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Martin Sheen: Breaking Through

Martin Sheen has won many battles on the big screen. But in real life his biggest war was the one he fought to get his son Charlie off drugs

Q: “I can’t imagine that in your 20s and 30s you’d have been sitting with a journalist having this particular conversation.”

A: “Not often, not likely, no. I’d probably be drunk. I’m just so awed, truly awed. I’m realizing I’m 67 years old—how much longer do I get to have this magnificence?”

Q: “Speaking of the drinking—”

A: “Who was talking about drinking? ‘Oh, speaking of the drinking, you wretched drunk, could we get back to your being an alcoholic?’ Oh, what a sneaky shot that was. Well done, though, I must say; I give you credit. Go ahead.”

Joining Alcoholics Anonymous

“I’m in the [Alcoholics Anonymous] program, you know,” Sheen says, “and one of the saddest things is the rise in alcoholism among retired people. A lot of them started drinking with the loss of their spouse: suddenly they’re alone. They spiral much quicker. It’s much more difficult, if you are retired and you have a reputation, to get into a program or to get sober. The last thing you want to do is lose face with your community.

“What revives so many elderly and people who have lost spouses is getting back in there. Go back and serve, teach, find people who need your help. You don’t have to go far. If you’ve been cleaning a hall for 50 years, you can clean a school, a kindergarten. You’ve got to find a place where you’re needed. When you become disconnected, you get farther and farther from the shore, and you don’t realize how far you’ve drifted, and then suddenly you’re in the deep water and you’re alone.”

Q: “Do you still go to the meetings?”

A: “Oh, I do; sure, yeah, I do. [But] I got sober through Catholicism, through my faith. I only got involved with AA when I was trying desperately to find a way to help [my son] Charlie, because I didn’t have any skills. A dear friend of mine was in the program. He said, ‘First of all, you want to get into Al-Anon and keep your mouth shut for at least a year—just listen to other people’s stories.’ And that’s what I did. As you can see what a windbag I am, it was a great discipline.

“And then he suggested that I join AA, and I did. I was astonished when I got into AA, because I didn’t know how spiritual the program was. I said, ‘You guys use the word God.’ ‘Oh, we do. If you believe it. If you don’t, then it’s a higher power.’ I said, ‘Wow, no wonder it transcends all that other stuff.’ But at the same time, it is such a deeply personal journey, the road to addiction and the road out of it. There are really no two journeys alike, I don’t think.”

Q: “I had a nephew who died of a drug overdose. He’d overdosed once before, but the hospital never told my brother and his wife because of ‘privacy’ laws.”

A: “The only way I got Charlie, frankly, was because he’d skipped out of the hospital. I had to pay the bill. In paying the bill, I got to see why he was in there. He’d consumed an illegal substance; he was on probation; he was not allowed to have these substances.”

Q: “So you turned Charlie in to the authorities to help him?”

A: “This is a criminal matter. And so that was the wedge; that was the leverage I had. That is what I took to the court; that’s what I took to the sheriff. It was the only way I got him.”

Q: “Can you talk a little bit about how you broke through his entourage of enablers?”

A: “You’re dealing with a life-and-death situation. And the critical part of the equation is: are you willing to risk your child’s wrath? They are not going to like you. Don’t even think about them loving you. They’re going to call you the most vicious, obscene names. You have to be prepared for that.”

Q: “Does that also extend not just to them but their friends?”

A: “Oh, God, yes. Because sometimes the only way you can communicate with them is through their friends. And he had two in particular who adored him, risked his wrath enough to tell him the truth. And who eventually had to abandon him because they couldn’t take the pain anymore. And so we knew we had allies in those two guys.

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