While feeding our kids and getting them off to school, my wife, Elena, and I turned on Good Morning America for coverage of Colin Firth—and all we got was endless “exclusive” hype around the recently fired and self-proclaimed sober Charlie Sheen, looking red-faced and half-dead while spewing insanity about being an old-fashioned guy who believes in honor and chivalry.
“This just isn’t right,” my wife, an admitted reality-TV fan, said, turning off the set. “They’re taking advantage of his addiction.”
I went about my business today, but the words stuck with me. When I went to check out the headlines on the Web, I couldn’t find much of anything about Mark Wahlberg—a recovering addict who helped Christian Bale win an Oscar for his performance in The Fighter as a real-life addict gone straight. What I found was more Charlie Sheen, who apparently did an impromptu interview with TMZ in his backyard this afternoon.
Same with Libya coverage: buried in the papers and online, but there’s Sheen, front and center. Title X legislation and Planned Parenthood’s funding? Sheen. Wisconsin? Sheen.
Up until now, I had really been trying to ignore the whole Sheen debacle as stupid, sad, and irrelevant to my daily life. Why is Charlie Sheen news? Because he blew a $2-million-per-episode deal with CBS for crack and hookers? Because he’s willing to speak as outrageously as Tiger might have if he’d been fed a truth serum?
Or is it because Sheen is the poster boy for a certain type of American manhood? In his overactive id, do we see our own? Do we watch his downward spiral and think, “Hell, I could be that guy—but just for a day”?
Is Charlie Sheen the addict, or are we addicted to Charlie Sheen?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a sick bastard, an addict myself, and not beyond being obsessed with the Sheen mystique. For many years my favorite scene in all of cinema featured an underwear-clad Martin Sheen, Charlie’s dad, in Apocalypse Now, cutting himself and crying like a baby in a Saigon hotel. Even better than that was an interview with Martin Sheen in Heart of Darkness, which is about the making of the film. In it, Martin admits to being so drunk that he couldn’t stand up, and that he eventually took so many drugs during shooting that he had a heart attack and had to be medivacked out. The filming of his scenes was put off until he could get better.
To me that was the ultimate in cool. Kind of like the bar stool at NYC’s White Horse Tavern, a favorite spot of John Belushi’s and, even more famously, where poet Dylan Thomas drank himself to death. I drank there, too, just to be part of addict history. Sheen (Martin), Thomas, and Belushi were the kind of men I aspired to become.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t. I helped myself. I got sober (if you really want to know the gory details of all that, you can read it here). I refused to become yet another addict train wreck. My kids, my parents, and my life were too precious. As was my manhood.
So coming at this Charlie Sheen thing from the other side, it upsets me greatly that we as a culture have adopted this guy as our national obsession. It’s a sad story, but one not unlike any number of drunks and cokeheads before him. I have worked with many men who are trying to get and stay sober. The stuff Charlie has done is nothing out of the ordinary. He’s a garden-variety addict with a big-ass wallet, to make matters a lot worse.
All addicts lie. They will sell their mother for a hit. They will do enormously stupid things to cover their lies. And in regard to sex, personal property, and willingness to engage in criminal behavior, whatever morality they might have when sober goes out the window when intoxicated.
What upsets me so much about waking up to watch Charlie rant and rave? The man is in desperate need of help, and we as a country are getting off on watching him flounder. I have a sneaking suspicion that it has to do with how Charlie fits into the long line of male celebrities and politicians gone bad (Tiger, Spitzer, Edwards … do I need to go on?).
Yes, we love to follow the ins and outs of insane female celebrities as they ruin their lives, too. But it goes from the cover of the tabloids to the (supposedly) serious news networks when a guy screws up. We eat it up.
My question is, why? Do we all want to believe that guys are that bad? Is our view of masculinity so skewed that we would prefer to talk about Charlie Sheen than Colin Firth, Mark Wahlberg, or Christian Bale? Are the good guys “boring” while the bad boys dial up the ratings, feeding the beast of popular culture?
I learned a long time ago that with addiction, the first step is to realize that the urge to do something is not the same as doing it. And so I kindly ask of men and women alike: change the channel. Read a book. Find out about guys volunteering. (Or if nothing else works, read this site.) Not all men are Charlie Sheen, as much as we seem to think they are.