"The Unraveling of a Man" was announced this morning on several major networks, regarding Charlie Sheen's latest public display of psychosis and despair. I quietly looked away while reaching for the remote to quickly turn off the television. This certainly isn't the first public unraveling of a man or woman and I'm certain it won't be the last. It's disturbing nonetheless. Reknowned psychologists, psychiatrists, addiction experts and experts in the fields of legal, medical, intrapersonal, and finance all came forward. Celebrity hawkers and stalkers all needed to weigh in. To what end, I wonder?
If the purpose of this exposure is to educate the masses the educational component is not clear. If we are being provided a service on behalf of Mr. Sheen what is it? Is the moral of the story to avoid drugs, alcohol, attention and or celebrity attraction? Is the story exposed simply to mock and shame Mr. Sheen? Are we to pay attention, lest we end up in this position?
The story that is not told remains important. I don't know for certain what Mr. Sheen, or Mr. Gibson, or Ms. Lohan or Ms. Spears struggle with. I don't need to know. I, like most others that don't live in the lime light, as well as those that do, have personal connections with mental health issues. According to National Institute for Mental Health NIMH, over 26% of the adult population is suffering from one or more diagnosable mental disorders. Of the 26%, only 36% seek treatment. These numbers do not take into consideration the population suffering from substance abuse issues. While there is an overlap due to dual diagnosis and self-medication, there is a likihood that the overall statistics are higher than 26%. I can say with a great deal of confidence that all families have or have had at least experienced one personal relationship with mental health issues.
So the story that remains untold regarding the unravelling of a man, husband, brother, son and father or woman, wife, sister, daughter, and mother is about dignity, trust, acceptance and support. We are not doing so well in this realm. We parade and publicize the downfalls and unravellings. We keep the cameras aimed, we replay the rantings and rage filled 911 calls. We watch and we watch again. We stigmatize and dramatize and traumatize. We compare ourselves or those around us to maybe convince ourselves we are ok, or not as bad, or determine the liklihood of mental illness in someone near and dear, or not so dear.
We play a dangerous game by watching these unravellings and we create and support a collective disservice to those in need. Who is able to admit and accept "weakness" as it is displayed and played out in this manner? Imagine being diagnosed with an illness recognized in the medical field. When is the last time a news broadcast showed someone suffering from cancer so that the masses could laugh and ridicule and suggest the person with cancer deserved it, or needed to lose everything based on his/her behavior? Cancer patients vomit and lose hair, and can look physically unattractive. Why aren't they fair game? Outrageous concept isn't it? Cancer patients typically seek treatment and try to take care of their "problems". It isn't quite so easy to accept mental illness and then seek out treatment. The decision making process being so much a part of the mental functioning of a person is somewhat compromised. Add to that the reality of the stigma, and the manner in which we continue to disregard and derogatively display or expose mental illness.
Charlie Sheen does not appear to be taking care of his problems. Or is he? The fight that ensues in attempting to deny or derail or even project an episodic mental illness elsewhere typically occurs at the point that the illness takes hold, in a way that can no longer be contained. A big difference between illnesses that are recognized by the medical profession and those that are relegated to the psychiatric realm are the recognition of symptoms and the simultaneous ability to mask and manage those symptoms. In the medical profession, by the time an illness unravels itself full-blown, symptoms typically reach varied body systems and become evident. Prior to a mental health issue developing into a full blown crisis, erratic behaviors that are displayed can still be reasoned away for some time while much destructive and harmful behavior takes its toll on the suffering party and the family members that may be blamed, devalued, abused, cut off and/or abandoned.
Imagine being screamed at or accused of causing a brain tumor or multiple schlerosis in your husband, wife, or child? It doesn't usually happen. Yet, it is with much ease that others are blamed for the destructive and erratic behaviors of someone in the midst of a mental illness. To make matters worse, it seems to be somewhat easy to convince others that family members caused or created the need for destructive behaviors. Mental health issues can certainly be exacerbated by stressful relationships and interactions, but they aren't caused by others. The field of psychiatry itself helps to perpetuate this dysfuctional belief system. In the name of protecting patients, husbands, wives, partners and parents are often blocked from in-takes and treatment planning. Rather than blocking, doesn't it make more sense to incorporate the experiences of those close by? If only to help teach effective, supportive strategies, wouldn't it be potentially beneficial to bring in family members? Try suggesting concerns to a loved one when they are physically sick, now imagine suggesting they are "mentally" sick.
I recently watched a family destruct as members were simultaneously cut-off from one family member while being accused of abandoning, being hostile and not being supportive enough. Outsiders appeared from nowhere to support the "victim". The other family members were left to grieve the loss, make sense of the behaviors, as outside, unrelated newcomers were recognized and praised for providing support and understanding. No one asked the family for more information or questioned the validity of the story. If someone had a stroke and suddenly his wife and children mysteriously left, wouldn't there be questions, support, a casserole even? There might even be compassion, understanding and attempts to reach out. Why are we so quick to blame and judge? A social worker might step in, I imagine. Maybe not, families being so messy and all. How many of us ask the hard questions?
Charlie Sheen, afterall still, has friends that support and love him, on far away islands in bikinis. I am sure he must be getting all the help he needs. If not, all of America is watching and prepared to weigh in. Who is able to turn off the tv, send a message to the media, stop perpetuating the stigma associated with mental illness, addiction and substance abuse? The unravelling isn't in need of celebration. We need to celebrate authentic living, not reckless self-destruction caused by underlying serious problems. Recovery and acceptance are not as attractive to cover in the news. A painful, ugly, journey to be certain. Cancer recovery is not any more appealing in the throes of it, but each is worthy of support and dignity, one day at a time. Stop the madness. I believe there is hope and the promise of a life worth living, for all.