A Lesson in Boundaries from Charlie Sheen

A lot’s been written lately about Charlie Sheen and his bizarre, bitter ranting (check out my friend Chris Wells’ great article about it on AOL News), and the news that he’s about to embark on a 21-day live tour that will net him $7 million made me sad for him. Someone (CBS) finally stood up to him and said, “Your behavior is unacceptable,” yet others have rushed in to laud and applaud him, enabling his violent, delusional conduct.

There’s a great saying in Twelve Step circles: You hit bottom when you stop digging. Charlie Sheen has no incentive to stop digging. Every time he does something stupid, immoral, or illegal, his money and fame come to the rescue.

Lost your wife because you held a knife to her throat? No problem, get a couple of porn stars to move in with you. Lost your lucrative day job because you refused to get real help for your drug problem and then very publicly insulted your boss? So what? Sue CBS, and launch a lucrative live tour.


In an article titled, “Children Want Boundaries,” Jim Cunningham writes about how parents’ inability to set boundaries for their children creates “anxiety, insecurity, and rebellion,” all of which seem to apply to Charlie Sheen’s recent behavior.

Cunningham writes:

A study was once performed of school age children antics on the playground. When the recess bell sounded they flooded the playground. They lined the fences and laughed and played. Then the fences that lined the playground were removed. The change was remarkable. The next morning the children huddled to the middle of the playground. They were anxious and insecure. They did not roam and play as normal. Then, the fences were put back in place. Do you want to guess what happened? The next day they were all over the playground again, happy and secure.

The study reinforced the need for boundaries. Children want boundaries. Children are begging for boundaries. They do not want a world without limits. When they are about to step over a line, they want you to stop them. When they are pushing for too much, they expect you as a parent to step up. They do not want your friendship more than they want your direction. Why do parents miss this? Because of the way children verbalize it.

Your child wants to know the fence line. They want to know where the “do not trespass” signs are located. How do they ask? By pushing the limits until you say stop. They will go as far as you will let them—expecting that in fact there is a limit. Here is the problem: parents too often see it as rebellion rather than an act for clarification. Your child will scream, fuss, threaten, and cry when they see the fence line. They will tell you everything they think of to shock you. But deep down inside, almost unexplainable, they are begging you not to give in—to take your stand and stick to it.

Even my little three-week-old son rebels against the constraints he actually craves. Whenever I go to swaddle him, he flails around like a banshee, crying, seeming to insist that he’d be happier if I just let his arms and legs fly free. However, once he’s swaddled, he quickly settles into a deep and restorative sleep. Without swaddling, his inability to control his arms and legs means he’s awake and cranky for hours.

Addicts, I think, also secretly want boundaries. We want someone else to stop us from self-destructing, because we find that we’re incapable of taking the steps necessary to stop ourselves.


Charlie Sheen is an addict. Although he denies it now, in the past he’s been quite open about his struggles with alcohol and drugs. In fact, his IMDB page includes a number of quotes in which he discusses his substance abuse problems, including two that highlight the anxiety and insecurity that lie beneath his addictive behaviors:

  • “I’d be drinking away, doing blow [cocaine], popping pills, and telling myself I wasn’t an addict, because there wasn’t a needle stuck in my arm. Talk about mixing up fantasy and reality! My true addiction was alcohol. The extra toxic boosters just helped me shore up the wall between my celebrity self and my real self. The questions I was running from were: ‘Is this success all a fluke? Had I been fooling everybody so far? Will I get caught?’ It was easy to get hammered and messed up. But in doing so, I buried my self-respect, I buried my self-esteem, I buried my creative drive, and I damned near buried myself.”
  • “Fame is a fickle mistress. It’s very deceiving. It looks really bitchin’ from the outside, and then you get it and it’s very confusing professionally, socially, emotionally. It’s confusing because you’re so worried about how you’re perceived. A lot of my exploits were guilt-driven, shame-driven. I would hang out with the lower- class individual and try to give away as much as possible, because on some level I felt like I hadn’t really earned all I had, and when was everyone going to find out? When would the curtain be yanked back?

