By the age of 18, Nic Sheff was addicted to meth. It wasn't pretty. He was skeletally thin, his arms were full of holes and green with infection, he broke into relatives' houses and stole from them…all in all, he spent five years bouncing back and forth between rehab and relapse until 2005.
You wouldn't think much good could come of an experience like that. Fortunately, though, Nic is a writer, and so is his dad, David Sheff. Together, they're tackling the inner workings of addiction with their parallel memoirs, Tweak and Beautiful Boy. Which book you choose—and both are deftly written—depends on whether you prefer searing grief (David) or intense suffering (Nic). It's like Woody Allen said: "Life is divided into the horrible and the miserable."
The Sheffs have appeared on Oprah and NPR's Fresh Air, and have been written up in The New York Times, but they might find their most receptive audience right here in Portland next Monday, March 31. According to Rob Bovett, Legal Counsel for the Oregon Narcotics Enforcement Association: "We've made some progress [in Oregon]. Meth purity is the lowest it's been in a decade. We've virtually eliminated meth labs in Oregon, and meth-related arrests and property crimes have leveled off," he says. "Now, we have a golden opportunity to save lives and families...to ramp up evidence-based prevention, enforcement and treatment. Raising awareness is the first step."
That's handy, 'cause awareness is what the Sheffs are all about. WW caught up with the family on tour in Los Angeles via phone to talk about expensive rehabs, self-destruction and the possibility of atheistic prayer.
WW: To make this project work, you had to reveal excruciating personal details. What's it like having your most heinous sins out there for everybody to see?
Nic Sheff: I think of John and Yoko on the cover of Two Virgins. It's not like they're airbrushed, or they were going to the gym. The whole world was criticizing them, tearing them apart, and they just said, "Look at us, this is who we are." That's something I aspire to, that kind of bravery.
Do you think it's possible to use things like alcohol or marijuana responsibly?
David Sheff: This is what I know from being in about 800 rehabs with Nic—if any of those things gets in the way of your life, if it screws up your relationships, if you can't do your schoolwork, then it's dangerous. I know people who smoke pot and it doesn't destroy their lives; I've met people in rehabs whose only drug is pot and it completely screwed up their lives.
Nic, you say you were trying to self-medicate with meth. What about yourself were you trying to treat?
Nic: I don't know, really. The most terrifying thing in the world for me was that someone would see who I really was inside, and think that person was this horrible, disgusting, gross thing that didn't even deserve to live. I think I felt that if I ever really looked inside of me, that's what I'd find, too. Now, through therapy, I've had a lot of opportunity to face that stuff. I mean, I had to figure out how to live with myself, or else I was gonna die. I guess I've learned that I'm not that disgusting, horrible person. [Laughs] I'm actually kind of, like, an OK person.
In your memoirs, both of you flirt with God's role in recovery, but you're both atheists. What's the deal? Is God real? Is he a mind trick to help you get clean?
David: I was never on the fence about this. I was an atheist, and I am an atheist. But, I believe in things now that I never would have expected. I believe in prayer. I never sat down and planned to pray, but then all of a sudden, there I was, in the hospital, praying. Was I trying to hedge my bets? Maybe. But it was also more primal than that.
Nic: I can't conceive of an entity, I don't believe in that. But I was talking to my friend the other day, and he told me, "Being a good Christian means having a lot of faith." If that's true, then I guess I'm kind of a good Christian. I don't know what I have faith in exactly, but I do have a lot of faith. I have faith that things are gonna be OK, that things are gonna work out, that I'm gonna be taken care of. And that's something I've gained from this experience.
David, do you think it's possible for a parent not to feel responsible for his child's addiction?
David: Really, completely? No. I think parents are wired to worry about their kids, to feel responsible for their choices. The task for me was not to take it all on, because it was impeding Nic from taking responsibility for himself. I learned the hard way that I couldn't do it for him—he had to do it himself. I guess what I have now is mainly what parents can hope for: perspective.
So, Nic, pretend you're casting the movie version of Tweak. Who plays you? Who plays your dad?
Nic: [pause] For me, I'd go with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And then, for Dad, I don't know...Martin Sheen, maybe? Martin Sheen seems like a nice guy.