Father And Son Behind ‘Beautiful Boy’ Share Their Story Of Addiction And Recovery
David Sheff and his son Nic both wrote memoirs about Nic’s meth addiction. Their stories are now the basis of a film starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet. Originally broadcast in ’08 and ’13.
Host: Terry Gross
Host: Davie Davies
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The new film “Beautiful Boy” stars Steve Carell as a father struggling with his son’s drug addiction. Today we’ll hear from the real people the story is based on. “Beautiful Boy” is the name of the memoir journalist David Sheff wrote in 2008 about the struggles of his son Nic. Nic, who was 25 and two years sober at the time, had written his own memoir called “Tweak: Growing Up On Methamphetamines.”
Terry spoke to them both in 2008 and to David Sheff again five years later when he’d written another book about medical and scientific research into addiction and recovery called “Clean.” We’re happy to report Nic is drug free today. He’s married and has written two novels and scripts for two television shows. He and his father attended the premiere of “Beautiful Boy” in Los Angeles last week. Let’s hear a scene from the new film. Nic, played by Timothee Chalamet, has disappeared for a bit and called his dad telling him he’s sober and asking to meet him for lunch. His father David is played by Steve Carell.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “BEAUTIFUL BOY”)
TTIMOTHEE CHALAMET: (As Nic Sheff) How’s Karen and the kids?
STEVE CARELL: (As David Sheff) OK. They ask about you. It’s their step-up next week, and I know they’d love to see you.
CHALAMET: (As Nic Sheff) Dad, you’re guilt-tripping me, alright.
CARELL: (As David Sheff) No, I’m just saying…
CHALAMET: (As Nic Sheff) You’re making me feel horrible about myself.
CARELL: (As David Sheff) I know they wanted you to be there. That’s all.
CHALAMET: (As Nic Sheff) I’m sorry, Dad. I just need some money, all right. So please just give me some money.
CARELL: (As David Sheff) Where does this end?
CHALAMET: (As Nic Sheff) This is – I got to see someone through. This is kind of working out for right now. I’ve got five days sober.
CARELL: (As David Sheff) It doesn’t look like it’s working out, Nic.
CHALAMET: (As Nic Sheff) Oh, it doesn’t look like it’s working out? So what then – therapy?
CARELL: (As David Sheff) You can come home.
CARELL: (As David Sheff) We can make it work, please – Nic, please. I’ve been doing some research.
CHALAMET: (As Nic Sheff) You’ve been doing research? You’ve got to be kidding me, Dad.
CARELL: (As David Sheff) You think that you have this under control. And I understand how scared you are.
CHALAMET: (As Nic Sheff) I understand why I do things. It doesn’t make me any different, all right. I’m attracted to craziness. And you’re just embarrassed because I was like – you know, I was like this amazing thing, like you’re special creation or something. And you don’t like who I am now.
CARELL: (As David Sheff) Yeah, who are you, Nic?
CHALAMET: (As Nic Sheff) This is me, Dad. Here, this is who I am.
DAVIES: Today we’ll hear parts of Terry’s interviews with the Sheffs – first her conversation with David and Nic Sheff recorded in 2008. She started with a question for David.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Can you talk a little bit about how your son’s personality changed when he was using meth?
DAVID SHEFF: He became unrecognizable. He went from being just one of the most sort of light-filled extraordinary people I knew. And he became, you know, this ghost sort of coming in and out of the house. I mean, physically he changed. You know, he lost – he was skin and bones, and he was jittery. And then his behavior changed. I mean, he went from being, as I said, this sort of charming, lovely, kind, open, gentle person. He was – he became belligerent and angry and depressed and argumentative. And he did things that were just inconceivable that he would do.
GROSS: Nic, why was meth your drug of preference? Like, when you started using it, what did it do for you that made you want more?
NIC SHEFF: Well, I mean, with all drugs, I sort of had this feeling. But, you know, with meth particularly, it was like – I had always been really just like consumed with like worry about making sure that everybody was OK around me and that – you know, I just wanted like everyone to like me and to just be sort of perfect all the time or something. But meth in particular – I guess when I first tried it, it was just like this sort of focus and clarity, this feeling like all these fears and insecurities and self-doubt and everything that I’d always, you know, been so wrapped up just disappeared.
