Zachary Siegel | Longreads | November 2018 | 14 minutes (3,640 words)
Some books have a way of finding you at just the moment you need them. That’s been the case with me and the father-son memoirs that serve as the source texts for Beautiful Boy, a new film about a family wrestling with addiction, starring a worried-sick Steve Carell as David Sheff, father to his dopesick son, Nic, played by Timothée Chalamet.
Nic Sheff’s drug memoir, Tweak, was resting on my friend’s coffee table with little crumbs of weed on the black and red cover. It was 2010 and I was a 21-year-old daily smoker of black tar heroin. I rarely left my apartment in Denver, which had become a dark opium bunker, burnt tin-foil and hollowed out Bic pens (“tooters”) strewn about. One day I left to buy some weed from a friend, and there was Nic’s book. I asked to borrow it; nonchalantly, I should add, making it seem as though addiction was only a cursory interest of mine, as opposed to a ghost that had been following me for years.
I devoured all 352 pages in a couple days. Melting wherever I sat, hours-long reading sessions on heroin were quite comfy. But after a few hours I’d have to shut one eye to keep from seeing doubles. I’m realizing only now that I never returned Nic’s book to my friend — I swear I’m not that guy anymore.
Reading Nic’s plunge into homelessness and addiction in San Francisco while on a binge of my own was one of the more profound experiences I can remember from my foggy early adulthood. In Tweak, Nic details his yearslong cycle oscillating between chaotic drug use to treatment and recovery, over and over again. Looking back, I realize now I was reading a foreshadowing of what was to come of my life. Less than a year later, my parents in Chicago caught on to my drug use, initiating my own cycle of treatment, relapse, and eventual recovery. Knowing Nic was somewhere out there, that he lived to write his story, quietly gave me the courage to do the same. Today, I write, albeit precariously, for a living.
During my third round of treatment in the summer of 2012 is when I found Beautiful Boy — or rather, when it found me. I didn’t want to go get help but like Nic, I initially went because of my parents. A memoir by David Sheff, Beautiful Boy tells the story about a family’s struggle to save their son. Published in 2008, one year after Tweak, David’s book brought into focus the totality of the pain I had caused my own parents. By this time a few of my close friends had died from overdoses, and America’s national crisis was beginning to make headlines. My suburban parents were terrified that my short life would be reduced to an anonymous point of data in a CDC mortality report.
A decade after Nic and David published their memoirs, they’ve been seamlessly synthesized in Beautiful Boy, the film taking on the same name as David’s book. But the film also captures Nic’s own terror: He’s not living in the streets to party and have fun, he’s seeking relief from intense internal pain the only way he knows how.
The Sheffs are gifted writers. David was an accomplished journalist before he wrote Beautiful Boy, writing features for Rolling Stone and the New York Times Magazine. His instinct to investigate and research blends well with Nic’s brutally honest and emotionally raw descent into meth and heroin addiction. The film carefully entangles their worlds, mired in uncertainty. When Nic strings together months away from drugs, he never knows when the urge will be too much to bear. While David sees meth turn Nic into a shell of his former self, the audience sees how David’s preoccupation with saving his son chases him everywhere. David becomes a shell in his own way. He’s physically present at his younger son’s and daughter’s (Nic’s step-brother and step-sister) swim meets and family excursions hiking on the Pacific Coast in Northern California, but his mind is elsewhere, wondering where his son is.
Last week, after the movie premiered, I interviewed Nic and David about seeing their story in a new medium, the responsibility of depicting addiction in pop-culture without reinforcing stigma, tough love, and how their story has evolved as America’s addiction crisis continues to kill tens of thousands of people every year. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Zachary Siegel: Before the credits roll, a startling statistic is cited: “Overdose is the leading cause of death among Americans 50 and under.” A decade ago, your memoirs were published within a year of each other (Nic’s in 2007 and David’s in 2008). Now that the country is paying close attention to this massive crisis (thanks to white people dying) have you felt your stories take on new urgency?
David: The urgency has always been there. But, it’s just so much more intense now. We hear from so many more people struggling. The year that our books came out, I think about 36,000 people died from overdose, which is horrific. It was unimaginable that it would get worse. Of course, last year, I think 72,000 people died.
Nic: I feel the same way, that it always felt like something that wasn’t being talked about enough. This has been devastating communities but it’s just, so much more extreme. For the movie to come out at this time, it feels much more relevant than ever.
In Nic’s memoir, Tweak, there’s obviously vivid descriptions of injection drug use. But I think the movie did a good job showing that reality without glamorizing it. Were either of you worried about how addiction and drug use would be represented on screen, which is a very different medium than your books?
Nic: It was really important from the beginning to make sure we were telling the story in a responsible way. And in a way that would show, at least the reality for me, which was about relapse. It wasn’t about wanting to have fun and partying. I was using because I was in a lot of pain, and I was reaching out to the drugs to try and feel better. That was the only way I had learned to cope. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. Having that portrayed in the film as the motivation behind the relapsing was really important.
We also wanted to make sure when we were showing the actual drug use that we weren’t fetishizing it too much. I feel like I see that in a lot of drug movies where it becomes so much about the ritual around scoring and fixing, it can have this seductive appearance. From the very beginning, we had talked about wanting to do the opposite of that.
The reality for me… was about relapse. It wasn’t about wanting to have fun and partying. I was using because I was in a lot of pain, and I was reaching out to the drugs to try and feel better.
