Sunday, March 13, 2011

Charlie Sheen: Tiger blood and Adonis DNA

My friend Jennifer posted on her blog a thoughtful critique of the seemingly cavalier attitude many people have about watching what she perceives as the self-destruction of Charlie Sheen. I started writing a comment to that post, but as it grew far longer than is appropriate for a comment to a blog post, I decided to put it here instead, even though it has nothing to do with poker.


I understand your perspective, and I'm not totally unsympathetic to it.


I don't think that even the broad, generic diagnosis of "illness" is certain here. I'm not wearing rose-colored glasses. What I see in that clip (which I had not seen before) and what I’ve heard in other snippets in news media is absolutely consistent with the manic phase of a bipolar disorder, among other possible diagnoses. If he were to get put on lithium, calm down, look back at the record he left this month, and say, “Wow, I was SO out of it,” well, that wouldn’t surprise me.

I don’t go as far as Thomas Szasz and say (in essence) that there is no such thing as mental illness. But I definitely think that there is a lot of gray between the white of “normal” and the black of “mentally ill,” and within the gray zone I’m not sure how to label things.

As I’m sure you know, there is a long history of association between bizarre personalities and amazing creativity. From what I can tell from other sources, Mozart really was rather as he is portrayed in “Amadeus,” and surely the same uniquely connected network of neurons was ultimately responsible for both his shocking conduct and his unparalleled musical genius. It’s easy to blame Charles Bukowski and Hunter Thompson’s strangeness on drugs, but maybe not. Maybe their quirks were hard-wired in, tightly bound with their literary creativity, and the drugs were either self-medication or just amplifying already-present characteristics.

Vincent Van Gogh. David Foster Wallace. Sylvia Plath. Ernest Hemingway. Charlie Parker. Janis Joplin. Jimi Hendrix. It’s almost trivially easy to reel off a list of people who have had both staggering talent and terrible demons. For them, it may be that the one could not exist without the other.

I remember reading, in Oliver Sacks’s “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” the story of his patient with Tourette’s syndrome. He could squelch the tics and verbal outbursts with antipsychotic medications, but when he did so, he lost his ability to improvise as a professional jazz musician. His melodic creativity and his Tourette’s were inextricably linked.

What I’m getting at is this: Sheen’s recent rants, while far from being immortal prose that will be studied for centuries, display undeniable creativity. He has single-handedly put a couple dozen new, interesting, catchy memes and phrases into the language and culture. (To be sure, there’s a lot of bile mixed in, too.) I don’t think that appreciating such a burst of originality is clearly wrong, in the same way that it would be, say, to gawk or even laugh at somebody self-immolating himself in the town square without trying to stop him or call for help.

Perhaps the most useful criterion for judging how far toward black the gray of startlingly odd conduct—a label that clearly fits the recent Sheen—is becoming is that of function. Is the person able to perform the activities of daily living—food acquisition, preparation, and consumption, maintaining shelter, at least rudimentary personal hygiene, etc.? If not, if he or she is clearly failing in such a way as to be in real danger, then it really doesn’t matter whether the lapse is due to drug usage, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s dementia, depression, or whatever—friends, family, and society in general should intervene. At some point, we have to value preserving life and health over autonomy and leaving each other alone to lead our own lives. The threshold should be high, but it does exist.

I don’t know how Sheen would come out on such a test. It’s certainly true that with enough money you can hide or disguise terrible dysfunction a lot longer. If I reliably knew that he was setting fires in his home and narrowly escaping the resulting carnage, or cutting his wrists, or whatever, then yeah, my ambivalence would turn to sympathy and a wish that he would be given help—involuntarily, if necessary. But I place a high enough value on the liberty of an individual to be himself, even if his behavior is well off the reservation, that I’m not yet ready to declare Sheen at the point of imminent harm where we collectively say “enough” and move to get him help that he doesn’t seem to want.

For now, he appears to be enjoying himself. I’m not convinced it’s wrong to enjoy the ride along with him. I would agree that for those who are persuaded that he is mentally ill and heading rapidly over the waterfall, pointing and laughing at the spectacle is pretty reprehensible. For that reason, I admire the consistency between your analysis that he is, in some way, sick, and your condemnation of those who are looking forward to watching the train run off the tracks. I’m just not sure that that conclusion is correct. For all we know, this could all be an elaborate piece of performance art, like Joaquin Phoenix.

