Excerpted from article Martin Sheen: Breaking Through, AARP mag.

"I'm in the [Alcoholics Anonymous] program, you know," Martin 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 [AARP]: "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."

Coping With Son Charlie's Drug Addiction

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.

"People adored Charlie, with good reason. He was adorable. So it was very difficult to get his attention. He had access to magic carpets-high-celebrity friends and a lot of money, power. He was hidden away in a tower you couldn't get to. The ones who were closest to him were his worst enemies. They depended on him for their living, and they would say anything and do anything."

Q: "Yeah, it's the thing that can kill somebody."

A: "That does kill. That will kill you. And you have to know that these people are there. And you have to go through them like a tank."

Q: "How do you go through them like a tank?"

A: "You expose them. You never allow them to give you an excuse. You face them and you say, 'You're a damn liar. Get out of my face. I wouldn't trust you as far as I could throw you.' You have to believe enough in life to risk your own reputation. After a while I was outrageous. Outrageous.

"They would scurry like cockroaches when they saw me in public places. I was just fearless, could care a damn about protocol. In a restaurant, in a public setting. It didn't matter a whit. They'd want to be nice. 'So what have I done?' 'You want to know what you've done? Anybody else want to know what this scumbag has done?'

"And they're gone. What's the alternative? It's never going to happen in a calm and civilized manner. And it was always the hardest core that we dealt with in the end, the one carrying the gun."

Q: "And do you take the gun away from that person?"

A: "Take the gun away."

Q: "You took the gun away."

A: "Absolutely, yeah. When a life is at stake and it's your child, you become fearless in a lot of ways. I mean, you just become fanatic. Nothing ever gets done unless it's done by a fanatic."

Q: "Yes, fanatics make miracles."

A: "Exactly. The night I made the decision to go to court with the papers I'd gotten from the hospital was the most difficult decision of my life. They put out a warrant, and Charlie got it like that. And he called me. I was still with the sheriff. I can't repeat what he said-he used some choice words I've never heard before. I was very, very impressed with the language.

"And you realize that you're talking to the drug. I said, 'Whoa, whoa, wait just a minute. Are you coming in [to court] tomorrow?' 'Yes, I am. I'm coming in with an attorney.' And he brought [O.J. Simpson attorney] Robert Shapiro as his lawyer.

"I said, 'Fine. I'm delighted. I'm very impressed. Do you mind if I'm there? I'll be at the court?' And he suddenly got kind of calm, and he said, 'Oh, sure. Why not?' I said, 'Well, you know, I don't want to suddenly show up and you're gonna lose it.' He said, 'No, you come. Okay.'

"Then he went back in a rage. And I said, 'Hey, hang on. Wait a minute.' 'What?' he said. 'When I see you,' I said, 'can I give you a kiss?' He got very quiet again. He said, 'Well, sure, why not?'

"'Well, I just want to make sure if I go up to kiss you, you don't punch me in the mouth.'

"He said, 'I wouldn't do such a thing.'

"I said, 'I didn't think you would.' Then he went back to raging." (Laughs.)

"He arrived that next morning with Mr. Shapiro, who was wonderful. [Charlie] walked right up, kissed me on the lips, went in to see the judge. Yeah, he knew it was over. And he was very relieved in a lot of ways that he couldn't express."

Q: "It sounds as if Charlie has very much forgiven you and thanks you."

A: "Well, I mean, that's his business. I did it for me. I wouldn't carry this with me all my life. I had to do everything humanly possible. If I had come up short and lost him, I might as well be dead.

"But this is an interesting thing. A year later, I'm driving down the highway and the news comes on the radio: 'Live from the Malibu Courthouse, our reporter is talking live with Charlie Sheen, and he's just left the courtroom.' Charlie was clean and sober, and so now he's off probation. What a jubilant moment. 'Well,' he said, 'I want to thank my father for saving my life.'

"I pulled off the road and I wept uncontrollably. I wept and wept.

"And I sat there staring at the ocean and I thought, 'What's wrong with this picture? Let's get beyond this business of who's to blame, who gets the credit.' Then it occurred to me. I get to Charlie a couple of hours later. 'Say, Charlie, I heard your news conference.' 'Yeah, Pop, what do you say?'

"I said, 'Bullshit.' 'What?' I said, 'It's not true.' 'What do you mean, "It's not true"?' 'I didn't save your life. I got your attention. You saved your life. Because if you go on believing that I saved your life, you're not going to take responsibility for it.'

"And he got it like that. 'Hmmm,' he said. 'Thank you. Okay. Yup, that's the end of that, isn't it?' 'Yup, it is.' He never talked about it again."


Substance Abuse Warning Signs

1. Physical evidence Prescription drugs and liquor missing; "stash cans," often disguised as cola cans.

2. Changes in eating and sleeping habits Insomnia, inappropriate napping, weight loss.

3. Changes in appearance Lack of cleanliness; red eyes; congestion.

4. Changes in behavior Moodiness, hostility; lying; isolation; secrecy.

5. Changes in friends and interests Sneaking out at night; relinquishment of hobbies.

Source: Narcotic Overdose Prevention and Education

Article source: Martin Sheen: Breaking Through, Interview by Nancy Perry Graham, AARP Magazine, July & August 2008.


NOTE by AddictionInfo editor: The 12-Step approach of AA does not work for most people, and there are multiple alternatives - see these articles, among many others on this site:

Why hasn't alcohol rehab worked for Lindsay Lohan and 93% of the problem drinkers in the US?

AA Is Not The Only Way