GROSS: You know, you’ve described yourself as formerly having been thin-skinned and sensitive, you know, before the meth. And you said that meth allowed you to, like, be confident and to not be so worried about what other people are thinking. It also, at some point, like once you really became an addict, it seemed to erase any trace of empathy that you had for anybody – certainly for your family. And did you – were you aware of that – aware that not only weren’t you like the sensitive person anymore but that you were walking over people. You had no empathy at all. It didn’t bother you stealing from your family. Like does – did that register on you at all? Did it mean anything?
N. SHEFF: I think it did because I spent a lot of time when I was high talking to my friends and to myself and to anybody who would listen about how I was right and how I had the right to do this stuff. And, you know, I was justifying it over and over. So I think I probably wouldn’t have spent that much time trying to convince myself and trying to convince everyone else if there wasn’t a little piece of me that was – you know, did recognize what a monster I turned into.
But the other weird thing about crystal meth is – you know, I would do stuff like think that, you know, if I took apart my computer because it wasn’t working and then took apart my cellphone, I could put it all back together with my cellphone in the computer, And then I would make this like supercomputer or something. I mean, you know, it’s like stuff that really made sense to me at the time. And if you’d asked me, I would have, you know, thought that I was being totally rational. But, you know, I obviously – I wasn’t. And it just completely messes up your perception of reality.
GROSS: Nic, how old were you when you started using? And how long did you use?
N. SHEFF: Well, I mean, I started like smoking pot and stuff when I was – you know, consistently, I guess when I was like 12. I was smoking pot a lot. And then, you know, in high school I had, you know, smoked pot and drank and stuff but not super habitually. But I guess when I was 17 was really when I started like smoking pot every day and then started doing mushrooms and acid and stuff and then ecstasy and then cocaine and then, you know, everything else. So it lasted I guess from, you know, when I was 17 – and I’m 25 now, and I have two years sober. So it must have been from like about 17 to 23, you know, but with periods of interruption when I was in rehab or sober or whatever.
GROSS: David, there’s a lot of guilt feelings that you express in your memoir about your son’s addiction. You worry whether it’s anything you did or said or didn’t do or didn’t say that might have led to his addiction or prevented him from giving it up sooner. During those periods when you felt guilty, what did you feel guilty about? What were the things that you thought you might have contributed to?
D. SHEFF: I felt guilty about everything. I tried to look back in our lives and to say, you know, what was it that ultimately caused Nic to go so out of control and to come so close to dying. You know, was it the divorce, you know, when he was young? You know, was it the fact that I’d used drugs and that I was open about it? And, you know, was it – was I too liberal, and I just didn’t set limits that he needed? I guess the ultimate answer is that I feel that it’s unknowable what would cause a child to become so self-destructive. When you go to Al-Anon, which, you know, I went to a lot of meetings and found them very useful, they say, you know, you didn’t cause it. You can’t control it. You can’t cure it. You know, that you can’t cure it, you can’t control it – I believe. You didn’t cause it – I’m not 100 percent there yet.
GROSS: Nic, when your father was blaming himself for your addiction, were you blaming him too sometimes?
N. SHEFF: Sometimes, absolutely. You know, it’s easier to blame other people than to have to look at yourself.
GROSS: So what did you blame – when you would kind of put it all on him – or at least put some of it on him, what did you put there?
N. SHEFF: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, some of it was – yeah, sure, about the divorce and, you know, moving me out of the city when I was little. And I mean, you know – I mean, anything, just, you know, refusing to let me borrow the car that night or something. I mean, you know – yeah, I mean, I definitely spent a lot of time being really, really angry with both my parents – you know, with everybody. I mean, and part of that I think was just, you know, another aspect of – or another part of denial or whatever and not wanting to take responsibility for my actions and things, yeah.
GROSS: There were times when you went to rehab willingly and times when you went against your will. Is that correct?
N. SHEFF: Yes, absolutely.
GROSS: Did it make a difference to the outcome whether you went there willingly or whether you went there against your will?
