I’m a little shocked to watch the world continue to gawk and laugh at Charlie Sheen. I’m all for laughter and I value a keen sense of humor, but I’m perplexed that people find it so easy to mock and giggle at Sheen’s behavior. I’m curious as to why so many find it so easy to so publicly point at him and say “Man, he’s crazy!” Would these same folks gawk at a man with no hair, eyebrows or eyelashes, who recently underwent a few rounds of chemotherapy, and laugh and shake their heads, loudly proclaiming, “Man, does that man have a wild case of cancer or what?!”
Sheen is ill. Obviously so. He’s having a manic psychotic break in front of the whole world. Why is it so easy for us as a culture to sensationalize and sneer at such profound illness? As a mental health professional, I stand in awe at our ability to blame people for their own mental incapacities in ways we would never blame them for having, say, leukemia. That said, I do understand the psychology behind the laughter. Because mental illness affects our very human-ness, our very presentation of our Self, it scares us to our very core. We want to be able to blame the mentally ill for their erratic behavior, because we simply cannot bear to watch someone’s Selfhood, someone’s very consciousness, be so compromised.
To try to get a handle on mental illness, among other interests, consciousness scientists are working hard to try to figure out what exactly makes up our mental processes, our consciousness. Researchers scan the brain waves of Buddhist monks and use the precepts of complex systems theory (a cousin to quantum physics and particle/wave theories) to try to piece together a model of consciousness. But the truth is we can’t really define what it means to be humanly conscious–to think and talk and both process and propagate information and emotion. The human psyche is a mysterious thing, and yet this mysterious thing defines each and every one of us. When we see something going wrong with someone’s consciousness, someone’s psyche, it scares the heck out of us because we can imagine our very own complex consciousness system, our definition of who we are, being compromised. We worry at a deep, unconscious survivor-level, that the same thing could happen to us. And so we do what humans have done throughout the centuries in extremely uncomfortable situations–we laugh and make jokes.
I’ve heard people blame Sheen’s drug use as the sole reason for his breakdown. That would be an easy explanation, wouldn’t it? But we have to remember that although Sheen’s drug use did not help his current situation, his drug use is both a symptom and a cause of his bipolar behavior. People who suffer from serious mental illness use drugs to self-medicate, usually from an early age. The drugs’ chemicals then mix with already off-balance brain chemistry to sometimes lessen the symptoms and sometimes exacerbate them. But drugs are very rarely the pure cause for psychosis.
Sheen is sick. His symptoms are very easy to see and, although his behavior is very interesting to watch, I wonder if we can watch with compassion and understanding instead of vitriol and jeer. Yes, the same kind of thing could happen to us and no, scientists haven’t figured out exactly how to fix these kinds of illnesses. But maybe, just maybe, we can find a way to tolerate our fear and uncomfortableness, find love for a sick man, and hope that he finds a way toward health before hurting himself or someone else.