Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Lou's Story

For every Charlie Sheen, there is a Louis Gossett Jr. Except that Gossett's got what Sheen doesn't: an Oscar, an Emmy and a profound respect for people in recovery, including himself.

I recently had a chance to hear Gossett tell his story at a Hazelden event in Naples, Fla. For an actor who has been honored with his profession's highest achievements, he barely talked about his life as an actor.

Instead, he shared his behind-the-scenes struggles with alcohol and other drugs that weren't part of a Hollywood script. His were real-life consequences: divorce, estrangement from his sons, and a plunge into mental anguish, hastened when, after winning an Academy Award for his supporting role in "An Officer and a Gentleman," offers for more and bigger movie roles didn't come. "My heart began to break, and I fell for the self-abuse to ease the pain," he said.

Gossett had every reason to stop, but he couldn't.

"Doing it for other people didn't work. Doing it my way, on my terms, didn't work. I couldn't run anymore or hide. ... Finally, that's when I realized that the man inside of me — me — had to give in, stop trying so hard, surrender, have a commitment, willingness to change, clean up my own house inside and get rid of my defects of character," Gossett told the audience. "Suddenly, I faced a very pleasant dilemma ... learning to live in sobriety."

Gossett is unabashed by how he stays clean and sober: a program of steps that lets him "make progress without perfection," a higher power he calls God, and helping others. "I have to give it away to keep it." All those things, he says, help him "practice the art of recovery."

What a contrast to Sheen's headline-grabbing rants and raves that go beyond making himself look either very foolish or very ill. Sheen has viciously trashed this "art of recovery" espoused by the likes of hundreds of thousands of people like Gossett.

Sheen even disparages sobriety, calling it "boring."
Gossett, 74, is hardly bored. Telling his story of addiction and redemption is only part of his life's work. In 2006, he started the Eracism Foundation. "I dedicate this last quadrant of my life to an all-out conscientious offensive against racism," Gossett said. Like addiction, racism robs people of their dignity and erodes their respect.

I wanted to ask Gossett whether he and Sheen ever have met and whether he or others in that bright yet faraway galaxy of stars have tried to help the troubled actor, whose denial now goes far beyond his own well-being. But that's personal and none of my business.

I appreciate that Gossett shared his insides with members of an audience he never had met, including many who know his truth, that treatment works, recovery is real and there's nothing boring about sobriety, except that we don't tend to wave machetes from public rooftops and trash hotel rooms anymore.

I have to admit, though, that I was bummed out shortly after he finished. That's because for every Charlie Sheen, there are plenty of celebrities who don't do what he's doing or crash cars or walk off the set or go broke or die, because they're not drinking or drugging anymore, but until they tell their stories publicly — perhaps all at once — Sheen's sold-out "My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not an Option" is the only show in town.

For sure, this tour of self-aggrandized destruction will get plenty of attention, even though it won't win an award for its producer, director and lead actor.

And is his message really what we want our kids and people struggling with mental illness or addiction to hear?

William Moyers is the vice president of foundation relations for the Hazelden Foundation and the author of "Broken," his best-selling memoirs, and "A New Day, A New Life." Please send your questions to William Moyers at wmoyers@hazelden.org. To find out more about William Moyers and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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