In the contest for "America's Most Prominent Public Mess" (recent previous title holders: Whitney Houston, Lindsay Lohan, Robert Downey Jr., Tara Reid), it's clear we have a new winner: Charlie Sheen.
Sheen's problems are, as they say, "legendary", which mostly means tales of his partying ways have been with us pretty much since he arrived as a public celebrity, in his late teens. Booze! Drugs! Prostitutes! Pornstars! It's no wonder, really, that Sheen's exploits have been tabloid fodder for so long and in such detail.
It's hard to say what changed of late - though the sheer length of time is itself probably a good reason - but sometime in the past year, pick your point, the story of Charlie Sheen and his messy exploits went from comedy to tragedy... though it's taking a while for the media and the public to catch up.
Certainly, a string of arrests for drug possession and erratic behavior are part of it, as is the fact that Sheen's been enjoying a modest comeback as the star of Two and a Half Men, which benefits considerably from Sheen's droll delivery of outrageous, party hearty mindset as dialogue.
But I'm sort of less fascinated about the spectacularly public nature of Sheen's meltdown as I am with the way people are watching it, because I think the misture of humor and revulsion that's driven the story much of the way thus far is a good indication of the problems we have as a nation, socially and culturally, of dealing with addiction issues.
If that sounds terribly serious for such a frivolous story... well, there's the problem in the nutshell.
It's well past the point to face the reality that Sheen's personal problems aren't funny. Friends, family and his employers have all gone public with their concerns that he has a considerable substance abuse problem and needs treatment. His most recent collapse in Los Angeles led to revelations by one of his companions, an adult film actress, of his disturbed behavior and the large quantities of cocaine and other drugs present in his home. His TV show was put on hiatus so Sheen could get treatment. Sheen now claims to be just fine, and this past week lashed out at CBS and his show's producers, saying he was fine and ready to work.
Almost all of the preceeding paragraph has been presented as hilarious, and given to the public largely as entertainment.
I've been thinking about this topic for weeks; those who know me well can guess as to why this might resonate more with me than most stories. But what got me off the dime to finally write this down was this post from Melissa McEwan, in its entirety:
I'm not inclined to give unsolicited advice, but I'm going to make an exception just this once.
Charlie Sheen: Take a nap.
Shhhhhhhhhh. It's sleepytime now.
Charlie Sheen doesn't need "a nap." He needs treatment for a significant substance abuse problem. It's cute, and cheeky, to see his trials and travails as a public meltdown happening in front of us, for our amusement. But it's that failure to take addiction seriously - as we do most issues around mental health - that's helped make it harder for addicts to get access to treatment and for family, friends, employers and coworkers to find the support they need to help someone they care about. It's a ghastly, ghoulish aspect of American culture that so much of our need to be entertained is satiated by gawking at the antics of the intoxicated. It's not new, it's not healthy, and it's not helping Charlie Sheen. And maybe we won't figure that out until he's dead. But even if that happens, I'm pretty sure we'll just keep staring, wondering, in our sweet faux-naive way, how this could have happened. Because drug addiction leading to overdose is so unexpected... and so funny.