Sunday, March 13, 2011

I'm part of the problem

Yesterday, I started a post on Charlie Sheen's bizarre-o antics. In fact, I wrote an entire post, but it felt like two separate efforts. About 5/8 (probably my second favorite fraction) of the way through, I did an about-face, switching from light-hearted mockery to serious appraisal of his situation and the nation's attitude toward mental illness. And then I felt icky about what I'd written. I couldn't click the big orange button to send it into cyberspace b/c something just felt wrong. 

Then my mom came over to help with the powder room renovation, and when we got to talking about Sheen's behavior (we both get sucked into celeb gossip), she grew serious: "Yes, it was funny - for a while. But then it went on and on, and I started to think, There's a real problem here - something is not right with this situation." 

Her sentiments were very similar to those at the end of my unposted post. But my mom didn't laugh. Not for the first 5/8 of the conversation; not at all. 

So, having had a day and a half to sit with this, I write now to say two things. First, shame on me. (This will be echoed, deservedly, below.) Last weekend I laughed at Sheen when Brad and I had friends over; a few days ago we watched Jimmy Kimmel lampoon Sheen and cracked up, and we even talked about it the next day. Shame on me. Shame on me for being part of the problem. 

The problem is the second thing I want to talk about. What follows is excerpted from my initial post. The first two lessons - I now lower my head as I say it - were jokes at Sheen's expense, rife with references to winning, Adonis, and Tiger's Blood. But the third one is the only one worth reading, and the others have vanished into the world of "cut" text. 

"Lesson 3No one is exempt from the threat of mental illness, and as a society, we need to revamp our attitudes toward it

All joking aside (and I do love joking), Sheen's behavior isn't just weird, it's off. There's a pretty real chance that Sheen suffers from bipolar disorder or some other serious - and untreated - mental health problem. And if that's the case, then this post and all 6 million Charlie-Sheen-mocking articles out there are contributing to a really really big problem in this country - an insensitive and ignorant approach to mental illness. And, if this is indeed what I'm contributing to, as someone who takes mental illness very seriously, let me be the first to say it: Shame on me

In 'Charlie Sheen Isn't Funny' from the LA Times, a long-time sufferer of bipolar disorder comments on the social stigma associated with mental illness in this country: 'In Hollywood, "it's easier to say 'I was smoking crack and hanging out with hookers' than admitting 'I'm deeply depressed or deeply in pain,'" said Abbey, who spent years working in the entertainment industry. "People are quick to judge you when you're manic depressive. I think Charlie Sheen, like a lot of us, doesn't want to wear that label."' 

It's quite likely that something serious - beyond an unpleasant personality - is plaguing Charlie Sheen and contributing to his very, very public meltdown. And while lots of people realize this, many more don't. It took me several weeks (and a newspaper article) to even consider the possibility. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 25% of the country's population suffers from some form of mental illness during a given year. That's a HUGE number. These problems are very real for the sufferers, their parents, children, spouses, and friends. As a culture, our general lack of knowledge about what constitutes mental illness and what it "means" leads to lack of awareness about how to handle it and a lack of sensitivity to the subject. I don't believe most people are purposely cruel. I'm certainly not. And yet, to read my unposted post, you'd have every reason to believe I was. 

Mental health problems are just that - health problems. They should be no more a source of shame and embarrassment for those who suffer from them than is a torn rotator cuff, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, migraines, or heart disease. But that's easier said than done. Any hope for a change in people's attitudes toward those with mental illness will have to derive from education. Our society needs to become educated about the signs, symptoms, and causes of mental illness. We can't stick our heads in the sand - these problems aren't going away." 

So ends the only respectable part of what I wrote yesterday. 

A super-size ego is funny, but manic depression is not. Arrogance - amusing; self-destruction - not at all. And I'm pointing a finger at myself.

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