The Sheff Family Struggles With Addiction

U.S. News talks with the father and son authors of “Beautiful Boy” and “Tweak.”

The Sheffs are celebrating two years of sobriety.

The Sheffs are celebrating two years of sobriety.

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Journalist David Sheff's new book, Beautiful Boy, tells the harrowing tale of son Nic's transformation from honor student and athlete to methamphetamine addict at age 18. Now 25, Nic has written his own book, Tweak, an unflinching chronicle of life as an addict who stole from his family and resorted to prostitution to buy drugs. The books chronicle the Inverness, Calif., family's struggle with addiction. The Sheffs discussed that struggle with U.S. News. Excerpts:

Nic, you smoked marijuana in high school. But a lot of kids do that and don't end up using methamphetamine at age 18. Why did meth speak to you?

Nic: When I started smoking pot in high school, there was this feeling inside of me, this emptiness, this insecurity and pain, and self-hatred. When I started smoking pot, it calmed that down. It was like medicine for me. The problem was, as I smoked more and more pot, I got more and more immune to the effects of it. When I did that line of crystal meth, I thought—I've found it, the feeling I've been missing my whole life. I felt powerful and beautiful and confident. What did "tweaking" feel like—that fidgety state brought on by meth?

Nic: You think you're having like these really amazing conversations and doing these really smart things. What I found out is that I really was kind of out of my mind. I took apart my cellphone and my computer and had this idea to put them together in some sort of supercomputer-cellphone thing. I destroyed my computer and my cellphone. I had to keep shooting the drugs. I had to keep taking the pills, just so that I didn't get sick. David, when did you realize that Nic was in serious trouble?

David: When he was a teenager, we got calls from the schools. He was smoking pot. Once I found pot in his backpack. I was probably like a lot of parents, confused. I took it seriously, I worried about it, but I also knew that a lot of kids smoke pot—I did—and then they move on. Then, after Nic's senior year in high school, he disappeared. I called police; I called hospital emergency rooms; I called all his friends. When he finally showed up, four or five days later, he looked as close to death as he could get. Then it finally became clear to me: no more rationalizing, no more denying. We have to do something.

So what did you do?

David: He was remorseful and said to me what I wanted to hear: "I need help." I said, "I want you to go to rehab," and he said, "I will." I immediately started making phone calls to doctors and hospitals to get recommendations of the best places to treat him. I found a place for him and got it all set up and then he woke up. I said, "ok, it's time to go." He looked at me like I was crazy: "I'm not going to rehab. I don't need rehab. I'm not stupid. I'll never do that again." Had he been under 18, I now know, I could have made the choice for him. But I could no longer do that. It became an issue of threats [of being cut off] to get him to go in. It took a while, but he finally did go in for treatment.

Nic: It's not like it's fun to go to rehab, you know. It's really intense. You're cut off from the world. You're told when to sleep and when to eat and when to go to group. But I think that the main thing is that I started to see myself for who I really was. I had to face myself for a little bit, and that was like super painful.

David, at one point you didn't want Nic in your house or even the same city. Why?

David: All the experts say that addiction is a disease. But if someone you love has cancer, all you want to do is take care of them, to offer compassion. With addiction, you can't just feel that you want to take care of them. You have to also protect yourself. We had an alarm installed in our house. I came to understand that Nic on drugs was not the Nic I knew and trusted. Nic on drugs was somebody else. We were afraid of him. Nic: It's hard to have regrets, because if I regret the past I wouldn't be where I am now. But I'm ashamed of having stolen so much from my family and making them feel so unsafe. If I could take back anything, that would be the thing that I would take back.