N. SHEFF: No, not really. I mean, you know, each rehab that I went to I feel like really helped me a lot. And I learned more and more about myself, and I learned more and more about, you know, this disease and, you know, what it takes to stay sober and how to sort of learn how to take care of yourself and love yourself and everything. I mean, each time that I relapsed after going to treatment, I don’t think that that meant that those treatment centers failed me or anything or that – it just was that I just wasn’t ready, you know.
This last treatment that I went to, I was absolutely – did not want to go. You know, this was two – a little over two years ago. And I was basically coerced into treatment. And, you know, once I got there, I didn’t want to stay either. I mean, it’s not fun, you know. I mean, you’re being told what to do every second of the day. And, you know, you have to sleep and room with three other people. And so it’s not like – I mean, if I could do it – if I could have done it without having to go to rehab, I definitely would have preferred to do that. And it’s expensive too. You know, it’s just – it’s hard, you know, for sure.
GROSS: You know, a lot of people say that if you’re an addict, you’re not going to – you’re not really going to be ready to stop until you’ve bottomed out. But you seem to hit bottom, like, a whole bunch of times…
N. SHEFF: Yeah.
GROSS: …One of which was when your arm got so badly infected from shooting up that when you went to – that when you finally went to the emergency room, the doctor thought he might need to amputate your arm – well, that somebody would need – a surgeon would need to amputate your arm.
N. SHEFF: Yeah.
GROSS: So how come incidents like that weren’t enough to get you to think, well, I’d better stop; I’m killing myself?
N. SHEFF: Well, I guess – I mean, part of it, again, is that I think that killing myself was OK with me. You know, I mean, I sort of knew that that was what I was doing. And I was sort of resigned to that. And also, you know, I guess there’s a point where you feel like you’ve gone so far down that building your life back after, you know, having let everyone down again and having, you know, disappointed people and, you know, overdrawn your bank account and lost your cellphone and lost your job and, you know, lost your car – I mean, it just feels like at certain points, like, to just start over and to try to rebuild my whole life again is just too much. And so, you know, I might as well just ride this out till the end and just, you know, see it through until – yeah, until I do die.
You know, and – but there was – I mean, there was something inside of me that I guess believed that maybe things could get better somehow, I mean, even against all, you know, rationale or whatever. And that little bit of hope, you know, was what I was able to hold onto. And that’s gotten me here, thank God. So…
DAVIES: We’re listening to an interview with Nic Sheff and his father, David Sheff, recorded in 2008. Nic Sheff’s memoir about his struggle with addiction is called “Tweek: Growing Up On Methamphetamines.” David Sheff’s memoir about his son’s addiction is called “Beautiful Boy,” which is also the name of the new movie based on both memoirs. We’ll hear more of this conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to Terry’s interview with David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff. They’ve both written memoirs about coping with Nic’s addiction to methamphetamines, memoirs which are the basis of the new film “Beautiful Boy” starring Steve Carell.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: I think one of the things that you both had trouble with in the rehab programs was the, quote, “God talk.” You know, in the Alcoholics Anonymous model, you look toward a higher power to give you strength. And there is a saying that goes, let go, and let God. David, you describe in your memoir how you were or still are an atheist and raised Nic without religion. Did either…
D. SHEFF: Oh, I, too – I, too, felt – I mean, you asked me about what I felt guilty for. I felt guilty for that, too, when we heard from some people that the only way to get sober and stay sober is to embrace that. And they tried to broaden it by saying, you know, God can be whatever you conceive him to be. It’s a higher power and things like that.
It was – I don’t know if Nic would say that it was just an excuse to resist, but I think ultimately I learned. And I think he learned that you could not deny some of those basic principles, including the first one, which is, you know – Nic didn’t agree for a long time that his – that he was powerless over his addiction. He thought he was in control. He had to nearly die more than once before he finally, I think, accepted that. And once you accept that, I think you’re in the door.
N. SHEFF: But just to add, I think that that God thing, you know, in 12-step programs and in recovery – I think it is a huge problem because I try – I spent a lot of time, you know, trying so hard to practice prayer and doing all this stuff to make myself, you know, come to believe. And ultimately, you know, when I sit with myself in the quiet moments, you know, when I’m alone, you know, I don’t believe. You know, I think that for people who are just fundamentally – you know, don’t believe in God or any, you know, reason to this world or anything, I think that they are at a disadvantage in terms of getting help through these kind of programs, absolutely.
