Beautiful Boy

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Author David Sheff on reclaiming his son from the depths of meth addiction—and his advice for parents. 


By Kelly O'Rourke Johns • Photographed by Bart Nagel



Beautiful Boy


Renew: In reading Beautiful Boy, I was really struck by your use of the word everything [The word David and his family would say to each other when parting]. It encompasses the process of addiction recovery, both for the families and for those who are recovering because everything has to change. Did you consider Everything as a title for your book? 


David Sheff: Yes, the word really encompassed so much. When you’re going through a divorce, and the child is going back and forth between two homes, it’s so complicated. It was so hard for all of us. I don’t even remember exactly how it began, but [everything] became sort of a code word for trying to contain all the emotions that we felt when Nic would go back and forth. When we brought him to the airport or when we’d talk to him on the phone, the word everything was a way to say, “I love you and I miss you and I’m sorry it’s so hard.” It continued as we went forward with Nic’s addiction. We were unable to express or even to understand all that we were feeling because, of course, it is that complex. 


So when I was thinking about a title for the book, Everything was a contender. 




 The Sheff family before addiction and recovery became a part of their everyday life.




Renew: What tipped it in favor of Beautiful Boy?


DS: Nic was always my beautiful boy. I used to sing him the [John Lennon] song. It was sort of a gentle reminder that no matter how bad things got, that never changed. It also made it that much harder to even comprehend and fathom what was going on. Nic was out there on the streets. He was living this horrible life. He was doing these unconscionable things—which is what addicts do. But, it was all the more perplexing because here was my beautiful boy doing these things. It really ended up saving me in a way, and maybe even helping to save Nic because, at his worst, I was able to remember: This is not my beautiful boy acting this way. This is a person very, very ill on drugs. 


The title also ties into our family’s connection to John Lennon. I’d interviewed him when I was very young, before Nic was born. It was the last big interview of Lennon’s life. I watched him record “Beautiful Boy” in the studio, so I really had an emotional connection. Nic was my beautiful boy not only because he was, but also, in the aftermath of that interview John Lennon focused intensely on his son. He said his relationship with his son meant more to him than anything that he had ever done in his life—and he was one of the Beatles! An artist can’t get much more accomplished. And yet, what ended up saving him and inspiring him in a way that finally gave him the peace he was always looking for was being a father. That meant a lot to me.


Renew: Why did you write in first person present tense versus past tense? 


DS: A lot of the book was written before it was supposed to be a book. A lot of it was written to survive. I would be up in the middle of the night, and I would be writing, I don’t know where Nic is. I am in hell. I can’t sleep. I don’t know what to do. I just got off the phone with the police. They don’t know where he is. It projected a different kind of urgency in the first person, and I think it was not only useful for me but also helpful for readers who are going through this. No one knows what’s going to happen the next day or the next minute or what the next phone call is going to bring. 





Renew: As a reader, I was really following the perspective that you had at the moment. Did your intention for writing Beautiful Boy change as you wrote it? 


DS: It did. It completely changed. The initial writing of the book, and even the article that preceded the book (“My Addicted Son,” NY Times Magazine), was not about publishing at all. It was not even a thought. But I’m a writer, and I guess writing is what we do. I do it for a living, but I also do it to navigate the world. When I did decide to publish, first the article, then the book, it was a response to our experience feeling completely unique. In other words, when I started to go through this—just like anyone who ever had to go through this— I felt like we were the only ones who had ever had to face the addiction of a wife or parent or child or whoever it is.


So often people keep addiction a secret. I wanted other parents to understand that it can happen to anyone. I wanted to try to help protect people from some of the mistakes I’d made and to alert people to Nic’s drug of choice as they call it. At the time that Nic started using crystal, it wasn’t on the radar of people in my world. We were warned about heroin, we were warned about crack, but no one knew about crystal [methamphetamine]. I wanted people to know it was out there and that it’s one of the most difficult drugs to treat and one of the most toxic. 


And then once we really started to go through this, we went through group after group, family groups and rehabs and Al-Anon, and I started to understand how many people this impacts. I had a sense of responsibility. As a journalist, I always wrote about things I really cared about, and this had taken over our lives.





Renew: I read Beautiful Boy and then Tweak [Nic’s memoir about his addiction and recovery]. The disparity between the two accounts is profound. Knowing what you know now, how would you have handled things differently?


DS: There are two things I’d do differently. Nic and I are super close, and he’s super close to Karen and super close to his brother and sister, and when he started using and doing the things that addicts do—lying and cheating and stealing and all these horrific things that I couldn’t understand—I was self-centered in a very common way. You know, “How could Nic do this to me? How could he do this to Karen?” I knew he loved us. It didn’t make any sense. But when I read Tweak, I realized he wasn’t doing it to us, he was doing it to himself. [His actions] were a reflection of how much pain he was in. 


