I promised myself I wouldn’t write about Charlie Sheen, so this article isn’t about him. It’s about us.
It’s about the millions of us who have tuned-in to watch Sheen’s rambling prime-time interviews, the 966,000 who “like” Charlie’s Facebook page and the thousands who have bought tickets to his multi-city “My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not An Option Show.” The allure is clear and age-old: A handsome, famous and ridiculously rich actor from a storied family goes on a coke-fueled bender with porn-star hookers, tells the corporate boss-man to stick-it, brands his two of his three ex-wives “bitches,” and proclaims himself a “high priest Vatican assassin warlock.” For voyeurs who love to see successful folks stumble, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Beyond the garden-variety “hero falls from grace,” storyline though, there’s another dynamic at work. We are fascinated by people who are drunk and/or stoned and behaving badly. Whether it’s Gary Busey on this season’s Apprentice or Janice Dickinson on Celebrity Rehab, we shake our heads, laugh nervously and lament the fact that we – even without all that money, fame, and power – aren’t THAT messed-up. The fascination with addicts goes beyond celebs considering the immense popularity of shows like A&E’s Intervention, Hoarders and the dozens of spin-offs in the making including Relapse, a show detailing treatment failures set to debut later this month.
Peel away the rich and famous veneer and Charlie Sheen is an extreme version of the guy at a party, who an hour into it is making inappropriate comments to female guests, slurring his words and dancing around with a lampshade on his head. We all laugh at that guy, egg him on a bit and feel a bit better about pouring our third Grey Goose. We’re entertained, he’s emboldened. Win-Win.
For those with an addicted family member (and who doesn’t have a few of those?), their drinking, toking or snorting invariably pales in the context of Charlie’s, Lindsay and the Hoff’s bizarre behavior. We no longer feel the same urgency to act, but we tune-in to Intervention for re-assurance and a few tips about how one day to best to trap our loved one in a hotel room before carting them off to rehab.
It doesn’t take a psychology degree to know that Charlie’s got some issues – issues that likely transcend coke and booze. After decades of education and awareness, we’re finally starting to get that making fun of mentally ill folks isn’t cool, which is perhaps why we’ve focused on Sheen as an addict, rather than a guy with a psychiatric condition. Addiction is still fair game, because we don’t view it as a brain disease, but as a series of bad choices, a lack of willpower and a moral failing.
Addiction, of course, is a brain disease. Would we laugh at an autistic child’s struggles? How about a senior suffering with Alzheimer’s? Probably not. We wouldn’t remix their desperate words over pop songs or peddle t-shirts with their confused slogans. We wouldn’t send them onto the stage before a packed house at Radio City and we wouldn’t forward their YouTube videos to all our friends.
The public attention paid to Sheen isn’t good for him, nor for anyone else. Young addicts look at Sheen and are able to say to themselves and others, “at least I’m not that f’ed up.” Sheen’s public potshots at Alcoholics Anonymous embolden treatment-resistant addicts’ beliefs that 12-step programs are thinly disguised cults, when in fact those groups have saved the lives of millions.
As much as Sheen’s rants delight, they also scare the hell out of some people. His soliloquies reinforce the stigma associated with addiction and increase the barriers to care, compassion and recovery. LICADD – the nonprofit organization I run – has been looking for new office space in Nassau. About two-thirds of landlords have declined our offer to rent space once they figure out that our acronym stands for the “Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.” Immediately, they conjure up an image of a hundred Charlie Sheens standing in their lobby ranting and raving as well-healed corporate types tiptoe by. Like it or not, Sheen has become the latest poster child for addiction.
That’s unfortunate because there are so many folks quietly struggling through the horrors and drugs and alcohol and an even greater number of those who have made it through to the other side. Profiling folks who have pulled their lives back together and are experiencing the miracle of recovery doesn’t make for good TV and just doesn’t titillate us in the same way.
During one of his rants, Sheen told the world, “I am on a drug – it’s called Charlie Sheen.” We all are Charlie. We all are.