The Twelve Steps are generally helpful for addicts because they provide clear boundaries. They also give people the tools to deal with feelings of inadequacy such as those experienced by Sheen so they don’t have to harm themselves in an effort to escape their emotions.

A Twelve Step sponsor, in fact, is a lot like a surrogate parent. A sponsor is required to take a stand, to set the boundaries for another person’s behavior, and to enforce consequences if a sponsee decides to not respect those limits.

It’s hard to be a sponsor, a parent, or in love with someone who struggles with addiction or mental illness*. We all like to be liked. We all want our loved ones to be happy. And sometimes, telling someone the hard truth about his behavior makes him angry or upset.

This is certainly the case for Charlie Sheen. In the great tradition of addicts around the world, Charlie is always right, and his problems are always somebody else’s fault.

The women who’ve accused him of violence and abuse? Liars, golddiggers, trolls. The man who fired him after his repeated run-ins with the law? A contaminated little maggot. Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous? A broken-down fool.

For most of us, antics like Sheen’s would quickly cost us our livelihood, our families, and our friends. For Sheen, though, fame—that fickle mistress—has allowed him to surround himself with people who aren’t really looking out for his best interests. People who have no incentive to call him on his bad behavior. People who can profit off his notoriety, his drug use, his meltdown.

The organizer of his upcoming tour, for instance, might claim that in helping Sheen make $7 M, he’s doing something good for Charlie. Really, though, Charlie Sheen has more than enough money already. The organizer isn’t doing Sheen a favor; he’s looking to make a quick buck for himself.

As Sheen himself has acknowledged in the past, celebrity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. His fame and fortune have given this man the means to surround himself with users who’ll let him push all the boundaries. As a result, sadly, he may not hit bottom until he’s in a hole in the ground.

But for the grace of God, there go I.

* The hardest thing I ever had to do was tell my psychotic husband that unless he checked himself into the mental hospital, I wouldn’t let him come home. It was a horrible thing to have to say to him, but being clear about what I would and wouldn’t tolerate in our marriage actually helped him. He did sign himself into the hospital and recovered from his psychotic episode. Although he was angry with me at the time, in retrospect, he’s grateful that I didn’t allow him to continue his downward spiral into the depths of his mental illness.


7 Responses to A Lesson in Boundaries from Charlie Sheen

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Great post!

    The whole Charlie Sheen story has really stirred my emotions… he is just like my addict brother. Just like him. Witty & intelligent but also an addict with no boundaries who thinks he is “special.”

    • Thanks, Elizabeth — the whole thing has definitely touched me, too. There’s a great quote in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that states: “However intelligent we may have been in other respects, where alcohol has been involved, we have been strangely insane.” It’s really sad to see people like Sheen and your brother succumb to the disease of addiction when they have so much to offer the world.

      Sheen’s abject denial that he has a problem reminds me so much of myself during the few months in 1999 after I’d found my Twelve Step program but decided it was too hard and I could beat my food addiction on my own. I told everyone and sundry how restrictive the program was, how I didn’t need it, how I was fine, thank you very much. On the surface, I was out to convince them that my decision to leave the program was the right one, but I was really trying to convince myself. (Thank God I wasn’t successful in talking myself out of my need for the Twelve Steps, and I came crawling back to the program after a horrendous five months of bingeing and purging and gaining twenty pounds.)

      What’s funny is that most people could tell I was still struggling—just like we can all tell that something’s not right with Charlie Sheen. In my experience, the only person an addict fools is him- or herself. That’s why I think it’s so important to surround ourselves with people who truly do have our best interests at heart, and who aren’t afraid to call us out if we start behaving badly.

  2. Chaz says:

    Wow Heather, you’ve said much here.

    I agree that without boundaries for safety and restraint, we can end up anywhere. And somewhere in most of us, there is a desire for such boundaries.

    Massive wealth and fame remove many of these boundaries. Such wealth and fame buffer us from the typical consequences of normal boundaries because people give way to us. Or we can pay our way out of our scrapes.

    Look at Tiger Woods as a great example. Perhaps the most recognizable human on the planet and by far, the best paid athelete. All by what, age 30? And his mentor and guide, his father, deceased.

    Leaves me to ask as I did in a post some weeks ago, The advantage to “privilige” is what?

