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   What Charlie Sheen can teach us about substance
abuse, depression, homelessness, and faith


By Gregg DesElms-- This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it



There's more to this CHARLIE SHEEN thing than meets the eye.

It surprised me not when I heard on the TV news Thursday night that Charlie Sheen had gotten himself onto a morning radio program on Thursday and trashed the producer of his stunningly successful "Two and a Half Men" TV sitcom, along with the CBS television network on which it airs, the Warner Brothers studio where it's shot, and pretty much anyone else associated with the management of the series.

Anyone who has followed executive producer Chuck Lorre's career knows that he's the type who would torpedo the show, no matter how profitable, just for the sport of it, after one of his actors had pulled a stunt like that. Heck, Lorre darned near fired actress Kaley Cuocco, who plays "Penny" on his other wildly successful CBS TV sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory," when all she did was accidentally fall off a horse and (very seriously) broke her leg in September of 2010.

It surprised me, then, to learn that the network and the studio decided to stop production only for the rest of the season, leaving what happens after that up to how things work out with Sheen. If I had to bet, though, I'd say it's over... but time will tell.


In his radio interview, Sheen complained, among other things, that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a cult with only a 5% success rate. Reacting to Sheen's words later yesterday, famous psychologist to the stars, Dr. Drew Pinsky, admitted that Sheen was right about AA's low success rate; but added that AA works for those who take the program seriously. 

I've been blessed with not having the gene, or the predisposition, or whatever it is that causes addiction and substance abuse. In fact, though I'm not a teetotaler, I barely even use, much less ABuse; and even then, only a little wine with dinner now and then... maybe a single-malt scotch a half dozen times a year (or less). I'll bet I don't even drink an accumulated six-pack or two of beer per annum. So, I confess that it's difficult for me to completely understand addiction to alcohol, drugs, and other substances.

But in my now several full-time (and many part-time) years' ministry of agency and advocacy to/for the homeless, disabled vets, the elderly, the prostituted, the working poor, recent parolees and others similarly in need, I've obviously learned a thing or two about not only addiction and substance abuse, but poverty, sexual exploitation and trafficking, family violence and domestic abuse, and seemingly no end of life's dark side. I don't know if I'm an expert on any of these issues, but just as a stopped (analog) clock is right at least twice a day, I occasionally make an insightful observation or two, every now and then.

And so, I think I can speak, with at least some degree of espertise, to both Sheen's and Dr. Pinsky's remarks about AA. Pinsky, in saying that AA works for those who take it seriously as a seeming counter to Sheen's pointing out its pitiful success rate, makes what borders, under the circumstances, on a strawman argument. To assess AA's success from only among those who take it seriously is meaningless. No proper study would so skew things. The bottom line is that from among all who try it, AA has a godawful success rate.

And at least part of the reason for that is the very thing that Sheen suggests: That it's cult-like. Oh, I realize that that's heresy to those who swear by AA; however, in a way, that any criticism of AA could even be considered "heresy" in the first place is kinda' the point. In a sense, it's about world view... a term so cherished by the socio-politically and theologically right winged when they talk with such fervor about the need in society for a "Christian World View."

I'm a Christian... albeit a very liberal/progressive one. Mine is as deep and an abiding faith as any on the right. I confess, in fact, as I have matured, to a palpable ache to know God; and my ever-failing quest to be more Christ-like occupies -- even if only in the background -- nearly my every waking moment.

So I applaud the faith-based groups out there that make it their mission to help those who need it. However, those who need that kind of help should not have to profess their faith to a living God, be born again, speak in tongues, be compelled to participate in prayer and bible study, be forced to jump around to happy-clappy praise music, or do anything else to evidence their having been saved -- or even believe -- in order to avail themselves of such help. They should also not be chastised (as so many of them typically are) for exercising their right to those desperately needed services, sans all the religiosity.

AA is faith based. Anyone who claims it's not is deluding himself/herself; or is just flat-out intending to mislead. AA is unmistakably Christian and, perhaps from the viewpoint of the likes of Charlie Sheen, very cult-like, indeed, because of it.

