beautiful boy – – – up close and personal

Posted on March 9, 2010. Filed under: addiction, Addiction Resources/Support, AlAnon, Parent of an Addict | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Last Thursday evening, I attended a speaking event in Seattle, sponsored by the Recovery Café. It featured David Sheff, author of beautiful boy, a father’s journey through his son’s meth addiction and his son, Nic, who wrote the book tweak, growing up on methamphetamine. (Listen to David and Nic in an interview)   First, a little info about The Recovery Cafe:

The Recovery Café is a loving, supportive community serving men and women traumatized by homelessness, addiction and mental health challenges. Recovery Café was founded on the belief that every human being is precious and beloved regardless of past trauma, mental and emotional anguish and addictive behaviors. Recovery Café seeks to embrace everyone who enters; to help each individual come to know him/herself as one who is loved, with gifts and love to share with our community.

David Sheff is not a natural speaker.  He gets tongue-tied a bit when he’s speaking ‘off the cuff’.  However, when he began reading from his notes, he became more confident and impassioned.  And, as the evening went on, he became more comfortable as a spontaneous speaker and did well in fielding questions from the audience. It was touching how he and his son, Nic, demonstrated their love and respect for each other in an uninhibited, affectionate way that almost made me weep.  I fantasized that one day my lost daughter, Hayley, and I could come together and be as forgiving, generous, and loving with each sother.

David recounted his own drug use and experimentation as a young adult – that drugs helped make him feel more – – – and less.  He expressed guilt about his drug use and admitted to a lot of self-blame and regret, which were, ultimately, useless and incapacitating.

He acknowledged that he became addicted to his son’s addiction.  Here are some excerpts from Sheff’s book that express this co-dependence:

•Nic’s addiction became far more compelling than the rest of my  life. p.305

•This realization impelled me to do whatever I could to get past  my obsessive worry about Nic.  I could not change Nic, only me.  And so instead of focusing on Nic’s recovery, since then I have  focused on mine.  I  learned that  at some point,  focusing on Nic’s perpetual crises became safer territory than focusing on myself. p. 309

• . . . it’s futile. You cannot control an addict.  Family members’ moods become dependent on how the addict is doing.  People become obsessed.  There is no joy left in their life. p. 153

•Therapists say that parents of children on drugs often get a form of posttraumatic stress syndrome made worse by the recurring  nature of addiction.  We pretend that everything is all right.  But we live with a time bomb.  It is debilitating to be dependent on          another’s moods and decisions and actions – codependent on  his/ her well-being for ours. p.228

•Some of the times when Nic wasn’t all right it got so bad that I  wanted to wipe out and delete and expunge every trace of him from my brain so that I would not have to worry about him anymore and I would not have to be disappointed by him and hurt by him and I would not have to blame myself and blame him and I would no longer have the relentless and haunting slide show of images of my lovely son, drugged, in the most sordid,  horrible scenes imaginable.” p.241

•. . . we are connected to our children, no matter what. . . the perpetual angst and humming anxiety and intermittent depression that comes with Nic’s addiction.  I don’t remember me before this.  I am accustomed to the way that joy can be fleeting and I can sometimes fall into a dark pit. p.249

David Sheff is very much of the “school” that Nic is ill and suffering from the ‘disease’ of addiction.  And although he is a strong supporter of AlAnon, he admonished the popular ‘cliché’ to Let Go and Let God.  “How can a parent ‘let go’ of a child?” he proffered. Yeah – that’s the million dollar question that I struggle with.

David, like the rest of us, struggles with the contradictory advice and opinions regarding his son’s recovery, and his own role in that journey.  The anguish and hysteria that a parent of a drug addict experiences, is paralyzing.  But David reminded the audience that we need to ‘let go’ of the fantasy that we can control – well, anything, most especially our addict – and that that is what ‘letting go’ truly means.  David went on to admit that he was in denial for a very long time regarding the seriousness of Nic’s addictions.  With Nic excelling in school academically and on the varsity swim team, it was ‘easy’ to rationalize and/or excuse some of Nic’s aberrant behavior.  While listening to this and recognizing my own denial, I recalled something I heard in AlAnon recently about there being an elephant in the living room . . . with a doily on its head.  Now that’s denial!

David also advocated sharing your family’s ‘dark secret’ of addiction with close friends, family, and at AlAnon.  You’re only as sick as your secrets, was his advice, referencing AlAnon.

I didn’t want to like Nic Sheff.  He looked and sounded like a bit of a punk when I’ve seen him before in interviews.  However, as the evening wore on, I did warm up to him – and he seemed to have some genuine self-awareness regarding the damage he had done to the family and himself.  He also was adept at handling questions from the audience in a non-reactive and careful, respectful way.