D. SHEFF: But the true – but the other thing that I think is really important to – that we learned is that there isn’t just one way. There isn’t just one way to get healthy and sober and to stop using. The first thing that Nic told me about when he arrived at this last program was he sat with a counselor. And the counselor said to him, you know, why are you here? And by then, he was – you know, he was a perfect student of rehabs. And so he said what, you know, he thought they expected him to say, which is I’m here because I’m a drug addict and an alcoholic.
And the guy said, well, wait. Let’s – no, why are you a drug addict and alcoholic? You know, why are you trying to kill yourself? That’s what that rehab was all about. It was about trying to figure out what was going on inside. And that’s what, you know, everybody – you know, it’s different for everybody. But for Nic, I think that that – I mean, you know, that’s what he says – that those three months were essential.
GROSS: So did that program not rely on the higher power principle?
N. SHEFF: It didn’t rely on it completely, no. I mean, they – there was – definitely that was there, and that was a part of it. But there was a lot of, like, experimental therapies and stuff that they did there. And, you know, I sort of got to really go back and sort of re-experience some of the traumas that I experienced growing up and sort of relive them and grieve them, you know, for the first time really allow myself to grieve them and to come to understand who I am and to learn – you know, as trite as it sounds or whatever – to learn how to love myself.
And, you know, today, like, I mean, I don’t want to kill myself, you know? I don’t at all. Now I love my life and stuff. And, yeah, it doesn’t have anything to do with a higher power for me. But for a ton of people, it does. And I’m certainly not, you know, dissing anybody that feels that way, absolutely.
GROSS: David, did you find, you know, something that you could describe as a higher power?
D. SHEFF: I learned to define it in a way that worked for me, which is it’s something about our humanity. I would – when I went to Al-Anon on meetings, I was told by someone, before this is over, you will believe in God. That didn’t – that transformation didn’t happen to me. But I do believe in prayer. It is a way – it was a way that I got through. I never planned to pray. I never said, I’m going to pray; I’m going to do what they tell me. But all of a sudden, there were moments where I found myself praying. And it was a way to get through.
GROSS: What does prayer mean to you if you don’t believe in a god?
D. SHEFF: You know, it’s a really good question, and I don’t even know the answer. I guess it was a reflection of how desperate I was, that unconsciously, without saying, I’m going to pray, I was saying, please, please, please save Nic. Please help heal my son. I remember that’s what I chanted to myself over and over and over again. And it was maybe a way just to stay sane and to stay focused on something that – you know, that I could hold on to. Or maybe I was, you know, hedging my bets. Maybe I was praying in a way, you know, in case someone out there was listening.
GROSS: Nic, you make it seem that there’s – a part of what saved you from your meth addiction was a degree of self-knowledge that you were helped to acquire in your last rehab. And that, I think, was the rehab in which you were diagnosed with having bipolar disorder, which is basically manic depression. Did that help getting that diagnosis and then getting the medication to deal with the diagnosis?
N. SHEFF: Yes. I mean, absolutely. You know, it’s so – and I think it’s, like, very, very subtle. And, you know, I am on two different medications, and one of them is a bipolar medication. And it’s – you know, it’s so subtle. I mean, I couldn’t even tell you necessarily, you know, what the difference is or how it’s helping me. But I think that they – it’s definitely, you know, one little piece of the puzzle in terms of learning how to be able to live with yourself, you know, a little bit more. And yeah, so I think that if you need it – you know, if you get a really good doctor that knows what they’re doing, you know, and they can help you, I think that’s awesome, absolutely.
D. SHEFF: Nic tells a story in his book that to me is so profound, and it’s stunning – just a beautiful way, I think. He came to see us, Karen, my wife, and Jasper and Daisy. We were in – so we hadn’t seen Nic for a long time. And Karen said, you know, let’s invite Nic to join us. We were going on a family vacation.
And so Nic came over to see us. And we were hanging out. We had a really good time. It was – you know, we talked a lot. Nic was very open, and he talked to the kids about what had been going on and was, you know, sort of – he apologized to them in a way that was – I think it was just so meaningful to them and to Karen and to me. And we had a really good time.
