Breaking Dad: Author David Sheff Talks About His Book ‘Beautiful Boy’ and His Son’s Meth Addiction

There’s an inherent repetitiveness to all books about alcoholism or drug addiction. The reader knows immediately that if the main character enters rehab just a third of the way into the story, a relapse — or more likely, a series of relapses — is just page turn away. That’s the nature of addiction: It’s a vicious circle, or more accurately, a vicious spiral that typically moves only downward.

Beautiful Boy, David Sheff’s 2008 #1 New York Times bestseller about his son Nic’s rapid descent into methamphetamines addiction, is no less gripping because you already know what’s coming: Nic, an exceedingly bright, athletic and creative boy, starts drinking and smoking pot as a northern California preteen and soon moves on to harder stuff before discovering his drug of choice: crystal meth.

What unfolds over the ensuing 300-plus pages of Sheff’s compelling and heart-wrenching memoir is all-too-familiar terrain to the families of addicts: the lying, stealing, guilt, self-recrimination, broken promises, sleepless nights, police cars, and seemingly endless visits to emergency rooms, Al-Anon meetings and drug rehab centers. And tears. Lots and lots of tears.

But the book, which is unsparing in its gritty honesty, also offers tremendous hope to those who assume there’s no road back from addiction to an insidious drug that permanently alters the brains of its users.

Sheff, whose pieces have appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Wired and elsewhere, based this book on a February 2005 article he wrote for the  New York Times Magazine called “My Addicted Son.” Since the publication of Beautiful Boy, Nic Sheff has published two books of his own about his meth habit: Tweak and We All Fall Down.

Sheff, 56, will be speaking at Burlington’s Contois Auditorium on Thursday, April 5, at 7 p.m. He was invited to Vermont by documentary filmmaker Bess O’Brien, of Kingdom County Productions, whose latest project addresses prescription opiate abuse in St. Albans. Following Sheff’s talk, he’ll take part in an open panel discussion, moderated by Mitch Barron, with St. Albans pediatrician Dr. Fred Holmes and two recovering prescription-pill addicts.

Seven Days spoke to Sheff by phone at his home in Inverness, Calif.

SEVEN DAYS: You must get many invitations to speak to community groups all around the country. What convinced you to come to Vermont? It couldn’t just be for the Ben & Jerry’s and maple syrup.

DAVID SHEFF: Do you know Bess O’Brien? She’s sort of a force of nature and hard to say no to. But, yes, I get a lot of invitations and I like to do them. It’s really gratifying to connect with people, and it also relates to the new book I’m working on… about the addiction treatment system, what works, what doesn’t, and what’s wrong with the system we have here in America. So, going to different places is instructive. Most places have very similar issues but there are specifics to specific places and  specific drugs… Plus, it sounds like Bess is doing some really interesting work. That has a lot to do with it. And, the maple syrup.

SD: You write in Beautiful Boy that your own experimentation with drugs was a flaw that you passed on to your son. Have your other two kids avoided using drugs?

DS: They have. You don’t have to convince them that drugs are really, really bad. They were scared to death… When I was growing up, my parents talked to me about drugs. They warned me [with] information they probably got from public service announcements on TV and PTA meetings. So, I thought they were totally clueless, and they were, about drugs. They had no idea. So, because of my experiences, I understood, and understand, why people use drugs, both for the social part of it and also the relief they can provide when you’re stressed out. I understood the draw of drugs and I wasn’t naive about the dangers. It wasn’t just someone giving me these Nancy Reagan-like “Just say no” warnings. I had one friend I wrote about who died… one who ended up in prison, another who ended up out of his mind and who slowly drifted off into oblivion.

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