Nic Sheff’s parents divorced when he was 4, and he grew up in and around San Francisco with his father, David and stepmother, Karen. Without too many words, Sheff does a good job of setting the scene: privileged in a Northern California artsy way, with semi-famous (never named) family friends floating in and out of the narrative and easy access to good schools. Sheff’s addictions seem to come from a place outside reason or logic or any kind of easy explanation; he got drunk for the first time at age 11, smoked pot through high school, dropped out of college to go to rehab, relapsed and never knew how to stop. Meth and heroin become his drugs of choice.  

Nic talked about his feeling like he didn’t fit in with the other kids/groups his age – that he wasn’t all that comfortable in his own skin.  He first got high at age 11 or 12 – and, spent all the subsequent years chasing that initial high – which was an impossible quest.  Drugs enhanced his performance, he maintained. Pot stimulated and heightened his activity level, versus the stereotypical notion that after smoking pot, the user becomes sedated.  Same with alcohol.  For Nic, drugs were a “medication” verses an euphoric agent – necessary to feel more genuine, confident, and  . . . him self – (or who he wanted to become.)

Nic has been sober now for a little over a year.   He’s had two major relapses since writing his book. Here’s what he had to say about relapsing in a CNN interview in April 2009:

“When I did crystal meth for the first time, it was like the answer to my problems. I felt strong and confident, just like a superstar or something,” said Sheff, who is 26. He kicked his addiction and wrote “Tweak,” a popular book about the toll drugs took on his life. His recovery looked like a success. Everyone, including Sheff, thought he had beaten his disease.  But he went over the edge again. He relapsed in May 2008 and again in October.

Sheff, who has bipolar disorder, said a split with his girlfriend and an episode of manic behavior precipitated his return to drug abuse.

“I am isolated, alone, disgusted with everything and, most especially, myself. I am filled to overflowing with pain and torment and weight,” Sheff wrote in a remarkable four-page letter to CNN. Read about Nic Sheff’s drug relapse in his own words Sheff admitted to taking prescription drugs and smoking pot.  “I just felt like a needed relief so badly,” he said.

The peril of relapse haunts most addicts.

“Relapse is certainly sometimes part of the disease process,” said Dr. Kevin Clark, medical director at the nonprofit Hazelden addiction treatment center near Minneapolis, Minnesota. “Our figures are about 53 percent to 56 percent of patients remain abstinent for a year.” That means about half relapse. Hazelden, one of few rehabs to publish results, hopes to improve its abstinence rate to about 75 percent over the next five years, Clark said.

Back to last Thursday’s appearance by the Sheffs – – – In response to a question from the audience about what he thought about Suboxone, Nic Sheff  ‘admitted’ to currently being on Suboxone – that he didn’t understand the controversy surrounding it, and that it was crucial to his recovery.  He said that initially he did get high from it, but now it was just a ‘maintenance’ medication.  He hated having to be dependent on it – that he would get ‘sick’ if he didn’t take it, but it was kind of a fact of life for him.  He didn’t elaborate or go in to detail regarding how long he would be using Suboxone.

Nic  now lives in Portland with his 2 dogs.  He said he had found meaning in life through his dogs and his writing, and that treatment had taught him to love himself.  I’m not sure if he has a ‘real’ job or not – or if he supports himself with speaking engagements and the publication of his book, Tweak.

Since hearing the Sheffs speak, several younger friends have told me that their middle school-aged kids read Tweak. I haven’t read Tweak yet myself;  but I was shocked to hear this news.  The material seems a little raw and provocative – which is maybe why adolescents like it, I guess.

Is drug addiction a choice or a disease? Is relapse a necessary part of recovery?  Almost every story of recovery that I read or hear, talks about the recovering addict having gone through at least 4 – 8 treatment programs.  Is my daughter capable of such commitment?  Will she ever get to # 1?  Can I endure 5 or more rehabs, and what is involved, which is what it seems to take?  Are these questions pointless and futile?  Probably.

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18 Responses to “beautiful boy – – – up close and personal”

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Great post, thanks for telling me about this. You did such a great job summarizing, the next best thing to being there for me. As for Let Go Let God, I tend to see it as letting go of the obsession and hyper involvement in my daughter’s life, and holding on to the behaviors that are actually productive and I see intervention, when necessary and offering treatment as in the productive category. Working my program of Al-anon helps me be ready and aware when I do need to take action or at least I have a better shot at it. I appreciate you and your blog so much and my thoughts are with you and Hayley.

Thanks, Terri, for your thoughts and support. Yeah, you’re right – letting go of the obsessive worrying, anticipating the “what ifs” and plans “B”, “C”, etc. are things I need to work on. Al-Anon really helps with that. I’m starting a remodel project on my house – an expensive diversion, of sorts. Oh well – – – Peggy

Sirry, I mistyped Dr. McCauley’s last name in the previous comment. It is Kevin McCauley.

I haven’t read Nic’s book either – but probably should. I don’t really want to enter that world via the written page, but I know it can teach me some things. I was so surprised to hear that Tweak is very popular amongst the adolescent set. Is that good, do you think?