And then he describes the day before he was leaving, he got just really annoyed by us. And he talked about – you know, he was ready to kill me. And all of a sudden, it hit him that – tomorrow, I’m leaving. Oh, I’m – that’s what’s going on here. I’m setting my – I don’t really want to leave. Part of me wants to stay here and be a child again and be, you know, with my family. And so I’m sort of – and then all of a sudden, he felt – he said that, I feel better now.
And he went back, and the rest of the trip was great. And we had a really nice last day. But then he said, what just happened? He said, another time in my life, that moment would’ve just been the beginning of a descent. And it would’ve been the kind of descent that would’ve ended up in me going out to have a drink or to get some pot and then some meth. And he said, oh, could it be the fact that I’m on this new medication? And I just thought it was such a beautiful description of the way that it all works together.
GROSS: Well, listen, congratulations to both of you on the books and on the sobriety, Nic. And, you know…
N. SHEFF: Thank you.
GROSS: …Good luck with – you know, with continuing it and everything. You know, I wish you well. Thank you both so much.
N. SHEFF: Thank you, Terry.
D. SHEFF: Thanks, Terry.
DAVIES: Nic Sheff’s memoir about his struggle with addiction is titled “Tweak: Growing Up On Methamphetamines.” David Sheff’s memoir about his son’s addiction is called “Beautiful Boy,” which is also the name of the new movie starring Steve Carell based on both their memoirs. Terry spoke with them in 2008. David Sheff returned to FRESH AIR five years later to talk about what he’d learned about the science of addiction and recovery. We’ll hear that interview after a short break, and movie critic Justin Chang will review the new Melissa McCarthy film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BEAUTIFUL BOY (DARLING BOY)”)
JOHN LENNON: (Singing) Close your eyes. Have no fear. The monster’s gone. He’s on the run, and your daddy’s here. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy. Before you go to sleep, say a little prayer. Every day…
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The new film “Beautiful Boy” stars Steve Carell as a father struggling with his son’s drug addiction. Today we’re listening to Terry’s interviews with the real people the story is based on. Earlier we heard journalist David Sheff and his son Nic who both wrote memoirs about the family’s experience with Nic’s addiction. Five years after that interview, David Sheff returned to FRESH AIR. They talked about his book “Clean,” which focuses on medical and scientific research into addiction and recovery.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: David Sheff, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So…
D. SHEFF: Hi, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: It’s a pleasure to have you back. Addiction as a brain disease is one of the main points of your book, but what do you mean by that?
D. SHEFF: Well, first of all, Nic became a different person. The only explanation I ultimately came to is that he was ill. At first I didn’t believe that. I thought, you know, he was just this selfish, crazy teenager. But then the more I learned – I mean, 10 kids will go out after, you know, school and they’ll all smoke pot. Or at a party on a Friday night, they’ll all drink. And one of those, possibly two of those, will become addicted.
So there’s something different about that person. There’s something different about the brain. And I’ve seen brain scans. There’s so much research now that shows that people with addiction process drugs differently. Their neurological system is different. A different part of the brain is in control. You know, we think about addiction as a morally reprehensible choice, but addicts act crazy because, in a way, that they are.
GROSS: So, you know, you write in the book that going through detox is just the first step. You know, after you’ve given up the drug and you’ve come out the other end, you still need treatment. And maybe not just, you know, a 12-step kind of program. Maybe you really need psychiatric treatment and medication to help you through whatever the problem was that helped lead to your addiction in the first place.
D. SHEFF: There was this really dangerous idea for so long that all someone had to do was get off drugs. They had to detox. You know, they had to go through cold turkey. And they would wake up in the morning, and they’d be sober. Being sober is just the first step. Getting off drugs is just the first step, and then treatment really begins. If someone has psychological disorders, most often, they haven’t been diagnosed. Whether they have or haven’t, they need to be treated. If someone is struggling in some other ways in their life, they need help.
GROSS: You write that young people are more susceptible to addiction, and addiction is especially dangerous for young people. And this all has to do with the development of their brain. The part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex is still developing when you’re young. Talk about the importance of that part of the brain in a young person’s development and then in addiction.
