Today show anchors had been teasing the Charlie Sheen interview all Tuesday morning. The perpetually troubled star, once the highest-paid actor on television, had a health revelation, and it was big.
At first I thought cancer, but then why the big announcement?
Bipolar disorder, my husband guessed. Yes, or perhaps schizophrenia, I said, glad that Sheen finally might be offering up an explanation for his drug sprees, depressive spirals and media rants, and could get help.
“I’m here to admit that I am, in fact, HIV-positive,” Sheen said in the interview with Matt Lauer. He said he had paid out upward of $10 million in blackmail money since his diagnosis in 2011.
My reaction was swift and two-fold.
First: What!? HIV hadn’t even crossed my mind.
I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with Paul Kawata, executive director of NMAC (formerly the National Minority AIDS Council) in September during their annual conference. “HIV is yesterday’s news,” he’d said. With the advances in treatment, people think it’s been cured and other diseases (like Ebola) have captured media attention. But “that doesn’t mean the stories have stopped.”
My second reaction: Poor thing. Poor, poor thing. My sympathy was not just for the diagnosis, but also for the shame and stigma Sheen had been carrying around for years. For how shame and stigma might make a person crazy. For the sheer human hurt of it all. Poor Sheen, I thought. And poor us who can’t muster a safe cultural climate – which would make people more likely to get educated and tested – to save our lives.
Sheen said he revealed his diagnosis after a spate of recent tabloid rumors about his condition. Although he once made nearly $2 million per episode as star of the CBS hit Two and a Half Men, the payouts had taken a toll, he said. It’s money “they’re taking from my children,” Sheen told Lauer. “I release myself from this prison today.”
Kawata says he’d known about Sheen’s condition before the revelation. There’d been an off-the-record email that had been circulating in the HIV activist community for weeks suggesting that this was coming. “So I wasn’t surprised, but I was profoundly sad” over everything Sheen’s secret had cost him. (Also Read: Charlie Sheen’s Diagnosis Is Nothing to be Ashamed of. Our Reaction is)
Kawata calls the millions Sheen has paid out “a clear example of the extent to which people will go to cover up the fact that they have HIV.” There’s still a sense of shame attached to the disease, he says, and it gets internalized.
“I don’t know about Charlie, but at least from my friends who have the disease, there is this sense that they failed,” he said. “That they didn’t practice safe sex, that they did something wrong.” These days most people know how HIV is transmitted and if you got it, that means you didn’t follow the rules. “The stigma is, this is a punishment.”
Sheen’s father, actor Martin Sheen, has been an activist for HIV and AIDS causes for more than 30 years. Kawata has seen the swell of support for Charlie and heard his doctor say on Today that with his ongoing treatment, the actor’s viral load was now undetectable and it would be very hard to transmit. Still, Kawata worries whether Sheen will be allowed to work. And what if the script calls for a kissing scene?
He points out that when people found out that Rock Hudson had AIDS, they worried needlessly about Linda Evans, whom he’d kissed on the nighttime soap Dynasty.
But we’ve come so far, I protested. Of course, not far enough that someone can’t still be blackmailed over their status.
We are only as sick as our secrets, the saying goes. Privacy is one thing, but the first time someone tried to blackmail Sheen, he should have felt free to ignore the threat. It shouldn’t have had a years-long hold over him. Here’s hoping he’ll be able to focus just on healing now, and give others burdened with shame a lighter load. And that as a culture, one day we won’t be so sick with judgment and scorn to make that impossible.