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.
Even so, you kept helping Nic get back in rehab. How were you able to do that?
David: First of all, I had to learn that there are ways that I would help and ways I wouldn't. Giving money to a using addict is like giving a gun to someone who is suicidal. I wouldn't bring him home and just let him rest and recover and then go back and use.
How many times did you go to rehab?
Nic: I went to five different treatment centers. I know for a fact, 99.9 percent of the reason I am alive today is because my mom and my dad both consistently had this message for me: We're not going to help you unless it's to get you into a treatment center. That was the bottom line. They never went back on that. They always were there to offer me that opportunity to go into treatment and get better.
How long have you been sober?
It's been a little over two years.
Congratulations. What are you doing now?
I live kind of a simple life. I'm living in Georgia. My girlfriend goes to the Savannah College of Art and Design. I live with her, and we have a dog that we found on the side of the road and two cats. I work as an art model at the school, which is weird, but not really any more difficult than writing a memoir and letting everyone see what's really going on with you.
I can't put too much on my plate, really. I have to be careful. I do have this disease, and it sucks. I go over to friends' houses and they're drinking and just having a good time. I can hang out with them, but I can't just have that same uncaring recklessness that I see my peers having. It's sad. But I'm not willing to jeopardize this life that I've created for myself.
You both suffered so much. How would you advise other families?
David: There are many things I wish I could redo as a parent. Talk to your children about drugs. Have an open conversation with them. You need to prepare them for what will probably happen. When I was a kid, I walked into my friend's house one day, and his older brother handed me a joint. I had to decide what to do. No one had ever talked to me about it, but I wasn't going to be uncool. I smoked.
Nic: I always felt just like really, really sensitive and overwhelmed by the world. I was scared all the time. I tried to fix that feeling by doing all these different things. It wasn't just drugs. It was excessively exercising or being in relationships. Even when I was prostituting on the street, it was this feeling of, I need someone to show me that I'm valuable. I need to be loved.
If I could just tell young people, if you feel insecure and scared, that's ok. It's a burden, but nothing that you ever look for outside of yourself is ever, ever, ever going to fill that hole.
David: It's a cliché at this point that a lot of people who use drugs are self-medicating for depression and bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder, and this and that. But 70 to 80 percent of people who wind up in rehab also have a mental illness.
Nic: I've been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. I am on medication for that. It helps. It's like there are all these little pieces of the puzzle, and this might just be one little piece that's helping me out. I'm going to keep doing it, for sure.