So Pinsky should have included that Sheen's right about that, too.

When I finally get opened my center -- hopefully in Vallejo; and hopefully where those whom I earlier herein listed that my ministry helps may obtain whatever services they need, all under one roof) -- it, too, will be faith based. There will likely be staff and volunteers walking around all over the place wearing clerical collars, and/or with crosses around their necks... or both. But none of those who seek help there will be forced to even talk to any of them, or to engage in any sort of Chritian counseling, or Bible study, or anything of that nature. Instead, they'll be told, just one time, during intake, where the chapel is, and where to find the schedule of services and whatever other religious things going on; and then it'll not be mentioned to them ever again... well... you know... unless they bring it up, of course. But even then, there'll be no bible-thumping hard-sell. I just won't have it!

Moreover, Christianity will be but one of the faith practices served. My sensibilities are nothing if not ecumenical and interfaith. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Jains, Baha'i, Sikhs, Confucists, Taoists, Native American spiritualists, Wiccans, Zorastrians... heck even secular humanists (typically atheists, or sometimes agnostics) will all feel comfortable. They'll all find books and other materials they like in our library, sacred spaces in which to practice (or not) their faiths (or not), and professionals to speak with who are trained in their faiths (or lack thereof). Nothing will be shoved down their throats. Nothing. Our so-called "great commission" will simply be to live by the Golden Rule first, and witness to our faith only thereafter, and only if invited.

Nearly no (or at least darned few) other faith-based helping organizations in the entire nation -- including those in Vallejo -- do things that way. Their "Great Commission" is as found in Matthew 28:16-20, which they interpret commands them, among other things to: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you."

And so they impose their faith and its practices on their clients; or, worse, make said faith a condition of the receipt of their desperately-needed services.

But that's not how it should be. It's, in fact, shameful... an abomination, to use a time-worn phrase so often used by the religious right (since time immemorial to chastise homosexuality, and most recently to decry same sex marriage), of its own kind. Services to the poor and others similarly in need should be delivered in a secular manner, even if the deliverer is doing it as his or her way of trying to be more Christ-like.

People of faith tend not to mind AA's underlying Christian sensibilities, and that's fine. But I have observed no shortage of folks like Charlie Sheen nearly always failing at AA... in part because of it's almost-cult-like Christianity, just as Sheen cites.

Gratefully, there are other approaches... some of which have far greater success rates than AA, and none of which are faith based. I've researched them all, and my center, when it's finally built and running, will offer them all, as well as AA, so that our clients will have a real choice. They're not used to having choices, you see... so I'm betting they'll find it, among the many things we offer, refreshing.

Of course, even that paradigm would not help the likes of Charlie Sheen until and unless his larger mental health issues -- which I only suspected until I read a transcript of his Thursday morning radio interview -- are first resolved.

Anyone who's trained at helping those with substance abuse and addiction problems would recognize Sheen's words on that radio program as bordering on clinically schizophrenic... certainly manic (bi-polar), at the very least. He is the very definition of "dual diagnosis," a term which the alcohol treatment industry began using some years back after a New England Journal of Medicine article described a study which found that both pre- and post-menopausal women substance abusers who suffered from depression could not, to save their lives, benefit from addiction and substance abuse treatment (such as AA) until and unless their underlying depression was first dealt with. The minute they got their depression under control, treatment programs like AA suddenly started to work for them. Such persons have, ever since, been called "dual diagnosis" patients (their addiction and substance abuse being one diagnosis, and their underlying depression being the other).

People keep talking about Sheen's substance abuse, and all the acting-out which is a consequence thereof. However, his depression-related issues are, clearly, no small thing... and it's a temptation for even me to be a little bit surprised that, with all his (and his father's) money, no one seems to be treating it.

