Like many people, I do indulge in snap judgments and celebrity gossip. Lately, the Internet has been abuzz with the stories of Charlie Sheen’s personal and professional meltdown. His crimes are many. His abuse of women, his anti-Semitic remarks and the possible danger posed to his young children are disturbing and deserve criticism. At some point however, I’ve experienced a growing concern over his mental state–more specifically a worry that in fact we are piling onto someone who is experiencing a very public break from reality. Even more so, I’ve worried about the narrative that is created in the press by people who believe that they understand other people’s experience.
I’ve been a clinician close to 15 years. My career choice has been motivated by many personal factors, which not only include a close family member suffering from schizophrenia but also my own struggles with posttraumatic stress disorder. As a clinician, I understand the dangers of diagnosing public figures; people whom we only see through a snapshot and a simple narrative created to drawn in readers. Even with this sense of caution, I am still left wondering what it says about us and how we view mental illness when we witness celebrity meltdowns.
As a clinician, I’ve seen many people in crisis; often I’ve been the person witnessing people in some of the most stressful, difficult times in their life. I’ve at times been the person at the other end of that interaction. When I was an evaluator, I was responsible for assessing a situation, taking a life history and coming up with a recommendation based on the information available. Usually the history tends to be a distilled, problem-saturated narrative of someone’s life and for many people; it can be painful hearing your life and your existence reflected back through my clinician’s lens.
The danger for many clinicians is that we can confuse our narrative with some objective view of reality, as if we have captured the essence of who someone is through an examination of their life at one point in time. We can protect our self from identifying with the people that we serve and perceiving the vulnerability we all face, that at any point our perception of our self can change. We can feel imbued with a false sense of authority that we have understanding of what is unknowable, namely the essence and totality of others.
I’ve been on the other side of that relationship. For many years, I experienced acute trauma symptoms, which include among others, alternations in perception, hypervigiliance, flashbacks and ruminations. Like many people, I experienced disproportionate anger and anxiety at seemingly innocuous situations, events that were for me evocative in literal and symbolic ways of past events. I had difficulty understanding myself, let alone being able to convey my experience to others. What I wanted from others who heard my story and with whom I established a therapeutic relationship was a cautious respect and a space where my story can unfold at my pace, not being dictated by others. I remember distinctly seeing a therapist who was eager to tell me that my anxiety and my difficulty staying present was an indication of hypomania. I could not persuade him that my presentation was much more related to worries about establishing a relationship with him. We parted ways soon after but it taught me something that helped me in my own work, namely my own limitations.
Since that time, I’ve heard many stories, including those of people who have engaged in behavior that would be condemned by most. I believe in accountability, justice and the need to protect people from victimization. However, I would caution against the de-identification that often happens when we are confronted with disturbing behavior and against the judgments that dehumanize others. As I’ve said before, people are unknowable, complex and cannot be easily explained through a single narrative.
As a clinician, I understand that people change when they raise their minimal expectations of themselves; my job is to appeal to their best self, in the hope that they can gain critical insight. To be a therapist, I have to always hold out hope that people can change; otherwise there is no point to my work. I’ve worked mostly in forensic mental health, with people who have committed violent acts, often repeatedly. Throughout it all, I’ve tried to hold onto the idea that people are worthy, which is not an easy or popular concept, especially in our increasingly punitive culture.
With those ideas in mind, I witness Charlie Sheen another celebrity having a meltdown. I worry that if he tries to redeem himself through critical insight, through intensive therapy or through rehabilitation, he will be mocked and demeaned. History has shown us, through the portrayal of other celebrities, that as a society, we often don’t take this work very seriously. We don’t always realize that changing ourselves takes long-term commitment or that multiple tries at treatment don’t necessarily represent failure but is actually part of the journey to increasing insight. Perhaps we should view his story with caution and understand that in fact, we know very little about who he truly is. We should step back and understand that the narrative that we have constructed about his life is just a narrative, revealing little about who he is as a person. Sometimes our humanity is revealed not by how we treat people at their best but rather at their worst, most difficult, most inexplicable points.