Charlie Sheen has put himself under the media microscope, with results that haven't been pretty. In his guise as test subject, he has allowed every would-be analyst to exercise his or her theories of mental health and addiction. What have we learned? More important, what is the prognosis?


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, March 1, 2011. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

Theories of Charlie Sheen

This post is a response to Charlie Sheen: Wild Boy, Troubled Man by Deborah Serani, Psy.D.


Why our fascination with Charlie? Has there ever been a case where a media superstar has apparently self-destructed so completely? Robert Downey Jr., of course, had a series of notorious run-ins and breakdowns, but has since gone onto superstardom. Downey's former friend (who gave him work when he was borderline), Mel Gibson, had his famous breakdown after being a dominant film auteur.

But Charlie has derailed during a nearly-decade-long run as American's most successful and best-paid television star in the series Two and a Half Men. True, he has had several aberrant episodes along the way. But he seemed to have weathered these, and appeared poised to fulfill his two-year contract extension. His show's ratings, always in the top ten, had recently risen, while earlier episodes were being successfully syndicated.

And, so, at the top of his career, Charlie seemingly chose to derail - or was he pushed - including by his own demons? Here are some theories.

Addiction theory: Charlie has had substance problems and a number of stays in rehab. His father, Martin Sheen, has spoken of Charlie as a successful 12-step devotee. But Charlie has recently disparaged AA and the 12-steps and chosen to go it on his own (with some obvious therapeutic inputs). And his rejection of AA seems to have something to do with his break with and antagonism toward his show's producer, Chuck Lorre.  This antipathy - according to the Times' David Carr - is what got Sheen kicked off the air.

Martin, interviewed about his son, likened addiction to cancer - a problem that will not go away. But Charlie does not appear to be on drugs or drunk as he makes the media rounds, often with outrageous and off-putting comments and self-references. Indeed, he has produced a clean drug test for interviewers to scrutinize. Of course, the fallback position is that, despite being clean, Mr. Sheen is still expressing classic addict behavior, which some call "denial" and others "dry drunks," due to his rejection of AA.

The problem with this theory is that many people quit addictions on their own without immolating themselves - does everyone who quits smoking without treatment go through a "dry addiction" reaction? Does this mean no one could quit drinking or drugs without going as "crazy" as Charlie? Do we really know how involved Robert Downey Jr. and Christian Slater - another famous recovering addict - are with the 12 steps? Neither of them emphasizes 12-step, AA mantras. But, of course, we don't care that much so long as they remain out of trouble.

Mania theories. Charlie's interviews have been manic and close to delusional, in which he refers to himself megalomaniacally as a superstar and mythical hero. So, as we would expect, many people (e.g., Dr. Drew) diagnose him as bipolar. Aside from worrying that we are resorting to the psychiatric theory du jour, can we really express Charlie's whole life - which includes both tremendous successes and notable breakdowns of violence and substance abuse - so simply? DSM-IV, for which I was an advisor to the substance-use disorders section, and its successor, DSM-5, are highly tied to functionality. For example, dependence or addiction is measured by the dominance of negative life events and outcomes. So while observers like to note the existence of "high-functioning" addicts and alcoholics, in large part this is a non-sequitur from the standpoint of psychiatric diagnostics.

Self-reference theory. Is Charlie just a major-league star stuck on himself? Charlie is at 45 a good-looking man, seemingly in good physical health, a top television star, someone with a long and successful film career (remember Eight Men Out, Wall Street, and Platoon?) that he seems to be resuming (Due Date, Wall Street II), whom audiences continue to like. I offered the idea that he was addicted to himself. Alessandra Stanley, of the New York Times, a smart observer of the media and entertainment scene, opines - "Charlie Sheen has an addiction. . . . he is addicted to explaining himself on the air." Stanley offers a number of other examples - like John Edwards and Colonel Qaddafi. But, is this fair? - Qaddafi, at least, is a murderous madman. And Edwards, after losing everything and facing criminal prosecution, seems to have gotten the message.

Addictive relationships. As the author of Love and Addiction, I have naturally traced Charlie's checkered past with women with interest. Right now Charlie is very publicly living with two young, beautiful women (to whom Charlie refers as "goddesses"). Sure the women are young and beautiful, and both indicate a willingness to follow Charlie (for the moment) through thick and thin, while Charlie expresses his gratitude for their nonjudgmentalness.  But given Charlie's romantic history, these relationships wouldn't seem to offer much of a chance for stable satisfaction.

Charlie seems not to be close to his father and brother Emilio Estevez currently. But he does indicate that his young twins spend time at his home - and that the Goddesses pitch in with taking care of the kids. Where their mother sits on all of this, of course, is an issue of interest - she has expressed contradictory feelings.

Therapy figures. In my view of addiction, the issue in recovery is whether a person has a sustainable, non-addicted lifestyle to turn to (see the Christian Slater interview). The temporariness of his home arrangement is not a good prognosticator in this regard - nor is his current lack of work. And he should stop appearing on television and describing himself in grandiose, mythical terms. Perhaps his greatest loss from a therapeutic standpoint is of his long-time supporter, publicist Stan Rosenfield.

But a new therapy figure has suddenly emerged - NBC reporter Jeff Rossen. Sheen has indicated how much he liked his first NBC interview with Rossen - which just about everyone else viewed as a delusional disaster. But he followed this up by inviting Rossen to his home, where Charlie appeared more normal by referring to childcare arrangements, playing catch with friends, and zoning down his "grandiosity" (a term Charlie himself used) to somewhere near legal limits. (He also presented Rossen with drug test results.) All together, Charlie was less defensive and brittle in Rossen's presence.

Would-be therapists out there: Rossen won Sheen's confidence by seeming to accept the man (many mark Rossen down for this). Rossen does present criticisms to Charlie, negative events and results in his life - even showing the actor tweets that attack him. But he seems prepared to ride these out with Charlie. Indeed, when he later talked to NBC's Today host Matt Lauer, Rossen managed to acknowledge that Sheen is not normal without unduly disparaging him.

And if someone is going to help Charlie out of his tailspin, it will be someone who can mange the task of supporting him while pushing Charlie to regain his judgment and balance.