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.
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.