Speaking from the Heart- Fluently

I feel the need to write this now, in light of certain current events. This may come off shocking and surprising to some. For those of you who know me well, you may say, "it's about time you said something, but why did you link it to that?"

So first, a caveat: I have the flu. On one hand that might mean that I am not thinking clearly, on the other, I do believe I am clearly thinking. If this post upsets or annoys anyone, I want to blame it on the decongestants and antihistamines.

Okay, now that I've confused you, and possibly myself, I know you are wondering what on earth I'm talking about. I'm talking about him:

Never in a million years did I ever think I would write a blog post about Charlie Sheen, but I feel that I have something to say that is important. I know that we've all watched his horrible very public histrionics and we all have cringed and relegated him to the bad celebrity dungeon of depravity. He appears to be a misogynist, an addict, an egotist... and basically a horrible human being. People are saying terrible things about him. Cartoonists are having a field day. The Networks are ready to skewer him and fry him for the things he has said.

And yes, he has said them. All of those things. When I read the first article after the recent interview with Charlie Sheen, that is when it hit me.

Charlie Sheen has Bipolar Disorder and he is in extreme mania.

No, I'm not a psychiatrist. I don't have all the facts. But what I do have is experience.

I am the daughter of two bipolar parents. When I joke that they were "two crazy artists," I'm not kidding. I am intimate with bipolar disorder.
I have felt its' wrath, its' soaring heights, its' death-defying acts.
I have watched it wreak its' havoc on my father and by proxy on our family.

Someday. Someday very soon, I plan on writing a book about this. I already know the title. But for right now, I don't want to go into all the sad details.

My mom had it, too, but she didn't have the enormous mania swings like my dad.

This is a photo of my mom and me at a gallery opening of her paintings. She didn't live many years past this. She was already broken-hearted by my father leaving her. She also heard voices and thought that people were trying to kill us. She may also have had paranoid schizophrenia.

This is my dad and me from around the same time. He's wearing his "The Wiz" t-shirt. Dad is a twice-Oscar® nominated special effects make-up artist. (Now retired.) Dad is also a sculptor, painter, collage artist, and he has huge manic swings. He has had delusions of grandeur that the Italian government was going to fund a movie he wanted to make about Leonardo DaVinci. (There was no script, but he could definitely do the make-up.) He has said things and done things that are similar to Charlie Sheen, though not that publicly, or at that level of wealth and privilege.

Dad's art is very different when he is in mania. He painted this sofa cushion in 2005 at the peak of an enormous manic episode that cut off most of his family ties. Dad was very upset at George Bush and hated the Iraq war. He focused some of his mania on this painted bolster. He also tried to pick up women who were half my age when we went out to a pub in Manhattan.

I have witnessed the ravaging effects of mania first hand.
I have tried to explain it to my father, himself, and I have tried to get him treatment.
He doesn't want treatment, and I suspect that Charlie Sheen may feel the same way.
My dad loves his mania.
He feels powerful and creative.
He feels smart and revels in his devilish behavior.
He also gets himself into big financial nightmares.

And then the depression takes over.
For him it can be years. Dad is not a "rapid-cycler." I don't know about Charlie Sheen. It seems to me that the older you get, and the longer you go untreated, the cycles become more extreme and last longer. Some people don't go so deep in one direction. It's different for everyone.

But one thing I have learned is: forgiveness.

Mental illness is devastating. I have experienced things no child should have experienced. Things no teenager or adult should have experienced. No, I do not have bipolar disorder. Neither does my brother, David. (The photo at the top of this post is: me, David and my dad from 2005- that smirk on my dad's face is mania, but at that time dad was already on his way down.) However, I have read extensively on bipolar disorder and I have experienced my own mental hell: clinical depression at age thirty-five.

I have learned how to be a survivor. And I have forgiven my father. I am presently making room for him in my home. He may have said and done some terrible things, but I've realized that it wasn't him talking- it was the mania. I see that in Charlie Sheen now.

I hope that there are people around Charlie who recognize the signs.
I hope that he will accept treatment.
I hope that he won't be judged so harshly if this is truly what comes to light.
I wish him all the luck in the world facing his own illness.
More people need to know about bipolar disorder; it is more prevalent than you would think.
I'm going to do what I can to help.
This is my first scary step.

With Love,


  1. For some reason comments don't seem to be posting and I'm really frustrated with this. I'm checking Blogger to see why, but if anyone knows about these issues, please let me know. You can email me at nladen (at) speakeasy.org (Have to spell it that way to keep spam crawlers away.) Thanks!

  2. very brave dear, b

  3. Jesse RabinowitzMarch 3, 2011 at 7:07 AM

    This was a powerful, moving post. Thanks for sharing this.


  4. Nina -- this is stunningly brave, touching and insightful. Bravo. Thank you.

    Write that book when you can, many people will be grateful!

  5. Great post, Nina. Yeah you should write this into a book. Or have you already? Could be autobio, or might need to be fiction so you can have a little more emotional freedom. Forgiveness brings understanding and second chances.

  6. Nina, thanks for this post.

    I understand where you're coming from. My parents were also troubled. My mom with agoraphobia and depression and my dad with an additive personality (alcohol, drugs, religion).

    For a long time I hated them for not being the loving parents I wanted them to be. Later when I found out more about their own childhoods (my mom's mom suffered from bipolar disorder and my dad's mom depression/ catatonia) I could understand them better and was finally able to see them as troubled people rather than the monsters I had believed them to be.

