There’s an inherent repetitiveness to all books about alcoholism or drug addiction. The reader knows immediately that if the main character enters rehab just a third of the way into the story, a relapse — or more likely, a series of relapses — is just page turn away. That's the nature of addiction: It's a vicious circle, or more accurately, a vicious spiral that typically moves only downward.
Beautiful Boy, David Sheff’s 2008 #1 New York Times bestseller about his son Nic's rapid descent into methamphetamines addiction, is no less gripping because you already know what's coming: Nic, an exceedingly bright, athletic and creative boy, starts drinking and smoking pot as a northern California preteen and soon moves on to harder stuff before discovering his drug of choice: crystal meth.
What unfolds over the ensuing 300-plus pages of Sheff's compelling and heart-wrenching memoir is all-too-familiar terrain to the families of addicts: the lying, stealing, guilt, self-recrimination, broken promises, sleepless nights, police cars, and seemingly endless visits to emergency rooms, Al-Anon meetings and drug rehab centers. And tears. Lots and lots of tears.
But the book, which is unsparing in its gritty honesty, also offers tremendous hope to those who assume there's no road back from addiction to an insidious drug that permanently alters the brains of its users.
Sheff, whose pieces have appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Wired and elsewhere, based this book on a February 2005 article he wrote for the New York Times Magazine called "My Addicted Son." Since the publication of Beautiful Boy, Nic Sheff has published two books of his own about his meth habit: Tweak and We All Fall Down.
Sheff, 56, will be speaking at Burlington's Contois Auditorium on Thursday, April 5, at 7 p.m. (Tickets are $15. Click here for more info.) He was invited to Vermont by documentary filmmaker Bess O’Brien, of Kingdom County Productions, whose latest project addresses prescription opiate abuse in St. Albans. Following Sheff's talk, he'll take part in an open panel discussion, moderated by Mitch Barron, with St. Albans pediatrician Dr. Fred Holmes and two recovering prescription-pill addicts.
Seven Days spoke to Sheff by phone at his home in Inverness, Calif.
SEVEN DAYS: You must get many invitations to speak to community groups all around the country. What convinced you to come to Vermont? It couldn’t just be for the Ben & Jerry’s and maple syrup.
DAVID SHEFF: Do you know Bess O’Brien? She’s sort of a force of nature and hard to say no to. But, yes, I get a lot of invitations and I like to do them. It’s really gratifying to connect with people, and it also relates to the new book I’m working on... about the addiction treatment system, what works, what doesn’t, and what’s wrong with the system we have here in America. So, going to different places is instructive. Most places have very similar issues but there are specifics to specific places and specific drugs... Plus, it sounds like Bess is doing some really interesting work. That has a lot to do with it. And, the maple syrup.
SD: You write in Beautiful Boy that your own experimentation with drugs was a flaw that you passed on to your son. Have your other two kids avoided using drugs?
DS: They have. You don’t have to convince them that drugs are really, really bad. They were scared to death... When I was growing up, my parents talked to me about drugs. They warned me [with] information they probably got from public service announcements on TV and PTA meetings. So, I thought they were totally clueless, and they were, about drugs. They had no idea. So, because of my experiences, I understood, and understand, why people use drugs, both for the social part of it and also the relief they can provide when you’re stressed out. I understood the draw of drugs and I wasn’t naive about the dangers. It wasn’t just someone giving me these Nancy Reagan-like “Just say no” warnings. I had one friend I wrote about who died... one who ended up in prison, another who ended up out of his mind and who slowly drifted off into oblivion.
SD: So, you thought your own drug experiences would give you credibility and make a difference with Nic.
DS: Of course, it didn’t make any difference whatsoever. So, with the two younger kids, Nic’s brother and sister, I...realized it’s not about experience or no experience. The hidden lesson of my experience with Nic is the way we look at our kids and the way we measure how they’re doing. We look at these external barometers and according to those, Nic was doing great. I write about his awards and his grades and his sports and all that. But now I know that he was in a lot of trouble emotionally... It’s stressful for kids growing up and they really need our help.
SD: How so?
DS: In the research I’m doing right now, I just read that they did a survey of parents across America about why their kids use drugs. And the number-one answer parents gave, by far, is that [they assume] kids like to get high and they like the feeling. But when they surveyed the kids, the kids said that the number-one reason they use drugs is because of stress.
SD: How do you suggest other parents reconcile their own past, or even present, drug use —which maybe never became problematic — with an effective anti-drug message? Can we honestly say to our kids, “Do as I say, not as I did”?
DS: I agree, it’s a problem, for sure. I’ve looked at the research about that, too... It suggests that if parents are open with their kids, their kids are going to respond more and are going to trust them and have a more open dialogue about drugs. It also reflects what kids say they want. Other people I’ve spoken to say the conversations don’t necessarily have to be about you. Every parent [who’s used drugs] can decide, do you want to lie to your kid or not? I don’t think it’s necessarily going to make the biggest difference one way or the other. The other things you do are going to make a bigger difference.
SD: Virtually every culture has devised some method for altering consciousness with psychoactive chemicals. As a society, don’t we need to acknowledge this universal human phenomenon in order to address the problems of addiction?
DS: I haven’t thought too much about it, but I do think it’s worth thinking about and worth acknowledging. One of the things I’ve thought a lot about is that curiosity and impulsivity are obviously really normal, especially when you’re talking about teenagers. We’d like to try to channel those things in ways that are not dangerous... But the reason we can’t have those conversations you’re describing is because we have a very deep-seated miscalculation in the way we talk about drugs. We have this idea that drugs are bad and no drugs are good. And, kids who use drugs are bad and kids who don’t use drugs are good. But we know that more than half of teenagers smoke pot and a lot of them do other things. So, are we saying that half our kids are bad? We need to shift that paradigm and say, this isn’t about good or bad. It’s about questions of experimentation and impulsivity and growing up and stress.
