by Jerry Waxler
Addicts often think of their affliction as a victimless crime, but these two memoirs show both sides of the story. “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff is written from the father’s point of view, while “Tweak” by Nic Sheff tells the son’s tragic journey through meth addiction. The dual vantage point provides a stunning insight into the corrosive effect drugs have on users and their families.
In the father’s memoir, David watches his son start out full of joy and creativity. Sneaking into a liquor cabinet, the son’s first experiment with substances started when he was 11 years-old, and keeps getting worse, accelerating out of control when he tries crystal meth. As his focus narrows to one thing only, he gives up everything he values, every morsel of sanity and pride. Neglecting responsibility to his parents, siblings, and his own value system, he steals, prostitutes, and deals. With each bad decision he falls deeper into the hole and drags down everyone who loves him.
Details vary from one substance to another. Some make you numb, or buzzed, or make you feel in communion with the cosmos. Others break social inhibitions. Whatever the particular effect, they all share one thing. They make you feel like you’ve wrested control away from adults. Now you can shift your state of mind at will. At first it feels like you have become the ruler of your own destiny.
It takes time for the harm to emerge from behind its glittering mask, by which time the damage is done. Broken relationships. Lost opportunities. And the risks intensify. Car crashes, loss of mental functioning, the quick death of overdosing or the slow death of disease. Nic’s dad pleaded and threatened his son. Nic retorted, “You did it and you turned out okay.” Then he slipped out of reach. Swearing he wasn’t using or would never do it again, he continued tripping and scheming, lost inside himself.
The wildcard in these youthful experiments is addiction, a neurological response that the user never anticipates. Once the brain becomes dependent, the drug that started out like glorious freedom reveals its cruel intentions. Hijacking the brain’s pleasure center, drugs and alcohol shift the user’s attention from the will to live towards a single-minded goal of getting high.
Finally, after sinking close to death, Nic tried to get clean. He succeeded for a while, built his life back, and then kept relapsing. Critics argue that relapse proves rehabs are a sham, a con, a waste of money. On the other hand, there are so few things society can do for addicts, and rehab seems like one of the best. My experience is that people come out of these programs knowing so much more about themselves and their addiction than they knew when they went in. It takes time to put the knowledge into practice.
Nic’s memoir “Tweak” begins in the midst of a horrific relapse. Despite all his effort, he was right back at the bottom. And even in this degrading state, Dad kept trying to raise his son out of hell. Their combined effort provided them both a deeper, stronger foundation on which to build permanent sobriety and mutual understanding. The two books propose we take another look at rehab. Instead of seeing relapse as defeat, look at it as a series of stumbles from which the addict can arise, and eventually look back on these terrible valleys as stages along the road to victory.
How can you preach if you really did try drugs and alcohol?
When I was a college student in the sixties, my peers and I believed drugs gave us a front row seat to Truth. From our stoned vantage point, we knew beyond doubt we could see straight to the heart of Reality, and that we were far more insightful than the poor fools who were not under the influence. It took me years to realize the smoke was merely creating the illusion of wisdom, leading me to believe I was smart, while step by step I abandoned my beliefs and ambitions. Following a direction that makes no sense to my sober mind today, I made a series of impractical and self-destructive decisions, harming myself gladly, stranding myself on the precipice of oblivion.
I can’t imagine what pain my parents must have suffered as I pushed away from them. Now, as I draft my memoir, I gain a new appreciation for this whole story, seeing who I was before I was smoking and then who I became after. The overview shows me that “harmless” marijuana damaged my life by letting me profoundly alter my belief system without bothering to check with people who had lived longer and seen more. After I cleared away the clouds and saw where I had gone wrong, I could never regain what I had thrown away, so like all fallen addicts, I started from where I had fallen and continued marching forward.
Lean on each other
During the descent, Dad leans on his professional journalism experience for support, interviewing experts and clutching to their information and advice, desperate to regain control. The news was never good. According to the experts whom David Sheff consults, crystal meth is the most destructive, most addictive drug, with the most relapses and the worst statistics of early death. What happens to someone like Nic, so full of promise and so deeply invested in getting high that his addiction pushed away all sense and advice? Nic kept hearing that the only escape was through the Twelve Step Programs, and even though he didn’t want to, he was finally desperate enough to try. The Twelve Steps gradually seeped in.
Nic’s sponsor said, “Call me whenever you need me” and when Nic was able to bust through the hypnotic spell of temptation, the phone call worked. Spence talked him through to the next minute and the next day. Mentoring made a huge difference in Nic’s life, and is one of the reasons the Twelve Steps are so powerful. As the grand finale of their own journey out of addiction, Twelve Steppers learn to pass on what they’ve learned. As a writer, Nic has a way to spread the message farther than he could one-on-one. Through his book and his blog, he tells his story to thousands.
Addicts are not the only ones who have a valuable perspective about life. And therein lies the crux of memoir writing. By sharing our experience, all memoir writers have the possibility of offering some wisdom to the world, helping other people learn from our experience, hopefully saving them from the necessity of making the same mistakes themselves.
This healing power of service pervades many thought systems. In particular, is Frankl’s idea that all of human suffering can be helped by living a life with a higher purpose. For more, read Frankl’s landmark memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
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