Life Lessons

Charlie Sheen Is a Redemption in Process

Each of us is better than the worst thing we have ever done.

Author purchased rights via istock photos

The fall of 2010 was not a good time for the cast of Two and a Half Men.

Some days, filming went smoothly. Other days, the show’s star, Charlie Sheen, arrived late, disheveled, forgetting lines, smelling of alcohol.¹ He was pale and dangerously thin. During one scene, he asked directors if he could lean on the couch rather than walk around during his part. Making matters worse, all of the awkward starts, stops, and redos happened in front of a live audience.

The show’s meteoric ratings made the situation all the more unfortunate. Teams scrambled to prop Charlie up and get through each shoot. In January of 2011, production was halted after Charlie was hospitalized following a 36-hour cocaine-fueled bender. Things came to a head with Sheen’s termination in March of that year. His $1.8-million-per-episode job vanished in the turn of a page.

The downward spiral that followed was one of the most public meltdowns in modern history. But his last chapter is proving an ongoing process of redemption.

People love a trainwreck

It is, perhaps, a perverse commentary on all of us that we consumed so much of Charlie’s 2011 descent into drug-induced madness. We tweeted. We forwarded his videos to friends. We posted on Facebook and threw around his characteristic ‘winning’ phrases. In turn, he relished the attention and so his descent continued.

We forgot the deeper implications of what we were watching. Charlie was a troubled and very sick man. In his ongoing ramblings, which included numerous shots at his producers, he was permanently ruining his acting career. He was a machine of funny, bizarre, and ego-fueled quotes, all of which came at the cost of himself.

Charlie Sheen always had a “reputation” from his earliest years in Hollywood of being a bad boy. Many of us weren’t terribly surprised that he was erratic. But this was a new iteration, many shades darker.

He was bleeding money and getting sick

Charlie’s massive piles of money were leaving as fast as they’d arrived. A few children, a few divorces, and more than a few vices were catching up to him.

Much of the on-screen ramblings you saw were a reaction to his HIV diagnosis. Sheen said his shame over the diagnosis led to an “abysmal descent into profound substance abuse and fathomless drinking. It was a suicide run.” He was self-medicating and also on an intense fitness streak. His injecting of steroids is what he credits to his on-screen raging.

Eventually, he was pressured into seeing a doctor after crushing headaches made him unable to function. This was where he discovered his HIV diagnosis.

People who knew Charlie began blackmailing him, threatening to reveal his HIV diagnosis. Additionally, his loss of income and continued child support payments, which were anchored in his tens-of-millions paychecks from years prior, threatened him with bankruptcy.

His life turns into redemption

Eventually, he went on TV, and came forward with his diagnosis, taking ownership of it.

Author via CBS

Just after going public, millions of new google searches began, searching for ‘HIV tests near me’. In the coming days and weeks, there was an eight-fold increase in sales of HIV testing kits. The awareness level increase was the equivalent of seven World Aids Days.²

It was dubbed ‘The Charlie Sheen Effect’. Sheen now regularly attends fundraisers for HIV, generating millions for research. He hosts and gives speeches, helping educate the public on the realities of HIV, which flourishes in the darkness of shame and a lack of testing. According to the CDC, of the 1.2 million who live with HIV in the US, 1 in 7 are not aware they have it.

Charlie isn’t a perfect man. He’s done quite a few unsavory things in this life. He’s deservedly earned a few enemies and undoubtedly caused harm to those around him. But he’s trying to live differently. He wrote an open letter just after his public announcement:

“I accept this condition not as a curse or scourge, but rather as an opportunity and a challenge. An opportunity to help others. My partying days are behind me.

My philanthropic days are ahead of me. Earnest Hemingway once wrote: ‘Courage is grace under pressure.’ “I’ve served my time under pressure; I now embrace the courage, and the grace.”

The takeaway

Whether Charlie evens the score with the universe isn’t for you or I to decide. Just remember, he could have lived as if he was unforgivable but chose a better path, one that brings little fame or fortune his way.

I know I’ve made terrible mistakes in my life. It’s an unfortunate truth that some people will only remember us by the mistakes we’ve made. I think we are all better than the worst person we’ve been and the worst thing we’ve ever done. In my own perhaps-flawed eternal optimism, I think there’s always more good waiting to come out of each of us.

There’s an old Greek proverb that, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

It applies to us at each junction of our life. If we all just tried to make ourselves, and our immediate environment, a little bit better, this world would be a far prettier place. Keep fighting, Charlie.


[1] Cryer, John (2011) So That Happened

[2] Migala, Jessica (2017) The Charlie Sheen Effect on HIV Testing Was Equivalent to 7 World Aids Days

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