Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Sheen of Compassion

At this point more than enough has been said by and about Charlie Sheen to insure that not even Howard Stern would be able to testify for him in a child custody case and keep a straight face.

But what about Martin and Janet Sheen and their other less infamous sons? Watching the drama of Charlie Sheen's implosion began as simple celebrity addiction gone bad nonsense. Nothing particularly earth shattering-an other worldly size flameout but he didn't appear to be covering any new ground here. But then we started to hear about the warlocks, and "winning", and lest I forget to mention them, "the goddesses". Also known as porn stars and willing participants in the circus that is currently on tour in Southern California.

One part Scientology, one part Anthony Robbins infomercial, and three parts Jimmy Swaggart. It's no longer about addiction and arrogance for me. It's about Martin and Janet and what I imagine has been the road to hell and back they have traveled countless times in the hope that they might be able to help Charlie before he finally does that something that can't be repaired. That something may be his death, or worse the death of an innocent bystander.

I believe the Sheen's have thought about what they will do when that call comes in the middle of the night. How they will handle the deluge of press feeding on their sorrow and shame. How they will handle the guilt they feel at being grateful he is no longer suffering, and no longer torturing everyone around him. What's different for the Sheen family is that they will have to do it all in the very public eye of an American society obsessed with celebrity-but ignorant of the reality that is mental illness.

Everyone, yes every single person in the United States, knows someone with a major mental illness. But unlike cancer, we don't talk about it at church, or work or the PTA for fear of being judged, shunned, misunderstood. Mental illness, specifically, bipolar disorder, affects 10 million Americans and the very nature of the disease prevents long lasting effective therapies. The highs can be intoxicating and the medications can be devastating, numbing, and leave the patient longing to feel "normal" again. These patients take themselves on and off medications frequently, and are at a higher risk for suicide then patients with other mental health diagnoses.

But here is the kicker-those 10 million Americans have families-just like the Sheens-families that struggle to get them to see a psychiatrist or stay on their meds, or go to AA. Families that watch them lose jobs, marriages, children, and have to decide when is enough enough? So what of Janet, the woman who held him and kissed his wee little toes, change his diapers and dreamed for him to grow big and strong and healthy? What of Martin, the man who watched Charlie become a fine young actor and then self immoliate while all he could do is watch and pray? How many times have Charlie's brothers lost the attention of their parents to his behavior, illness and addiction? How many family dinners have been ruined by manic attention seeking behavior and sibling rivalry at the boiling point after years of abuse and neglect by a brother they simultaneously love and abhor?

Charlie Sheen may never be able to save himself and his family may never be able to either, but rather than a constant stream of gossip and useless twitter feeds we could use the downward spiral of his life as a springboard to a conversation about mental illness and family and mental healthcare in the United States.

A conversation like that would be worth writing about and might actually change something other than the channel.

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