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Apr. 28 2009 - 3:28 pm | 1,486 views | 2 recommendations | 9 comments

A Case of the Relapse For Young Addict/Author

Nic Sheff

Nic Sheff

Ten days ago, CNN published a letter from Nic Sheff. Nic is the son of David Sheff, author of the gut-punching and powerful memoir, “Beautiful Boy.” BB is one of the best books on addiction I’ve read–and, as the title implies, it’s about his son, Nic. Nic also wrote his own account of meth addiction in the autobiography “Tweak,” aimed at young adults.  The two books, published in close succession last year, made for a compelling story: father and son, writing about a subject that millions of American families struggle with, wrestling openly with the persistent feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment associated with loving an addict, and being an addict.

Nic, it appears, has relapsed at least twice since publishing his book. He describes the events leading up to his relapse in the letter to CNN. Breaking up with his girlfriend, his mom leaving his step-dad–and, oh yeah, a manic episode. (My inner amateur physician says that he shouldn’t be on Prozac, which has a nasty habit of triggering mania.) Eventually, after lifting some pills from his mom, he gets some weed from a friend. The weed is nicknamed ”Blueberry.” From the letter:

“It smelled like blueberries.

It was really f—in’ good.

So I was taking pills and smoking pot and, that weekend, I was scheduled to go to speak at this boys’ rehab in Washington. I would get paid $4,000 to talk to them about the memoir I’d written and being sober and whatever.”

Okay. My first thought after reading this was entirely judgemental and highly unfair. I’m sure I’m breaking one of the Twelve Steps here, and I admit that my reaction probably has more to do with my own baggage as a recovering drunk/addict/screw-up. Add to that some inexplicable desire to seem publicly holier than thou, exacerbated by the fact that I now have a blog. (I stopped using when I was nineteen. Good for me.) But it was this: perhaps Nic wasn’t ready to be poster boy for recovery after having been sober less than a year.  Perhaps it was a responsibility that he couldn’t yet fully appreciate. Maybe it put a lot of extra pressure on him to have to give speeches at rehabs for boys while still in a death-grapple with his own being. 

Nic hints at this, saying, now 45 days sober, that he’s “trying to let myself just be. And not worry about what ya’ll think and whether I’m pissing ya’ll off, or what.”  The manic stream consciousness style of the letter, a classic staple of drug literature, reflects a sense that he’s still a little too in awe of the experience of highness. (Of course it’s f—ing good, it’s always f—ing good dude, it’s Blueberry!) 

But after thinking it over for a few days, and talking about it with other alcoholic-but-on-the-wagon-friends, I realized I was basically being a hypercritical jerk. First off, I don’t know the guy, so I’d be talking out of my ass on any sweeping judgments I’d be making. Secondly, I’m of the mind that if you’re compelled to write something, you should write it. If publishing ”Tweak” so soon out did him and his father some good, great. It couldn’t have made the trauma any worse than it already was. Thirdly, as a general rule, I think there are usually more positives than negatives in sharing your story.  When it comes to addiction, we should talk it about more, we shouldn’t keep it in the closet.

And perhaps Nic’s ongoing public struggles with addiction actually give a more realistic picture than the standard “I’ve overcome my problem and stayed clean for X years” narrative. The reality is, addicts relapse all the time. It’s a day to to struggle. It’s what makes the disease so frustrating.   

So, I hope, as Nic does take plenty of time to stop worrying about what everyone is thinking. Take a breath, get some perspective, try to live clean.

Personally, it took me years of sobriety before I had a clue of what actually happened while I was all messed up, and before I could truly empathize with my family for all the sh-t I put had them through. Only now, coming up on ten years out, have I been able to write and talk about it honestly.

Thoughts from addicts/non-addicts?

Anyway, I’ll be revisiting David Sheff’s book in another post later this week.


2 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 9 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    Have you read the James Frey books? I’d be curious on your take. Also, this post is as clear-eyed as they come.

  2. collapse expand

    Thanks for such an honest posting. Taking it one day at a time is so simple yet hard to do. We all need to let go of our expectations of others and ourselves and just believe that the intention to do better is always there.

  3. collapse expand

    Hi Coates, thanks for the comment. I’ve read of bunch James Frey’s stuff. To be honest, some it always rang a bit false to me. But, what I appreciate about it is that JF does speak and write well about the self-destructive addict rage. (Full disclosure, I met Frey a few months back at a literary festival in Australia. I liked the guy, and he had some pretty hilarious things to say about the whole Oprah mess.)

    Rebecca, I appreciate your wisdom re: letting go of expectations. Often easier said than done, but key.

  4. collapse expand

    Thanks for this, Michael.

    I think key to understanding addiction is the realization that we are all wired for it, some more heavily than others.

    Addicts coming out of a 12-step program need to understand that (mostly) their addiction (or addictive behavior) is going to pop up some other place in their lives. I have seen a lot of folks come out of treatment and grab onto another behavior equally as destructive.

    The problem there is not just treating addiction to either drugs or alcohol, but also the “why” which can be any number of things.

    In Nic’s case, I agree with you. Sounds like too much too soon. Instead of being able to adjust in his new skin (pressure enough), he had to adjust that plus new-found fame and the responsibility of being a role model.

    Heck yeah, writing is cathartic! I think its wonderful that both Nic and his dad were able to do this. That must have helped to heal both of them in a big way, but these wounds were a little too fresh, it seems to be put in the spotlight so quickly.

    Anyway, my thoughts go out to Nic..I hope he finds a little peace in the maelstrom.

  5. collapse expand

    Nic, it appears, has relapsed at least twice since publishing his book.

    I swear…the guy looks, and his story sounds, like Bubbles from The Wire.

  6. collapse expand

    Michael, a suggestion. Visit Mendham, New Jersey. There, in 1992, I helped found the world’s best treatment center – and it’s running like gangbusters. It’s leader did heroin. He says I saved his life. You know better: he saved his own. But kids helped him, and I helped his kids. It’s a story and you would be the perfect author for that story. Recovery at Mendham runs about 80%, real. About 72 beds. One year for most. Great staff, good people, sound principles, a work in progress. I am not an addict. I have lived with addicts. Mastered the logic, applied set theory, worked the solution. Have worked with many, some one on one. We farm. We are addicted to life. 518 963 4206 for us. Daytop at Mendham, ask for Jimmy Curtin – and mention me. All the best, Sandy

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    I'm the author of "I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story" and a regular contributor to GQ. Previously, I was the Baghdad correspondent for Newsweek magazine. My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Slate, Salon, Foreign Policy, the L.A. Times, and other publications of repute. This blog will focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other newsy foreign-ish things.

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