Jess Cagle
March 04, 2011 AT 05:00 AM EST

I got a very big kick out of Charlie Sheen for a very long time. I don’t mean I thought he was a good guy or an upstanding citizen, or that I was a huge fan of Two and a Half Men. But Sheen himself was fascinating: a celebrity unhinged and uninterested in making himself warm and fuzzy to the public. He has never seemed admirable or even decent, but he was authentic and never boring. We imagined we might live the way he did, if we were powerful and beloved and exceedingly wealthy and free of conscience or any moral code whatsoever — sex, drugs, world-class hotels. And except for the occasional arrest or stint in rehab, he always ended up back on our TVs, hitting his marks on his top-rated series, playing a PG-13-rated version of himself.

But the Good Time Charlie we believed in was laid to rest by his mind-boggling radio and morning-television media tour. Staggeringly arrogant, twitchy, raspy, delusional, and gaunt, he would’ve been more at home in the movie Winter’s Bone than on a sunny CBS sitcom. He seemed hell-bent on destroying his show, the jobs of the people who worked on it, his career, and the rest of his audience’s goodwill. We’ve learned a lot about Sheen these past few days. First, he really is a pig when it comes to women, if there was any lingering doubt. He put the two young blank-eyed females now sharing his home on display, and he took a verbal swipe at his estranged wife (the same one who accused him of domestic violence in 2009), his voice dropping to a low, disturbing growl. His denials of anti-Semitism cannot dry the contempt that dripped from his voice when he referred to Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre as ”Chaim Levine.” Boastful and belligerent, he insisted he doesn’t have a disease: ”I cured it with my brain,” he said. He apparently passed a drug test, but he still sounds as though he’s been medicating himself, and certainly not with his brain.

We can never look at Charlie Sheen the same way again; this is a unique celebrity meltdown, and it elicits a particular response. When Mel Gibson’s hateful phone calls surfaced, we felt disgusted. When Britney Spears shaved her head and went wild, we felt concerned. But Sheen’s fall seems anticlimactic (it has been, after all, a long time coming), as well as sad and frustrating and hopeless. He insists he’s ”special,” and keeps referring to himself as a ”rock star,” but in fact he sounds more like a garden-variety addict — grandiose, angry, desperately insecure. Take away the private planes and global fame, and his story is similar to a thousand others you could hear in a thousand 12-step meetings every day from addicts who, like Sheen, once considered Alcoholics Anonymous the ”work of sissies.” But those stories often end with a change of heart and the addict’s realization that, in fact, he or she isn’t too special to admit the problem and ask for help. The ending of Sheen’s story has yet to be told, but it’s not looking good. With all his talent and opportunities and privilege, Sheen might have chosen Robert Downey Jr.’s path back to glory. Instead he’s trailing Anna Nicole Smith into an abyss of self-destruction. We are watching it happen in real time, mourning the star we wanted to believe he was, and hoping that Sheen himself finds the strength to quiet down and admit to being nothing more than human.

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