But as we watch this man meticulously blow his life to smithereens, let’s pause to examine the situation. It’s not fair to just dismiss this guy as “crazy.” I mean, what’s really going on with Charlie Sheen? Mel Gibson? Kiefer Sutherland? Why do these uber-successful, uber-rich people feel the need to drag their careers into the gutter with substance abuse, rage, and self-destructive behavior?
Is there a difference between the “disliked” fuck-ups and the ones we’ve come to love? Robert Downey, Jr. was just as bad…a cocaine and heroin addict who spent a year in prison, leaving behind a wife and young son. He came out the other side sober, so we forgive him. Add to that list Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, and Ray Charles.
How about the ones that didn’t come out the other side at all? Troubled rock stars like Kurt Cobain. His 60’s counterparts Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. Poor Judy Garland never made it over the rainbow; the beloved songbird overdosed on barbituates at age 47.
Comb this list of celebrities and find these things in common: 1) Drug and alcohol abuse. 2) Personality disorders, from depression to bi-polar disorder. 3) Incredible contributions to art and culture.
Frankly, I find it intellectually offensive that the media makes no attempt to make the logical link between highly successful celebrities and personality disorders, as if they somehow achieved success in spite of their inner turmoil. In spite? More like because of.
In evolution, you don’t see a lot of coincidences. Penises don’t “happen” to fit into vaginas; they evolved that way over countless generations (and countless species) to increase the efficiency of sexual intercourse for reproduction. If laying eggs worked better, humans would still be doing it.
So why chalk up to coincidence the monumental legacies left behind by those who suffer from depression or bi-polar disorder? If you think my Hollywood examples hardly classify as “monumental legacies,” how about other achievements…alcoholic geniuses like Faulkner, Hemingway, Kerouac, and Fitzgerald seem to be the norm in literary excellence, not the exception.
It goes deeper. Count the greatest world leaders amongst this group. Winston Churchill is said to have once consumed eleven whiskey and sodas at lunch. But neither alcohol, nor his reported manic depression, stopped this man from standing up to Hitler and Nazi Germany, even when most saw only certain defeat. His personality was hardly an obstacle; it might have been his most potent weapon. Psychiatrist and historian Anthony Storr once said of Churchill: “Had he been a stable and equable man, he could never have inspired the nation. In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgment might well have concluded that we were finished.”
Like Britain’s greatest leader, so too was it that the greatest president in our nation’s history was a morosely depressed man: Abraham Lincoln was prone to prolonged and intense bouts of sadness, and was even prescribed cocaine as a young man to combat his low periods. But amidst all of that grief, this American hero found the personal courage to abolish slavery and plunge his own people into civil war to preserve the union. And thank God he did. Lincoln, like all these men, had some form of personality disorder. Are these the people we want to purge from society? Are these the traits we really wish to “cure”?
I believe all these people share a gene, and when it comes to genes, nature does not select randomly. She rewards only those traits which help individuals, and sometimes, which help the species.
There is one such gene I would like to discuss: DRD4. It has a boring name, but the gene is anything but. Sometimes called the “risk-taking gene,” it produces a dopamine receptor found in half the population, but in varying amounts. With people who have large amounts of the D4 receptor, we find fascinating correlations: An increase in adventurousness and risk-taking. High levels of creativity. Political tendencies toward progressiveness and liberalism.
But also: far elevated occurrences of drug and alcohol abuse. Gambling addiction. Proclivity to multiple sexual partners, one-night stands, and cheating.
And, finally, higher rates of depression, schizophrenia, and bi-polar disorder.
Why would a gene like this exist in the population? I like to imagine a time, long, long ago, when our ancestors living on the African savannah found their home increasingly devoid of food and resources thanks to a period of global heating 80,000 years ago. Their home was becoming a desert. The easy choice was to stay put. After all, nobody had ever left yet.
But some people wanted to leave. To go to the other side of the mountain, literally, and see what was there. It was a frightening prospect. Out there in the unknown world, food might be more scarce. Undiscovered predators may be lying in wait. But one thing was clear: life was getting worse and somebody had to do something. I imagine the most charismatic dreamers of the group standing up, screaming in their manic way: “This is starting to suck! I’m hungry and depressed! I don’t care if I die, I’m leaving this shitbag desert and looking for something better. Now…who’s coming with me?” Some tribesmates, perhaps themselves filled with a sense of thrill and wanderlust, joined these mavericks. And so it was that they set out of Africa, onto the Arabian peninsula. Tens of thousands of years passed as their descendants eventually populated the entire globe, moving northwest to Euproe, east to China, eventually crossing the Bering land bridge and ending up in the Americas. And we know they were intelligent and creative…how else could they endure the hardships, the famines, the ice ages that threatened to drive them to extinction. They were driven, not by the contented happiness that makes people stay put, but by the depressed boredom and discontented curiosity that to this day sends people away from home, seeking adventures unknown. That thrill you get from visiting new lands, from pushing boundaries, from doing something risky, but rewarding…that dopamine rush is a gift from your ancestors. It helped them survive.
So the next time you feel the need to pillory Charlie Sheen or any other celebrity fuck-up, cut them some slack. He’s got all the money and fame and women he could ever want, but he’s still not happy. That’s bad news for him, but good news for the human race. Manic depressive rebels and non-conformists are here for a reason. Yeah, Two and a Half Men isn’t any great contribution to society, and the guy is kind of a scumbag. But in another life, Charlie Sheen carries the genes that could have made him a hero, an explorer, a leader; one of those thrill-seeking individuals that worked together over the centuries to ensure humanity one day dominated the globe. In this life, he has only the sad side effects of that legacy—personal turmoil and drug addiction—to hang his hat on. Pity him if you will, hate him if you must. But don’t dismiss him. And don’t dismiss the gene that we owe so much to.
And Charlie: I hope you clean up your act. Humans may have conquered the planet, but for many of us life still sucks, and there are countless mountains left to climb. The world needs your charisma and your drive. The world needs heroes.
The world needs Hot Shots 3.