D. SHEFF: Well, kids are the most vulnerable to becoming addicted. You know, it’s a really stressful time in their lives. I mean, you know, being an adolescent is really hard. But there also is this underlying – teenagers’ brains are developing more rapidly than at any other time in their life, but all the parts of the brain don’t develop at the same time. The frontal part of the brain, which is associated with judgment and rational thinking, is lagging, so it’s not in control.
And meanwhile, the first parts of the brain to develop is the rear portion, which is associated with pleasure seeking and impulsiveness, so it’s in control. We always think about teenagers being impulsive. You know, they want to experiment. They have, you know, all kinds of crazy, reckless behavior. A lot of it is because of that. Their brain hasn’t developed to the point where they can moderate these impulses.
So it’s much more likely that kids are going to use drugs, and they’re more likely to use them excessively. So the development is even slower. The part of the brain that normally would regulate, would help kids make better decisions isn’t in control. So they start using more, and there’s this cycle. And that’s where addiction comes from. Ninety percent of the people who become addicted started using when they were teenagers – before they were 18.
GROSS: A lot of memoirs written by people who had been addicts start with them hitting bottom – you know, the absolutely worst imaginable thing that happened to them because of their addiction. And then they hit bottom, and then they go into rehab, and they seek treatment. And then things start to turn around, and then the book kind of begins.
And so many stories – just, like, addict stories that, you know, are told – you know, start, again, with, like, hitting bottom. And I think a lot of people assume that if you love somebody who is addicted to a substance – that until they hit bottom and until they really realize that their life is at stake, that their dignity is at stake, that there’s no way they’re going to give up, you know, the drug or the alcohol. And you make the point in the book that that’s not necessarily true – that if you love somebody who’s an addict, you don’t need to wait until they hit bottom. You can intervene and perhaps intervene effectively.
D. SHEFF: If you love someone who’s an addict and their use is life-threatening, you don’t wait until they hit bottom because that can mean that they’re going to die. You have to do everything you can to get them in treatment. And now we know that it’s too dangerous to wait for a person to hit bottom. I mean, people were told that. They had to let their kids – you know, their husbands, their wives, whoever it was – they had to stand back, not to intervene, let them hit bottom, so they would crawl into a treatment center and say, please help me.
Bad idea – it’s so dangerous. It has killed so many people. The other problem with it is that this is a progressive disease, which means that as long as it’s not being treated, it gets worse. Addiction is a disease like anything else. It’s like cancer, like heart disease, like diabetes. And we know – you know, at the first signs of serious illness, we want to seek treatment. If someone in our families had early warning signs of any of those diseases, we would bring them to a doctor to figure out what is going on. We would not wait until the disease progressed. So we want to intervene the second we get a sense that there’s a problem.
GROSS: But, you know, with addiction – and this is different from cancer – a person has to be willing to change to stop using. And, I mean, you can lock them up in an environment where they can’t get drugs – you know, whether that’s prison or, you know, put them in rehab, where there’s not going to be any drugs. But when they get out, you know, unless there’s constant surveillance, they still have to make that decision to not use.
Let me give you an example of a story that you’ve told about your son when he was addicted – that he would call you, you know, from the street and say, you have to pick me up. I think I’m dying. You have to come get me and take me home. And you didn’t want to do that because you’d been burned before. You’d take him home, and he would steal from you. He would do things that would be dangerous for your younger children to observe.
So you finally said to him, no. I’ll pick you up, and I’ll take you to rehab. And your son said no, I don’t want to go to rehab – doesn’t work for me. You need to take me home. And you said, call back when you’re ready to go to rehab, and you hung up. So if you had to do that over again, would you think that that was the right way of handling it?
D. SHEFF: No. I tried, though, so many times to get him into treatment. And I would do anything it took. I would drag him off the streets. I searched for him. When I could find him, you know, I just did whatever it took to get him into treatment, and it hadn’t worked. Every time he would go into treatment, he would do fine for a while, and then he would relapse. So my assumption was that relapse proved that the treatment hadn’t worked.
