Loving addicts like Charlie Sheen


In my early 20s, I came to appreciate what it means to fall head over heels. He was erudite, aloof and utterly unattainable. Or so I thought. When he finally looked my way, my heart literally skipped a beat. But my good sense ran a mile.

The cracks began to appear not long after we started dating. I tried desperately to maintain the façade. After all, we were would-be actors and poets. Artistes, if you don't mind. Conflict and drama were par for the creative cause.

What I didn't know was the tawdry life he had been building for himself away from our little hub. He had resumed an old love affair — with heroin.

This erstwhile episode returned to me last week as I sat glued to the unravelling of US television actor Charlie Sheen, which came to a head yesterday with the actor's sacking from the high-rating sitcom Two and A Half Men.

But it wasn't the actor's meltdown, as much as the drama being played off stage by his close friends and family, that had me compelled.

Theirs is the story of making mistakes, underestimating the power of addiction and loving too easily, if not judiciously. A drama with no script or guarantee of a happy ending, but with all the sorry hallmarks of a sequel.

When asked about his 45-year-old son's battle, Sheen's father, Martin Sheen, seemed strangely ebullient. 'He's an extraordinary man,' he told Sky News. 'He's doing well.'

It was an odd reply in the face of what appeared to be an all-too public cry for help, but read between the lines of the 70-year-old's reaction and you will find the very real complexities of loving an addict.

If there's one thing about drug dependency it's that it has no mercy. Take a stroll through Sydney's Kings Cross or down Melbourne's Victoria Street on the days when heroin flows freely, and tell me the drug doesn't get under the skin of its host; leeching life as they once knew it, one needle at a time.

Addiction changes a person. In place of transparency you will find stealth, secrecy, desperation and dishonesty. Where there was once light and shade, there now lurks only the shadow of doubt.

And, yet, the person you love is still there, somewhere. But how to reach them? And what to say to them when — or if — you do?

In the 2008 documentary Ben: Diary of a Heroin Addict — one of the most harrowing examples of the daily pressures of heroin addiction on family life — Ben's mum grapples with her 34-year-old son's compulsion. 'I think the hardest thing of all it is that you give us a little bit of hope, and then you snatch it back again.'

This to-ing and fro-ing. The conveyor belt of promises and lies. The glimmer of hope would be all too familiar to Martin Sheen. When asked how he was supporting his son, he told Sky: 'With prayer ... and we ask everyone who cares about him to lift him up, and lift up all those who are in the grip of drug and alcohol abuse, because they are looking for transcendence.'

As someone who once searched for that transcendence at the bottom of a bottle, Sheen speaks from experience. A major heart attack at the age of 38 forced him to reassess and, ultimately, turn his life around. But having stood in his son's shoes doesn't mean he can now take that next step for him.

It took several years (and many tears) for me to realise I was fighting a losing battle. Unlike me, my partner's mistress Heroin didn't get upset, hold a grudge or, worst of all, nag. I should have walked away sooner, but thought I could make a difference. 

When I did finally sever ties, it was with a sigh of relief. I'd survived and could now finally live my life. I could and, in the end, did walk away.

But not his mother. Her face, on one of the last occasions we met, will be forever imprinted in my memory. Beneath that fixed smile of hers was an air of weary, unfathomable resignation.

Now, as a parent myself, I have some understanding of what that look means. It carries the weight of lost dreams and aspirations, and the realisation that not only is love alone often not enough to save your child, but perhaps, just perhaps, somewhere along the line it, too, had a hand in shaping their awful reality.

Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend.

Topic tags: Jen Vuk, Charlie Sheen, addiction, two and a half men, Ben: Diary of a Heroin Addict



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Existing comments

You said exactly what its like in so few words! But you don't come to this summary without a long journey of heartache!
I likened a mates addiction to heroin as putting on the Ring from Lord of the Rings....
Gambling addiction has a similar effect on family and friends.

Julie | 09 March 2011  

Jen, thank you for your astute insights into the challenge of addiction and thank you especially for a compassionate view of Charlie Sheen's tragic entrapment in drugs- in contrast to the demeaning and sensational mainstream media reports.

Vacy Vlazna | 09 March 2011  

As a fan of 'his' sitcom I have, sadly, always been struck by the extent to which Charlie Sheen has seemed to be playing himself. The onscreen observation is equally true of his more recent bombast and energetic public defences: self-deception eludes the selfless dictates of love. And when addiction confronts love, it is choice/volition that often seems the lasting casualty.

As a fan of Jen Vuk's writing, I am grateful for this beautiful, bittersweet reflection. Thanks Jen, for sharing so poignantly, skillfully and openly.

Barry G | 09 March 2011  

Charlie Sheen's behaviour was distrubingly similar to my dear brother who lost his life to addiction in his 30's. Our family is left with the guilt, sorrow and loss. Could we have done more? Were we enablers? Are we to blame? Will we ever recover? How do I stop my own sons from becoming a part of this nightmare?

Therese | 09 March 2011  

I agree with the above I am a widow of an alcoholic. Same thing - it's a horrible illness. Addiction just hurts everyone.

irena | 09 March 2011  

Thank you.

John Watson | 10 March 2011  

thank you Jen for the above article. I am BEN's mother staying with my eldest son and family in New Zealand at present. You have personally experienced the hold that addiction has on someone. Ben couldn't do it for us, nor the girl he loved nor for himself. For whatever reason an addict starts taking it very quickly becomes an illness and the drug medication. I don't know what the answer is but personally I just want to get it out to the young that drugs are not an option, at best it will destroy their mental and physical health and at worst will kill them. Thank you. Anne

Anne Rogers | 11 March 2011  

Thank you Jen. I have a niece who is an addict - to booze. It is my sister for whom I worry. It is terrible for the parents of addicts. Very sad. And she has such caring parents. When not drunk, she is a lovely, bright girl. A different person. My father, her grandfather, was like that. It is a familial thing apparently. For that reason I never married. I did not want to be dependent on someone who might be like that. It frightened me. I do not understand the condition - why people have substance addiction. It is so destructive, to so many people. Thank goodness for AA, and those sort of movements. Where would we be without them?!

Lynne | 11 March 2011  

My feeling was that Sheen may have had mental illness problems which he was self medicating with drugs. Primarily because of the grandiosity of his proclamations.

A large percentage of people with underlying bipolar disorder are alcohol or drug dependent because it makes them feel better temporarily. Sheen's public commentary sounds like bipolar writ large to me.

Maggie Maguire | 23 March 2011  

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