I wish I had been able to see that earlier because it became clear how I could help him, which was doing everything I could to get him into treatment early—way earlier than I did. I spent a long time focusing on the wrong things. I focused on sending him to therapists, on psychotherapy that was about the divorce and his relationship with his mom and me. All that stuff was relevant, but it was not the essential piece of what had to be done. What had to be done was that he had to get into treatment. 


There are no guarantees that anything would have been different if we’d gotten him into treatment earlier, but I think it could have been. There’s a lot of research that says the earlier that someone gets help, the better the prognosis. The short answer is: I wish I had realized it wasn’t about me and gotten him help sooner.


Renew: What’s shocking though, and I think what’s powerful about Beautiful Boy, is that you realize the trust you place in your children, and knowing them as you know them and being as close to them as you are, there’s sort of this second-guessing of your initial intuition.


DS:And even when they do start doing it, you think …


Renew: It’s not that bad …


DS: It’s what kids do! It’s experimentation. I believed Nic when he told me the kinds of things that I wanted to hear. “I’m really responsible. I’d never get into a car with someone who was high. I’m just partying on weekends.” I didn’t love it, but it didn’t suggest that this was going to escalate to a time when he was going to nearly, not once, but many times, kill himself.


Renew: So do you think parents can be too vigilant?


DS: I feel the opposite way; I think families can be way too lax. People see their kids start using, don’t know how to deal with it, so don’t deal with it. I mean, they might warn them, or if a kid gets caught for smoking pot, they might ground her for a few weeks or something like that, but it’s ignoring the fact that one out of ten kids is going to become addicted. So you want to take it really seriously. I don’t mean you send your kid to rehab if he gets caught smoking pot, but you do want to watch them. Some parents think it’s okay if their kid’s smoking pot, they say, “Hey, I did it. It’s fine.” But boy, after what we went through, I don’t think it’s fine. If that happened to any of my younger children, I would stay on top of it in a very, very serious way. I would monitor them. I would drug test them. And I would look at some of the other issues. Nic, much later, was diagnosed as having bi-polar disorder and serious depression—and those are super high risk factors for addiction. So I say overreact versus under-react. It’s not going to be fun, but you’re not going to hurt a kid by assuming that their drug use is going to lead to much bigger problems. You risk a lot by assuming that it won’t.


Renew: So many of our generation, growing up in the sixties and seventies, have a blasé approach because we feel we’ve seen it all.  “We’ll know, we’ve been there and done that.”


DS: I think that’s really dangerous. And of course I was like that. I thought that I would know. That’s partly why I minimized it when Nic started to get into trouble. I used a lot of drugs, and I was able to pull it together. But when I look back honestly ... I used a lot of drugs and I was really, really, really lucky that I didn’t end up on the streets, in jail or killing someone in a car. 



"I say overreact versus under-react. It’s not going to be fun, but you’re not going to hurt a kid by assuming that their drug use is going to lead to much bigger problems. You risk a lot by assuming that it won’t."


Just because someone doesn’t end up on the streets doesn’t mean [drug use is] not going to have an impact. I feel that my drug use, even though I was able to function and stop using, was really detrimental to my life. I think it took me a long time to mature my drug use was related to my ongoing depression, my inability to have healthy relationships for a while and things like that. 


Renew: You state in Beautiful Boy that most people cannot fathom the disease of addiction, and you talk about the stigma of addiction and even recovery. How were you, as a family, confronted by that stigma, and how did you overcome it? 


DS: The stigma of addiction is one of the most dangerous parts of this disease. We’re afraid to talk about it, we’re afraid people will judge us. We keep it a secret, and the longer we keep it a secret the longer it will take for us to take it seriously and to deal with it. [As a society] we blame addicts; we think they’re weak-willed and morally bereft. We don’t spend money on this disease compared to other diseases. We treat it as a moral problem and as a criminal problem rather than as what it is: a serious illness. 




Renew: Did you find in your personal experience that you were confronted with a lot of the stigma?


DS: On the one hand, people are a lot more compassionate than we think they will be. I’ve gotten a lot of support. Still, I also felt that people looked at us a little differently. I think it’s part of our culture. What did we do to cause this? What did Nic do? There is a stigma, even among people who are a little bit more savvy. I don’t think we’ve crossed over to a time when we really accept addiction as a disease. I don’t think people buy it completely.


Renew: If you could take away something positive from this entire experience, what would it be? How has it impacted you for the better?


DS: There’s no way to describe the profound change that we all have gone through because of Nic’s addiction. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone because it’s hell. There’s no way to take away from the fact that it’s sheer, utter hell. But if you survive it, if you go through it, you become a different kind of person. You don’t take for granted your life. You don’t take for granted the people you love and who are in your life. You don’t take for granted your health. When someone that you love is on a path that could easily lead him to death, life takes on a different character. 