What I now know is that many times – not always but many times – relapse is a part of this disease. So addicts get sober. It’s a chronic illness. The craving doesn’t go away unless it’s being treated, and relapse is common. That means that even though Nic was resistant to going back into treatment, every time I had to do whatever I could to get him into treatment. And when Nic called up, begging me to go back, telling me that he was going to die – so many times I had succumbed. I mean, all I wanted to do was – never mind to get him help, but I just wanted to see him, to see that he was alive.
But I finally listened to the messages of these rehab programs that talk about this tough love thing and that he had to hit bottom. And I hung up the phone, and I wept. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. And he did call, you know, just a few days later and said he was ready to go into treatment. But he absolutely could have died.
GROSS: In that story, you basically had two options that I can think of. One is to say, well, if I’m not driving you to rehab, I’m not picking you up at all. And the other is, OK, I’ll take you home. You chose the if I’m not driving you to rehab, I’m not taking you home at all. And you think you’re lucky that he didn’t die as a result and that he chose to go to rehab a few days later. So in retrospect, do you think you’d have – you should have chosen the other option is – which it would have been, I’ll take you home? And maybe he wouldn’t have gone to rehab.
D. SHEFF: I think that every situation is different. And in retrospect – it was fine in retrospect. You know, it worked. But if I was there again, I would have gone to get him and brought him home and done everything I could to get him into treatment because every day he was out there, it was so dangerous. I mean, that night I didn’t sleep. Of course, I was just petrified. And I had a reason to because he could have gone out and scored and overdosed and died.
If I got him home, at least he would have been off the streets. And I may have been able to get him back in treatment, and I would have done everything I could to get him back. The way I feel now, yeah – you want to get your kid off the streets. It’s too dangerous out there.
DAVIES: We’re listening to an interview with journalist David Sheff. Terry Gross spoke with him in 2013 about his book “Clean,” which focuses on research into addiction and recovery. We’ll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to Terry’s interview with David Sheff. His book “Clean” is about the medical science of addiction and recovery. His earlier book “Beautiful Boy,” about his son Nic’s addiction to meth, has been made into a movie starring Steve Carell.
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GROSS: If your child’s under 18, you can force them to go into rehab, right?
D. SHEFF: In most places you can. It’s – yes, you can. It’s not easy. In some states, it’s really complicated. You have to get judge’s orders. You have to essentially commit them. A police officer maybe has to come and pronounce them a threat to themselves or someone else. But still, parents do have the legal right to get their kids into treatment.
GROSS: Did you ever do that?
D. SHEFF: I never had to resort to any kind of legal means of getting Nic into treatment. But still, I had a lot of leverage. You know, he was living at home. He would be desperate. He would want to come home. He would want help. So he would call me up, and he would be willing to go to treatment. So I had some leverage. I never had to do a formal intervention.
But people do them. They’re dangerous. One of the pieces of advice I got over and over again from professionals is that they must be done by professionals, by people who are trained to do interventions. They know what’s going on, and they understand the risks. But I never had to do that. I was able to get Nic into treatment other ways. But whatever it takes – whatever it takes to get someone to treatment, that’s what we got to do.
GROSS: What were the other ways?
D. SHEFF: Well, sometimes Nic would just get tired of being out there. And he would be so desperate he would – you know, he just wanted to get off the streets. You know, it wasn’t necessarily even life-threatening. And so he was willing to go into treatment because that was my deal. I’ll come pick you up, you know, drive you to a treatment center, check you in. And so he would do it.
But as things went forward, I mean, the last time Nic relapsed, you know, he’d been sober for a long time. It was after Nic and I talked to you on your show. And, you know, one day we were together. And he said, I cannot believe what I did. I was at someone’s house. Just almost automatic, I opened up the medicine cabinet. There was a bottle of Vicodin. I took one. I thought to myself, just one, which is common for addicts to – you know, that’s the first thing that they’ll say to themselves and to us. And soon the bottle was gone.
And he said, I woke up this morning and realized that if I don’t do something, I am going to be back on the streets within a week. So he – you know, this was the first time I didn’t have to say a word. He got on the phone. He called the Hazelden treatment center in Minnesota. He was on a plane that day.
To me, it’s possible to look back on that and say, you know, all the treatments before that were a failure. Here he was sober for such a long time, and he relapsed again. But to me, it’s the opposite. It shows that the treatments had helped him so much that he was able to recognize that he was in a freefall, that it was so dangerous for him. He had learned what they teach in a lot of treatment centers, this behavioral cognitive thing where you can interrupt either the craving that would lead to relapse, or you can stop a relapse early.