Of course, I'm sure someone is... but that it's just not working. That is, no doubt, why we have seen Charlie's father, actor Martin Sheen, standing before the press, fighting back tears, publicly lamenting his son's problems. Sheen the elder has, no doubt, stood by and watched, helplessly, as his otherwise talented -- even gifted -- son has repeated the seemingly endless cycle of being okay while on his meds, and so, then, positively responding to substance abuse treatment; but then, feeling like he no longer needs said meds, stopping them, and then plunging headlong, once again, into self-destructive and even life-threatening substance abuse episodes. Over, and over, and over again. This, no doubt, is the painful source of Martin Sheen's heartbreak.

One of the things that the Internet brings us with regard to newspaper articles, which did not exist prior to the creation of the Internet's "Worldwide Web" component in 1994, is the ability of readers to comment beneath the articles on newspaper web sites. In my reading of literally hundreds of articles about the homeless on newspaper web sites across the nation, I have also read no end of hateful and hurtful vitriol aimed at the homeless in reader comments beneath. Right here in Vallejo, it's virtually impossible for an article to so much as mention the homeless without is triggering awful postings about them in the comments beneath. Part of the conventional wisdom of many of those who post is the classic belief that the homeless are just lazy, and should suck it up and get a job.

However, those posters view the homeless through the lens of persons who are empowered; those who get up every day knowing what their day is going to be like, and how they're going to navigate about it. Such as they know where their next meal is coming from, how they're going to resolve whatever are their issues, when will arrive in their bank accounts their next auto-deposted paychecks, and where they will lay their heads at night.

They cannot, then, for the life of them, understand why at least the chronically homeless (which actually make-up only about 10% of all homeless persons; yet which number still amounts to some nearly one million persons, nationwide) can't, as they say, just "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps."

Every time I read such comments I first shake my head in disbelief at their ignorance; and then I wish there were some way that I could help them to understand that what Charlie Sheen is experiencing is precisely what many who are chronically homeless experience. Sheen can't kick it even with his and his father's millions, and all the concomitant resources which naturally attend that kind of money and clout. Is it any surprise, then, that the homeless guy who sleeps under the bridge, who has but forty cents in the only pocket of his tattered trowsers which doesn't have a hole in it, and who hasn't showered in two months, can't kick it, either?

In terms of the fundamentals of that which so vexes them, there is precious little difference between Sheen and the stinky guy under the bridge. Sheen is simply high-functioning, and so can keep it together for long stretches at a time during filming of his TV show... or at least he could until fairly recently.

People like Sheen get a lot of help, though, too... typically from enabling hangers-on who benefit from the Sheens to which they attach themselves and their being able to work and earn millions even though they so desperately need help. There used to be, for example, a veritable entourage of "handlers" who surrounded John Belushi and made sure that he had whatever he wanted -- including drugs and alcohol -- whenever he wanted it; and then cleaned him up and bolstered him just enough (and just long enough) for him to be able to shoot a movie or do some other revenue-generating task so that they, too, could get paid, after which they would enable his plunge back into his depressive and addictive lifestyle...

...until it finally killed him. Him, and Chris Farley. And, maybe, soon, Lindsay Lohan, before it's all overwith (heaven forbid, of course).

And if Charlie Sheen doesn't soon get a clue, him, too, at the rate he's going.

We know this because... well... it's already killing stinky and unshowered guys with forty cents in their pockets who live under bridges in cities and towns all across America every single day.

Those who run faith-based shelters and rescue missions pursuant to their particular "Great Commission" as found in Matthew pray for their clients. And, of course, I pray for them, too.

But I pray, even more, that those people will finally get a clue and love their clients for who they are, whether or not they have faith -- and whether or not they're gay, too -- because, after all, it's the right thing to do; because it's how they would like to be treated... The Golden Rule commissions us.

About the Author: Gregg DesElms is a management consultant living Napa, California whose ministry of agency and advocacy to the homeless, the elderly, disabled vets, the prostituted, recent parolees, the working poor, and others similarly in need has become full-time in recent years, and includes those in Vallejo. He is working hard lately obtaining funding and finalizing plans for a church-attached helping center and shelter which he hopes will open in Vallejo during 2011.