Also, you don’t suffer fools gladly anymore. You don’t want to sit around and talk to people who are preoccupied with trivial things. You’re too raw and vulnerable to live in a world that is about superficial, material things. The people we’ve met through recovery are the most extraordinary people we’ve met because they are so open. 


Renew: You describe your response to Nic’s leaving rehab as “tentative hope.” What is your advice to families of recovering addicts?


DS: For the person getting out of treatment, it’s terrifying. They’ve learned a lot about who they are and also learned from other addicts how easy it is to relapse. So we feel this enormous hope—every time. I’d feel it every time, and Nic felt it, too. He left rehab committed to being sober. He didn’t want to relapse, he didn’t want to die or end up on the street. You feel this combination of hope and terror. And the best way to survive it is to do what they tell you in the support groups, to have support. For me, therapy was huge. I sat in on a group of fathers who’ve gone through this. They meet once a week for breakfast, and it’s a way that they keep things in perspective and support one another.



Renew: It’s amazing that you all stayed together and came together during that time of crisis. How have your relationships changed to your children, to your wife?


DS: It’s like the cliché, “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” We are all that much stronger as individuals, but also, our relationships are stronger. I was really blessed to be with somebody who was really committed—not only to me but also to Nic. I certainly have a deeper respect and gratitude for my wife. It goes back to what you said earlier about the word everything. The main component of everything is love. Love gets you through and if you survive addiction together, it grows.


Renew: The theme of powerlessness pervades Beautiful Boy and Tweak. What have you learned about power and control?


DS: I’ve learned it’s more complicated than it seems. When I used to go to Twelve Step meetings, they talked about the fact that you’re powerless. I realized Nic was powerless, that an addict is powerless over his addiction. If he could stop, he would. No one wants to stop initially, but eventually, their lives are dismantling, and they’re still using and they can’t stop. Those of us outside who are watching this happen are powerless to stop them. 


That doesn’t mean that we don’t have power to make decisions and to change things and to take care of ourselves. We decide not to be powerless. I couldn’t make Nic stop using, but I could take care of myself. I could continue to do everything I could to get him into treatment, even though it wasn’t ultimately up to me. And Nic, the addict, isn’t powerless in that he did have options. There is a flipside to being powerles—you can be powerful, you can make decisions that are going to help you.


Renew: It really makes you understand and appreciate the Serenity Prayer. 


DS: Exactly. The Serenity Prayer is about the ways that you are powerful and the ways that you are powerless.




Renew: Tell me a little bit about where you’re at now and how Nic is doing.


DS: There was a time when it was not possible to imagine, not only that we would survive but also that we’d survive and everything would get better. I think Nic would say the same thing. He’s really worked hard through his own recovery, not only to take care of himself but also to try and repair the relationships that were damaged over those years. And he didn’t push it, he did it slowly. Especially with his little brother and sister, it was very, very hard. In the early years of recovery, the fragility of recovery meant that he was very cautious about trying too hard to reconnect with everybody in a deep way too quickly. As he said, he didn’t want to disappoint all of us again. He didn’t want to hurt us again. He especially didn’t want to open up hope for Jasper and Daisy and have it be dashed again. 


But now they could not be closer. They adore him and they admire him. He’s their role model and I think he gets as much from them as they get from him—it’s just lovely. Nic’s 28 this summer, and so it sort of sunk in at some point that he’s almost 30 years old! There’s no way for a parent to pretend their child is still a child when he’s 30 years old, but it doesn’t mean we stop worrying about him. We’ll always be parents.


Seeing Nic as an adult is so gratifying. I’m so proud of him. He’s an extraordinary, extraordinary person. He’s open, he takes care of people in a really gentle way, he has a very humble, beautiful life. It’s been a lot of hard work and struggle, but we’re all closer than ever. Nic has written another book about his ongoing recovery and Little Brown is publishing it.


Renew: So really, it’s kind of … everything.


DS: That’s it, that’s the word. It includes all the wonderful, lovely things about life. But it also includes the fact that life goes on, and it’s not always easy. 

It’s really, really important to get support for you while you try to figure out how to help the person you love. Therapy, sometimes couples therapy, is critical. Also, Al-Anon or some equivalent support group is essential because you are with people who are going through it, too. That kind of support is life saving. 


I tell people every day to remind themselves of one of the tenants of the Twelve Steps stuff, which is this idea that you’re as sick as your secrets. Because of the stigma, and because of the shame and self-judgment, we do keep secrets from people. We try to pretend that everything’s okay. But boy, when you get over that. John Lennon in my interview said something like, “The secret is there is no secret.” Once you realize that everybody has secrets, everybody’s hiding something … the relief is enormous and you can start to heal.#





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