But if you’re drinking to combat depression, you’re in a losing battle. As he’s said, “You can’t straighten out something in your own head unless you have a clear mind.”
It’s a chicken-or-egg scenario that involves distinguishing whether alcohol problems cause depression or depression is the cause of problem drinking. Most likely the two are intertwined. Psychologists, therefore, have a tough time differentiating the two as separate disorders.
“While alcoholism may exist independently alongside depression, problematic alcohol consumption can contribute to or result from depression,” explains Recovery Centers of America.
Family history aside, Aldrin stopped drinking in 1978 (with the help of his second wife) and has been sober since. He’s consistently said that before dealing with whatever problems are ailing you, you have to become sober first. After that, it comes down to counseling and dealing with daily demons. Aldrin says he still sees a therapist.
He told AARP in a 2015 interview that he really started feeling depressed after getting an unwanted assignment in the Air Force after his days with NASA. He also describes why he turned to alcohol in his 2009 book Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home From The Moon:
“Worse still, when I left NASA and the Air Force I had no more structure in my life. For the first time in more than 40 years I had no one to tell me what to do, no one sending me on a mission, giving me challenging work assignments to be completed. Ironically, rather than feeling an exuberant sense of freedom, an elation that I was no free to explore on my owns, I felt isolated, alone and uncertain.”
Overcoming depression and alcoholism are some of life’s biggest challenges but also the most rewarding. Walking on the moon is a huge, life-changing experience, but so is the ability to get and stay sober as long as Aldrin has. Keep fighting the good fight, Buzz Aldrin.