And if you can, you know, you’ve made so much progress. One of the things they talk about with addiction is progress, not perfection. So you know, when Nic got on that plane that day, I saw great, great progress. And since then, he’s been sober. So it shows that it’s possible. I mean, people think that treatment can’t work. Nic’s proof that it does.
GROSS: So let’s talk a little bit about 12-step treatment programs. You have a lot of experience with them because – I think – Nic had been in a 12-step program. You’ve probably gone to, you know, a 12-step program for parents.
D. SHEFF: Al-Anon. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah? And then you visited them just as research for the book. So you see, you know, positives and negatives with the 12-step program. So I think most people know what the positive parts are. But what are some of the problems you have with 12-step?
D. SHEFF: The 12 steps are completely a profound, you know, treatment for so many people, but not most people. And that’s the problem that I have. It’s not with the 12 steps. It’s only many, many rehabs are based on this idea that the 12 steps are the key, are the only way to stay sober. That’s my problem. So my problem with the 12 steps is only when it’s forced – and it is forced in many places. Nic was kicked out of some treatment programs because he wouldn’t embrace the 12 steps. And so we have to understand that, you know, there are many ways to get sober. And the 12 steps is one, and it works for some people. But there need to be alternatives.
But I did go to Al-Anon meetings, and what I found there was something different that helped me. You know, when Nic became addicted, I didn’t know other families who had kids who were addicts. I was ashamed, and I felt that I was the only one. And people told me over and over and over again, go to Al-Anon meetings. Go to Al-Anon meetings. I would sort of roll my eyes and think, I am not going into one of those rooms where people are, you know, whining and sitting around in a circle. And I walked into one of those rooms finally, and I felt, you know, these were my people. They know what I’m going through because they’re going through it, too. So that comfort and that support was profound for me.
Also going into these rooms – you know, I was suffering so much inside. And so I would go through my day, and I would have to, you know, put on this face that everything was OK and I had to work. I’d go to my younger children Daisy and Jasper’s school. And, you know, I had to keep it together. I walked into these rooms, and I didn’t have to keep it together. I was allowed to just sit in the back and feel, you know, whatever it was – this just terror. And other people were feeling it, and I was able to cry. And I was able to – you know, there was no pretense in those rooms. There was this openness. It didn’t make things go away, but it made it easier to get through some of the days.
GROSS: Let’s end on a positive note (laughter). And if it’s OK, if it’s not prying into your son Nic’s privacy, he sounds like he’s doing really well now professionally as well as personally. Just give us a little update on his life if that’s not prying too much.
D. SHEFF: It’s not. I mean, Nic is really – you know, I think he’s great. I mean, what can I say? He’s an unbelievable person. I mean, yeah, I’m his dad, and so I’m prejudiced. But he’s extraordinary. He’s just this lovely person. He helps a lot of people get and stay sober. I hear from people all the time – you know, kids who say, I read Nic’s book; I heard him talk, and that’s why I’ve gone into recovery.
He’s really healthy. He exercises every day. He got married to this woman that we adore. You know, they were best friends when they were six and seventh grade. He’s writing like mad. He just had a novel accepted. So, you know, we’re just so lucky. We’re just so lucky. I mean, all these other things are great, but the main thing is that he’s alive. There were so many times when I didn’t think he was going to make it.
GROSS: David Sheff, thank you so much for talking with us, and please send my best regards to your son Nic. I spoke with him once (laughter) on the show, and I’m so glad he’s doing well. So thank you. Thank you very much.
D. SHEFF: Terry, thank you so much.
DAVIES: David Sheff speaking with Terry Gross in 2013. The new film “Beautiful Boy” is based on two memoirs, one written by David Sheff and the other by his son Nic Sheff, about Nic’s addiction to meth and Nic’s subsequent recovery. We’re happy to update that Nic is drug-free today. He’s married and has written two novels and scripts for two television shows. He and his father attended the premiere of “Beautiful Boy” in Los Angeles last week. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new Melissa McCarthy film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” This is FRESH AIR.
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