The Hypomania of Charlie Sheen
“I’m on a drug. It’s called Charlie Sheen.” ~ Charlie Sheen
Since Charlie Sheen has been less prominent in the news for a little while now, except through zingers dropped here and there by stand up comedians and late night talk show hosts, I thought, what the heck, let’s bring him back! He does provide us great insight, as well as the perfect caricature, when discerning between a full-blown manic episode related to Bipolar Disorder and a less severe episode of hypomania.
All of Charlie Sheen’s rants about Tigersblood, his overuse of the word epic to the point that it has gone out of style, and his claims that the legal battle to keep his TV show on air to be a “war of epic proportions” (seeming itself to be a delusion of epic proportions), created the perfect opportunity to write about hypomania. Yes, these lengthy tirades were delusional (I mean, c’mon, we are talking about “Two and a Half Men” here, not the Civil Rights Movement or World War II), but surprisingly not any more delusional than any of us can be if our life as we knew it was falling apart, for a limited duration of time that falls short of fulfilling the diagnostic criteria of hypomania.
To bring this closer to home, let’s reflect on a real life situation we can all relate to that may bring us to experience a state comparable to Hypomania. Think about the last time you were in love and your partner broke up with you. If were you in love it was probably all consuming and the only thing you could think about. Thoughts like “how can my life go on?” you may have asked back at that time, or other sorts of catastrophic thinking like it was the worst thing that has ever happened to you. You may have been up late not able to stop thinking about what went wrong, in an elevated irritable mood unable to sleep, analyzing little details and interactions. You also might be obsessed about what you could do get your loved one to come back or in a euphoric mood having thoughts about accomplishing some great feat so that your partner may see that they were wrong to break up with you and want to come back, charged up by unrealistic optimism. Let’s think of Charlie Sheen’s relationship to Two and a Half Men to be like the ex-girlfriend he cannot let go of, and being in a persistently and pervasive desperate state of trying and win her back. For the normal process, this state ends, but a hypomanic state persists... just as Charlie still is.
Hypomania (literally meaning "below mania") is a mood state characterized by persistent and pervasive elevated (euphoric) or irritable mood, as well as thoughts and behaviors that are consistent with such a mood state. Individuals in a hypomanic state have a decreased need for sleep, are extremely outgoing and competitive, and have a great deal of energy. However, unlike with full mania, those with hypomanic symptoms are fully functioning and often more productive than usual. Hypomania is sometimes credited with also increasing creativity. Specifically, hypomania is distinguished from maniaby the absence of psychotic symptoms and grandiosity, and by its lower degree of impact on functioning.
Well, we know that Charlie Sheen certainly has not stopped functioning, and in fact has since created his own tour. This certainly made it appear that Charlie was quite enterprising and may have in fact been... “Winning... duh!” In any case, he had not fallen off the face of the earth as someone who was not functional and full on manic would have. He was able to appear normal as well as hold extended conversations on his many talk show appearances, and even showed spurts of creative brilliance and media savvy which did captivate people enough to actually buy tickets to what turned out to at first be an elusive and sloppy show. He has since rewritten his act and has once again shown some promise and popularity. Bottom line, he was prepared, wrote a whole act, flopped, but recovered and made a comeback (which he might deem a second coming).
In 1935, D.W. Winnicott wrote a paper called The Manic Defense. Winnicott pointed to the defining feature of this defense as being characterized by a flight to omnipotent fantasies as a means of fleeing from inner depressive anxiety (p. 130). We could stop at ravings about having Tigersblood running through his veins and have enough to diagnose him with hypomania, but good ‘ol Charlie did not stop there. Winnicott also said that in Hypomania there is a “flight to external reality” (p.132). Can we just say Goddesses and leave it at that? (I think that living with two porn stars can qualify as enough of a distraction from any internal reality he’d be trying to escape). And then we have the cherry to top off our little diagnostic soiree: Charlie Sheen ripped the producers and executive directors of the show, Les Moonves in particular, with strain after strain of derogatory comments about their selfishness, stupidity, infantility, and mediocrity. Winnicott also pointed out that “Omnipotent fantasies are not so much the inner reality itself as a defense against the acceptance of it” (p. 130). These statements by Charlie about the executives not only point to the feeling and perception of omnipotence he was experiencing in those moments, but also point to the specific inner reality he is trying to flee or defend against. These derogatory projective identifications serve to mask his own depressive anxiety and thoughts that he may be on his way to becoming irrelevant and mediocre. His narcissism will not allow that thought, and it is blocking his ability to mourn the fame and status he once held. Can Charlie Sheen come back from the brink of irrelevance? Or will he have to mourn the prominence he once had? Who knows, but maybe the energy derived from his hypomanic state in the face of this challenge in his life will be enough to make a comeback. In any case, if he is to be cured of his hypomanic symptoms, he will have to mourn the Charlie of old and surrender to shedding his past fame, whether it be succumbing to a more humbling life of being only relevant in the past or completing a metamorphosis into a whole new Charlie and creating a new fame based on a new talent set, and not on that which he may be having trouble letting go of.