    Are wealth and fame really privilge at all? To as a blunt followup question, does any other place on earth have more assholes per square mile than hollywood? Not hollywood geographically, but referencing the entertainment elite including sports figures.

    Yes, there are many who handle their wealth and fame well. But many do not. Nor do many wealthy elite.

    Boundaries keep us safe even from ourselves. Even from our own self-destruction as all of us steppers have learned.

    Although free of required absolutes, 12 step teaching offers many SUGGESTED boundaries. Suggestions, in fact, I have learned are far more powerful than requirements for evoking change. Suggestions require more of the active ingredient, willingness.

    In my experience, the dose of willingness needed to carry out a suggestion requires infitely more buy-in on behalf of the person acting on the suggestion. Carrying out a suggestion yields far greater personal growth. It is a far better work out. It is in fact, the fast-track to change.

    I am meandering here a bit, but my point is that any of us who are truly ready for 12-step recovery show up without restraint or boundaries of any healhty degree. If someone at that point required boundaries, our f’d up selves would probably tell them to get stuffed. Yet, those boundaries that something deep in us longs for are offered to us by way of suggestion. So we take what little volition we have (hopefully), apply it to the suggestion and follow through, and wham! Life actually gets a little better and we actually feel a little safer and like we have some kind of track to run on. I remember the deep relief when I discovered my track to run on as I started taking suggestions and following through.

    In Charlie’s circumstances, it appears that he is actually reinforced with attention and money to be as boundariless as he is. So what could possibly bring about change? Who knows.

    It is a sad state of affairs indeed.

    For me, such tragedies keep me grateful that I am a person of average means who is kept in check by conventional, common boundaries. And I know that consequences await should I stray too far. Good consequences that I can’t buy my way or con my way past.



    • Thanks so much for your comment, Chaz. You are so right about suggested boundaries vs. required ones. It’s much more effective when WE decide what our own limits are. And, yes, conventional, common boundaries work for me, too!

  3. Monica says:

    Why exactly does a rich individual like Charlie Sheen need boundaries? The only reason for people not to break the rules is that they’ll get in trouble. Those who are rich enough to buy their way out of trouble are just free. Unfortunately, most people can’t even have the freedom not to work, let alone do whatever they want, but those who can afford it are very lucky. So what if there is a health risk as well? A life of partying could be worth it, even if premature death ensues. Mind you, most working people hardly live for themselves at all because their time is not their own. If I had to choose between my entire lifespan and living just 20 years as an adult above the age of majority who is free and does not need to work, I would have chosen the 20 years. After deducting work, education, getting ready to go to work or school and sleeping, not to speak of the lower quality of the remaining time (lower because I was, or will be, tired and/or older), I’m not better off because I got to live longer (I’m 40). I lived and shall live biologically, but my own time is not mine. Those who are free and choose risky activities must be happier and it’s worth the risk.

    • Thanks for your comment, Monica. And, yeah, if you’re happy and not hurting anybody, then party away.

      What I find sad about Sheen’s case, though, is that he’s clearly NOT happy. Look at his comments in my post about how drinking and drugs cost him his self-respect and self-esteem, and how he walked around feeling like a fraud all the time. That doesn’t sound like someone who gets joy out of partying — it sounds like someone who is desperately trying to run away from negative feelings… an not succeeding very well.

      Then there’s the fact that this guy DOES hurt people. Holding a knife to his ex-wife’s throat is just one example of his violent tendencies. Personally, I don’t think anyone should get a free pass for such hurtful behavior just because he or she is wealthy and famous.

      So my post really isn’t about his health. It’s about his own admission that drugs and alcohol DON’T provide him what he needs to live a life of integrity.

    • Gabriel... says:

      Charlie’s time isn’t his own, he has kids and people who depend on him, like family. He has the responsibilities of an adult, but was blocked from entering adulthood by drugs, alcohol, an obvious addiction to sex and at least one mental illness. His “lifestyle” was hardly a choice based on reason and critical thinking.

      Charlie got drunk thirty-years ago and stayed that way until someone slapped him in the head and told him to smarten the fuck up. He might continue to live like an adolescent with no parental controls, but the events of this past spring sure gave him pause to think a little.

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