Perhaps he’s in much more immediate danger of serious harm than I think. If it turns out that that is so, I’ll join you in doing the little that I can, which is to turn away and not reward him with yet another audience member. But for now, I’m inclined to sit back and watch (though not much; a little bit of wound-up Sheen goes a long way for me), wonder what’s going on, laugh at the bits I find funny, cringe at some of the rest, and hope that the high-wire act ends well and without irreversible damage. (I suppose you could say that killing his show is already irreversible damage. But I never cared for that show, he doesn’t need the money, and, besides, it is the fate of nearly all TV shows to end somewhere around the seven-year mark anyway, if not long before.) He wants to be a spectacle; in the absence of evidence that he’s really in danger, I don’t feel guilty doing a little spectating.

(A bit of credit: My thinking along these lines was prompted by a thoughtful monologue that Dennis Miller did on his radio show a few days ago.)


Josie said...

I personally feel very badly for him and wonder if all those people he employs, that sit around his dining room table, are they in shades of grey too? No. Shades of greenback is more like it.

You make alot of good insightful points in your post, but this is not one of them:

"For all we know, this could all be an elaborate piece of performance art, like Joaquin Phoenix."

Anyone can watch a clip for 2 minutes and KNOW one is watching a train wreck, not performance art. Rakewell, you KNOW that too.

Jennifer said...

You're correct that I tried to determine prematurely and without medical cause that Sheen has a mental illness. However, I do acknowledge that addiction can be an integral part of what's going on, which could explain the outbursts and regrettable moments on video. Either way, I'm not qualified to make such a diagnosis.

With that said, I do believe that something is terribly wrong. Though there is no quantification for normal, Sheen is disturbed in some way, especially as evidenced by the video I posted.

I have to totally disagree with you on the creativity and performance art angle. A few catchy phrases like "winning" do not constitute genius of any kind. (People that come up with witty hashtags on Twitter are geniuses?) Sheen has already spoken about his "Two and a Half Men" show and how it's acting genius on his part, which should indicate that his idea of humor and brilliant acting is quite different from the scale that most would use. Personally, I believe there's very little creativity and absolutely no art involved in Sheen's life or what's on exhibition right now.

Addicts can appear to be enjoying themselves when on binges. Deranged individuals can seem funny and creative. And to a certain extent, it's okay to take people at face value and not try to analyze them or fix a problem that is not yours/mine to fix. But to laugh at it is another story entirely.

lightning36 said...

As a person who does some mental health counseling and has a background in clinical psychology, I certainly do not find it difficult to understand what is going on here. Sadly, the mixture of celebrity and psychological impairment make for an intoxicating cocktail for the public. There is a reason people have Charlie Sheen, Amy Winehouse, and Lindsay Lohan on their death pool lists. I find no humor or enjoyment in seeing people self destruct.

btw -- I cross-posted this comment on Jennifer's blog.

Wine Guy said...

While I do not enjoy watching anyone self-destruct, the obvious beckons. In this day and age, and especially with the vast sums of money these people have, why is it they don't seek help, nor want it? If Mr Sheen wishes to self- destruct his life, throw away piles of money (he seems not to care about anyway) then so be it. Family and friends have had enough and so called 'professionals" have not as of yet helped.

Through the article I can see the celebrities of the past and can better understand that this was not an understood condition, but today?

if it is a bi-polar issue, and Sheen hasn't wanted to deal with it, then you can't stop that train wreck.

While I don't enjoy watching it, and it doesn't take up my day like so many other people who are watching this mess, my thoughts on it are a little harsher than those already posted.

To me it's just another " I have everything I need in the world, yet it is not enough". If Sheen doesn't want his money, please, let me know and I will gladly take it off of his hands. With so many others scraping by day to day, all the excess these celebrities show and their antics don't have much sympathy for me..Sorry but I have my own issues to worry about rather than watching these spoiled brats destroy their lives..