SD: You live in California, where medical marijuana is not only legal but ubiquitous. Meanwhile, many other states are wrestling with the legalization issue. As you talk at length in Beautiful Boy about marijuana being Nic’s gateway to meth, how do you feel about the changing cultural attitudes toward pot?
DS: The marijuana question right now is really confusing because, on the one hand, you have people who think pot is great and you should smoke it all the time and it’s natural and it has no problems and you can’t get addicted. They want to make it legal. Then there are the people who are hard line on it, that drugs are bad, and marijuana is a dangerous drug and all that stuff. The problem is that neither one of them is really reflecting the truth. The truth is, even marijuana does cause damage. I’ve seen pictures of the brains of kids who smoke and those who don’t, and some kids do get addicted to marijuana... the people who say marijuana use is completely benign and you can’t get addicted are wrong. But, the people on the other side who say that marijuana use is automatically going to lead a kid to being a junkie in the gutter are also [wrong].
SD: Do you support legalization of marijuana?
DS: I think that we should legalize marijuana not because it’s safe... but because what we’re doing doesn’t work and we’re treating it as a legal problem and not a health problem. It’s a health issue and we should deal with it in that way... Nic even said it. It was easier for him to get pot in high school than it was to get alcohol. It’s a joke to think that what we’re doing is in any way working... I think the whole focus should be on education.
SD: Is the book you’re currently working on, about drug treatment and rehab programs, a critical look at the industry?
DS: It’s going to be called The Thirteenth Step. As the title suggests, it’s about where we go from here. We now know a lot more than we knew 50 or 100 years ago, but the current treatment system is based on what we knew 50 or 100 years ago. It’s not based on the science that has evolved in the field of addiction medicine. So, I’m describing what we know, describing what we don’t know, describing the progress that’s been made, criticizing where criticism is due and suggesting that we evolve so that we have a system that deals with drugs, both use and addiction, modeled on the way our systems deals with other health problems.
SD: What do you think is our country’s biggest misconception about drug addiction?
DS: This may sound too simplistic, but a lot of it comes down to the stigma. We look at drugs as this moral problem instead of a medical problem. Because of the stigma, people don’t want to talk about it. They aren’t going to admit that they’re trying drugs because they’re curious. Kids will tell each other, but they’re not going to tell their teachers or their parents. If there’s a problem in a family, everybody keeps it secret because it’s stigmatized as evil. Because of that, drug problems don’t show themselves until people are really, really messed up... Because of the way some people’s brains are built, some people are much more susceptible to the influence of using, to getting high and also continuing to use. There’s a physiological reason that that happens. The more people are educated to that, the less the stigma and the less we judge them.
SD: Last week, I wrote a short piece asking the question: Why doesn’t Vermont have a problem with methamphetamines? I wasn’t able to get a definitive answer. Any thoughts on the issue?
DS: That’s an interesting question. I haven’t thought of it exactly in that way, but I’m definitely aware that...it is regional. I know, for instance, that when Nic went to school for one year at Hampshire College in western Massachusetts near Amherst, he couldn’t get meth so he started using heroin. But that was a long time ago and meth hadn’t swept the country the way it has now... But you’re right. As you get away from the Northeast, you definitely hear more about meth. But I have no idea [why].
SD: In Beautiful Boy, you write about how different people are drawn to different drugs and how meth was Nic’s drug of choice.
DS: There is a correlation. Supposedly, people with bipolar disorder are more likely to go for a stimulant, especially methamphetamines, and that probably has to do with the way their neurological system is misfiring and they’re depleted of dopamine. The drug makes them feel sort of normal. Heroin, of course, works differently... There is the suggestion that people with other disorders would be drawn to the calming effects of opioids.
SD: What was it like reading Nic’s first book, Tweak?
DS: It was so excruciating I could barely get through it. If I read that book and it was written by anybody [else], it would have been so hard to read and so hard to believe that any human being could have gone through what that kid went through. And then to have it be my son, it was just appalling.
SD: So, you didn’t know about much of what he went through on the streets?
DS: I knew some of it but I absolutely didn’t know a lot of it. I didn’t know how bad it had gotten in some cases. I didn’t know about some of the horrors and maybe I’m lucky that I didn’t... [Before] I read his book, there was a sense that he’s traumatizing my family. [His younger siblings] Jasper and Daisy are wrecks, Karen and I are staying up all night and not sleeping, and he’s out there having a good time and getting high. How dare he? But when I read his book, I realized that he was not having fun. He was in hell and in misery. It was sad but it was useful... It really sunk in for me what it’s like to be an addict. No human being would do the things that he did if he were not out of his mind.
SD: Is Nic still writing?
DS: He wrote a follow-up to his first book, [We All Fall Down], and now he’s working on a novel. He’s also talking about doing some work in TV. And, he got married last summer to a girl we really, really love and we’ve known since she was 12.
SD: How’s he doing?
DS: The big shock for me is that in six months he’s going to be 30. The idea that my son is going to be 30 makes me feel old anyway, but after everything we’ve been through, his turning 30 feels like a real miracle. There was a time when I didn’t think he’d make it to 21, so I feel really, really lucky.
SD: Is he still clean?
DS: Yeah, it’s been four and a half years. It’s really great. What’s really heartening about Nic’s experience and his story is that it offers real hope to other people who have kids or family members who are dealing with the same thing. I have heard from so many people whose husbands, wives, kids are in such bad shape, and when I hear the details, it’s nowhere near as bad as Nic was. And even though that’s really scary and there are no guarantees, I feel that the fact that Nic was able to turn his life around — I won’t say than anyone can, because many people can’t and don’t — but many people can and will.
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