    I think these experiences have made me more compassionate knowing how difficult dealing with a mental illness can be.


  7. Naomi Rabinowitz-BuchananMarch 3, 2011 at 4:24 PM

    Beautifully said Nina.

    I have several friends who are children of Bipolar parents and have known their experience. Mental illness is so deeply painful and relentless and you describe it so well. Thank you for reminding us that even public figures suffer.

    Caring for our elderly parents is difficult in the best of times.. so much more complicated when mental illness and other pervasive problems are added. Your care for your dad is a testimony to your humanity and love. Take good care of yourself as well.

  8. This is brave and moving. I too was raised by a parent who was diagnosed with mental health issues; my mother was paranoid schizophrenic, and what is generally referred to as "borderline personality". Her illness, her terrible sadness really, manifested itself in ways that were scary, cruel, unthinkable. Mostly, cruel to herself.

    I am touched by the notion of forgiveness. Yet no matter how much I've read on the subject, how much I've learned about it from others and (in my better moments) from myself, I remain suspicious of what it truly means, and what it may mitigate in terms of ultimate responsibility. From what I've read and researched over the years, the young man who shot Rep. Gabrielle Gifords was likely bi-polar, as was Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley and Charles Manson. My heart yearns to forgive. It yearns to find the best way to reckon with the ugliness of certain illness and the unfathomable truth that life is, as we were all told as children, not fair. It is a revolutionary act to offer forgiveness for irrational cruelty. I offer only this to you: The only one I have been able to begin to forgive is myself.

    Forgive myself for the awful, primal but human desire for revenge.
    For the rage that still cries out for the imbalances in the world.
    And for the relief I felt deep within on the day my mother died.

    I imagine somehow I forgive her now, with the distance of time and in her absence. I wonder at what price this forgiveness comes. And no matter who I tell her story to, I wonder about it alone, haunted by its truths.

    I am not feeding on Charlie Sheen today. I, like you, watch as the secret unfolds. And hope for something better to calm us all who've seen this repetition before, up close, and have felt its weight.

  9. Dear Anonymous-
    Thank you, thank you for this comment and your honest thoughts. I completely agree with what you have said, and let it be known that I am not above reproach. I have forgiven so much, and have let go of what I can't control. But there are people in this drama that I can't forgive, and there were acts committed that I won't forget.

    There is a certain catharsis in writing, and I am hoping to find solace there. Ironic coming from someone who has a career creating joyful books for children, which I still continue to do.

    I agree with your analysis of bipolar disorder in some of the most violent criminals, and in those cases forgiveness is not going to answer the questions or assuage the feelings of scores involved.

    My mother died twenty five years ago. I never got to know her as an adult. My father is still with us, and for years I hated him for how he treated me, my brother, our family. My understanding has changed in my knowledge of bipolar disorder and I see him differently now. Maybe I am doing this for myself, but I also see that all humans need to live with some dignity, and his illness at this stage has stripped him of that. All I can do is try to help, and hope to heal.

    Charlie Sheen has a long road ahead of him, and I hope he can see what he has said and done in that rearview mirror.

  10. There is a catharsis in writing (I too make my living that way), and more, in sharing these thoughts with someone like yourself who had the strength and honesty to initially engage the subject here.

    That, in and of itself, is the start of some healing. Many thanks to you. Whatever his crimes, your father is a lucky man to have your grace and kindness in his care.

  11. Thanks, Nina. Well said.

  12. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/04/opinion/04holmes.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hp

    Copy and paste URL into browser or go directly to NY Times site for article, The Disposable Woman - How reality TV makes us more tolerant of Charlie Sheen’s abuses.

  13. Dear Anonymous:
    Thank you for the link to the NY Times article. I actually read that article on a friend's Facebook link. I do agree with the sad state of television's acrid treatment of women, and I don't disagree that Charlie Sheen has physically and mentally abused women... but I have witnessed this very same behavior- however not on the same scale- with my very own father. I think that restraining orders are almost part of the tool kit when dealing with the manic episodes of bipolar disorder.

    I still think that the root of the evil of Charlie Sheen is mental illness. Yes, the networks are capitalizing on it and that is sad, but until that illness is treated he will continue to exhibit this same grandiose behavior and he may step it up to true violence. On the other hand, if he crashes hard, suicide is also not out of the question. The man needs help.

  14. Nina,
    Thanks for having the courage to reveal your own wounds, and the trust in all of us to understand. Like you, I recognized immediately that Charlie Sheen was in the manic stage of Bipolar Disorder. Whether congenital or caused by drug abuse I can't know, but I suspect the former. Also, like you and others who responded to your blog, it is because of pain inflicted within my family..both to and from me..that I learned the value of forgiveness. When I forgave myself, I found I could also forgive those who had hurt me, and love them despite the continuation of their destructive behavior. It also enabled me to see addiction as an illness, just as Bi-polar Disorder or any other "mental" illness is. It may still be sad and frightening to witness the pain that people cause themselves and others, but instead of feeling anger and resentment, I'm fortunate to be able to respond instead with love, respect, and understanding.

  15. Dear Chris:
    Thank you for your beautiful comment. I completely empathize with you. We all have to grow through these experiences or else we live with the poison and toxicity and eventually it shrivels our souls.


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