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The Charlie Sheens We Know

When I eulogized my brother, I was emphatic that I will remember the happy memories of Jeff. I owe it to him to remember him for all he gave us, and not for what this scourge of mental illness did to the son and brother we loved.
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The peculiar and downright preposterous revelations coming almost daily from Charlie Sheen reflect the kind of human comedy that would have drawn my brother Jeff and me into endless email and phone discussions, despite our living half a country apart. Jeff was my oldest brother, 10 years my senior, but we had shared passions for our Wisconsin sports teams and pop culture, and a brand of wit and sometimes sardonic humor that probably entertained each other much more than it did others. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to discuss Sheen's "winning" attitude, his "goddesses" or his "tiger blood" with Jeff, because my brother died a few months ago. And the likeness between the words and actions of Sheen and my brother are both uncanny and alarming.

My brother reached his 49th year without virtually anyone close to him knowing about the deep mental health issues that had plagued him for years. Some of us knew he was troubled, occasionally depressed by the challenges in his life, including divorce and job loss that led to financial difficulties. Mostly, we saw a façade; a nice apartment in suburban Chicago, a promising job in an industry he loved and good humor; he was ever the devoted brother and son.

It was March 29, 2010 -- a date I will never forget -- when Jeff's mind seemed to explode, suddenly raging against our close-knit family over a trivial squabble, with hateful words and a vitriol we could not even begin to process. My brother became wholly unrecognizable. Utterly confused by this sharp change in behavior, my shell-shocked family consulted both professionals and the Internet, quickly grasping that we were seeing the manifestation of mental illness. This stunned each of us, as we had no knowledge that Jeff had any such affliction, and we were unaware of any mental health issues within our extended family.

Yet without question, he was exhibiting almost every symptom of bipolar mania. He had delusions of grandeur, frequently telling us and his employers how undervalued and underappreciated he was, and how his supervisors should be fired and replaced by, of course, him. He spent money recklessly, falling into deep debt, but carefree because his mind told him he was on the cusp of professional greatness and financial reward. For those familiar with the Sheen story, my brother informed us by email -- word for word -- that "I'm on a drug, and it's called Jeff Kutler." He rarely slept, canvassed Craigslist and Facebook for one-night stands, likely abused drugs and continued to rage against previously close family members.

In retrospect, recognizing my brother's affliction was the easy part; convincing him to seek help became a dispiriting and futile endeavor. He rebuffed and deceived us at every turn, and spiraled deeper into personal and financial problems from which his mental illness blinded him. Money became an issue, and our family decided to withhold any assistance, believing that Jeff's remaining hope was to hit "rock bottom" -- most likely jail or homelessness -- when he would have no choice but to seek treatment voluntarily. We eventually hired an attorney and navigated a mountain of bureaucracy to have him involuntarily committed for psychiatric treatment, but to little avail. The psychiatrist responsible for evaluating Jeff following his arrest on a minor charge struck us as indifferent and uncaring; she became more of an antagonist to our family than any sort of advocate.

Jeff was eventually fired from his job. He was arrested more than once for small crimes. He became homeless when he could no longer pay his rent. It took several months, but he finally hit "rock bottom." With Jeff penniless and living on the streets of Chicago, an old friend living in rural Wisconsin took him in, intent on helping him piece his life back together. We had glimmers of hope for a few weeks, but then we faced an unimaginable tragedy. We suspect the bipolar pendulum swung from mania to depression, and the pain and shame became too much for Jeff to endure. On Nov. 4, 2010, my brother took his own life.

For those of us on the outside, it took a little more than seven months for Jeff's life to unravel and come to a close. More likely, Jeff had been managing his mental health issues for years, even decades, while managing to cloak his illness from his family, friends and colleagues. Almost all who knew him would attest that he was one of the most intelligent, imaginative and conscientious individuals they knew; none of us could have ever detected that a cancer was consuming his mind.

When I eulogized my brother, I was emphatic that I will choose to remember the happy memories of Jeff. They are too many, and too powerful, to forget. I owe it to him to remember him for all that he gave us, and not for what this scourge of mental illness did to the son and brother we knew and loved.

I am sure that Jeff appreciated the scene, as I did, in the "Hot Shots! Part Deux" spoof "Apocalypse Now," when two American gunboats are passing each other on a jungle river, with Charlie Sheen and Martin Sheen standing on the bow of each ship, dressed in Army fatigues and dog tags. As they pass, they point to each other and shout in unison, "I loved you in Wall Street!" Like my brother, Charlie Sheen has spent a lifetime laughing with his family, and bringing laughter to others. Today, I suspect that the Sheen family is suffering the same anguish and helplessness as we experienced, fighting to bring their son and brother back, trying desperately to reach out to someone who likely will not reach back.

So with this perspective, I have found myself somewhat absorbed by the media coverage of Charlie Sheen. Most of what you read is a parody of his antics and Tweets. He has become a caricature in the media; drug abuse or other addiction issues are frequently cited, with an occasional nod to the possibility of mental health issues. Yet fame and fortune cannot shield a celebrity from mental illness.

Sheen has spent his entire professional life pretending to be someone he isn't. And he may very well have been doing that in his personal life as well. Like "Wall Street" and "Platoon," I have seen this movie before, and it does not end well. Whatever the source of Charlie's troubles, I offer the Sheen family my very best wishes that their son and brother get the help he needs.