When I first read Beautiful Boy, I didn’t really understand any of this. I was still in denial about my son; and I thought I could fix everything. It’s time for me to go back and re-read the book, from my enhanced perspective. What I do know now, is that Mr. Sheff struggled big time with codependency and that for most of us (parents of addicts) our own personal addiction that we have to battle and work on a recovery from. It is the only way to model the right behavior for our addicts and other members of the family and it is the only way to be healthy regardless of the turmoil in our lives.

I haven’t read Nic’s book…not sure if I want to or not. I’ll think about it.

Your “reporting” on the meeting/lecture was wonderful. I felt like I was there.

And one last thing. There is an excellent DVD out addressing the issue of disease versus choice. It is called Pleasure Unwoven by Dr. Kevin McCayley and produced through The Institute for Addiction Study. It contains the best discussion/description of this complicated issue yet.

I’ve just ordered Night Navigation, thanks for the tip.

I agree with Tom about the suboxone. Why isin’t Nic mentioning that right off! Is it because in “happy endings” the addict just quits, and doesn’t have to rely on another drug? It sells more books if parents believe there is a miraclous, immaculate recovery? Because there is stigma with using a substitute (especially in the NA/AA groups Nic is attending)?

This upsets me because I believe in suboxone (and methadone). My son (a hard core poly substance abuser) had his longest clean time on suboxone, and after a brief relapse in which he stopped himself, he is back on it. If suboxone is combined with intensive outpatient therapy the chances of success are even better.

At the very least, the addict does not get abcesses, endocarditis, AIDS, or hep C from suboxone. Personally, after 10 years of struggle with heroin, I’ll embrace any alternative that lessons the chances of my kid dying. If Nic (and others) spoke more openly about it, we could move toward acceptance of harm reduction in this country (like almost every other country in the world).

As for your daughter–I’ve always heard the younger they start, and the longer they use, the slimmer the odds they will quit. The fact she started using so late is a positive (if you can call it that:(

Peggy, if I had the answer to that, I would be the richest woman and Carlos Slim (or whatever his name is)would not be the richest man. I thought that having a baby would be enough reason for my daughter (at least that’s what she used to say). But now she has 2 kids and is still using. My daughter had a friend who was an addict and he was arrested and thrown in jail. He almost died that night in jail from withdrawal symptoms. The jailers just stood by and watch him suffer. He told me that he got so scared, that he never used again. I know that you have to let her figure it out. You can help her if she asks you to, but it has to be her idea. I wish I had better answers.

Helga – the key phrase is, “…that it has to be her idea.” Why is that so hard for me to understand and accept? Fear, I guess-that Hayley won’t ever get there.

The only thing in this whole experience with addiction that I feel I know for sure is the fact, that the addict must want to quit with a reason, however they want to go about doing it. If they are coaxed into it through intervention, etc. it will not work. I quit smoking with hypnosis 6 years ago when my first grandson was born because I wanted to live a long healthy life to see him grow up. I realize that quitting smoking and quitting drugs are not the same by no means, but I firmly believe you must want to quit and you must have a reason for wanting too. Just my opinion.

So, true, Helga. Thanks for your comments. Now – – – can I help Hayley find a reason to quit, or do I just helplessly stand by and hope she finds it before she kills herself?

I am glad to see you posting again. I missed you.

Very, very interesting to read your account. It is enlightening after having just read the book. The Recovery Cafe sounds very remarkable too….good job sharing this and thanks, love, Nan

Nan – I still thank you for ‘steering’ me to the book, “Night Navigation”. It hase been on of the best on addiction and parent/adult addict child dynamics that I’ve ever read. And the, to actually be able to communicate with the author was such a thrill. Miss you, dear friend.

Wow, you are an excellent reporter!

It’s interesting that he never mentioned Suboxone until asked. It seems like that would be an important part of his addiction to recovery story.

He may be open about his addiction, but I suspect he has some work to do to become open about his recovery!

Stigma associated with medication-assisted treatment is so strong and so wrong!

I think you hit the nail on the head: Nic is open about his addiction, but not about his recovery. Nic’s life of privilege and loving, devoted, creative parenting reminded me a bit of my daughter’s family context. However, Nic was an adolescent/young adult drug addict. My daughter became a heroin addict at age 30. This feels more serious to me than a young person experimenting with drugs and getting hooked, inadvertently. My daughter deliberately chose to use heroin. Am I wrong in assuming that her recovery will be much more miraculous and/or unlikely?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, you did a great job of describing the evening! I don’t buy that anyone has to go through that many treatment programs. Its different for every person. One reason I stopped going to meetings was because I couldn’t handle hearing about the relapses, it took away my hope. Keven is doing good today. He may fail tomorrow but I’m not wasting today’s success to worry about a potential relapse that may never happen. Hayley can decide to do it tomorrow…or not. But I keep hoping and praying that she does. Its never too late.

As usual, Barbara, you bring my focus back to today. I’m so glad that Keven is doing well. One Day At A Time is certainly something I need to remember and live by.

Keep the faith for your Hayley.


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