David: There have been a lot of movies that do show drug use and addiction, and there’s so much cliche and so much stereotype. So much of that adds to the stigma. It’s shown as this black and white thing that’s all about wanting to get high, these hedonists not caring about anybody. Of course, we know that’s not what addiction is. It was really important to both of us that the movie communicated what we know addiction to be, which is an illness that causes enormous pain and is life threatening. And that it also causes enormous pain to family. We went forward to do the movie in the first place because we could feel the producers and the director were really committed to showing that.
Judging from the initial reaction from people I think the movie succeeded. We’re hearing from people, “Thank god, someone is telling our story.” Showing that this boy, played by Timothée Chalamet, that he is not having fun, that he’s in pain. He’s trying to make sense of a life that doesn’t make sense, and it’s about his attempt to feel OK. At one point, Nic says in the movie that he’s trying to fill this hole inside him.
Whether it’s journalism or entertainment, media has long way to go in depicting addiction in a way that doesn’t reinforce stigma. For example, in my journalism, I don’t use the word “addict” to identify people. Your books were written 10 years ago before this language was being critically examined, and now there’s a movement to change it. Did either of you feel like, “We really have to get this right…” while not changing the source text?
David: Nic, I’m interested in what you have to say about this because I’ve thought about it. As we all know, people who are addicted use the word “addict,” and it’s a cultural thing. I always try to talk about “people who are addicted” or “people suffering from the disease of addiction.” I’m probably not even consistent with that, it’s hard to shift this stuff. But also within the community it’s sort of disingenuous to ignore the fact that people are judged as “addicts” by society. That’s what we’re shifting away from.
Nic: I’m not actually very familiar with this movement, but it makes sense to me hearing you say that. It does have this connotation of being untrustworthy, someone who’s a scourge on society, whereas saying “someone with the disease of addiction” reinforces the idea that this is a disease, it’s not a choice — and a person doesn’t have to be identified by negative behaviors.
David: I also think it’s important to realize that it is talked about in the community in that way. But also, our books were published 10 years ago, reflecting a period of our lives 10 years before that. So a lot of this understanding has only come from a growing acceptance that addiction is a disease and people don’t want to be identified as a person with any disease. People want to be identified as being people who have an illness. Like some diabetics, they don’t want to be called that. They want to be called people with diabetes.
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Like any good journalist, David, you started doing research. Did consulting the neuroscience of addiction help you better empathize with and understand what was happening to Nic?
David: God, yes. I mean, that changed everything to tell you the truth. Like most people who are blindsided by addiction, if you don’t know better, it looks like a choice and that they are behaving in just morally reprehensible ways. I know Nic as this loving, kind, moral person. Without an explanation it just looks like he became somebody that no longer had the kinds of values that I knew he had.
I knew how to investigate because I was a journalist, but I did the investigation as a parent trying to figure out what the hell was going on with my son, and what I could do about it. Because I was a journalist, I knew where to start, how to access people and who to access. The movie opens with Steve Carell talking to a doctor (played by Timothy Hutton) and the first thing he says is, “I’m a journalist, but that’s not why I’m here. I’m here because of my son.” And I did the exact same thing. I called some of the experts on addiction and said that I needed help.
Once I started talking to those people and began to understand addiction, learning about brain chemistry, I learned that Nic was not making choices. I learned that this wasn’t about good and bad people, it was about people who are ill. Then I was able to look at everything completely differently. It’s important to understand the conclusions of the research so our judgement can give way to compassion. Instead of trying to punish and blame, making people feel guilty, we can figure out how to best help them.
Addicted family members naturally test our boundaries and limits. There’s this wrenching moment where Nic, you’re desperate, and you call your dad begging to come home. But David, you say, Sorry Nic, that’s not going to happen this time. The movie portrays this as an incredibly painful moment for you, David. I’m wondering, Nic, what kind of impact did being shut out like that have on you? And David, do you regret the “tough love” approach you used?
Nic: I remember that moment really clearly. So much from that time was kind of a blur, but that really stuck with me. It did have a big impact. I remember knowing that it wasn’t that my dad didn’t love me, that he didn’t care about me. I felt like he was doing it because he thought it was the right thing. It was hard for him to do. In the moment, I didn’t feel like he gave up on me.
David: Wow, I never heard you say that.
Nic: Really? I remember feeling that way. We also got really lucky, of course. I was at a point where I really did want to get out of the situation I was in and I really did want help. When he hung up I called my sponsor and he helped me get on a plane and get back to LA and helped detox me. It could’ve so easily gone the other way. It’s really dangerous and I know that it was an important moment for me. It made me realize I wouldn’t be able to manipulate my dad anymore and that he wasn’t going to keep bailing me out. We got lucky. I could’ve easily shot up that night and overdosed and died. The outcome could’ve been completely different.
I learned that Nic was not making choices. I learned that this wasn’t about good and bad people, it was about people who are ill.
David: I feel the same way when I look at the scene. It was one of the hardest days of my life, frankly. On the one hand, like Nic said, we’re lucky because he was OK. I really do cringe when I watch that scene because it makes me realize that, if it happened again, I wouldn’t do it that way. I’ve heard from so many other people and it’s just, too dangerous to hang-up the phone on somebody who is calling you for help and leaving them out on the street. It may make sense in an old-fashioned tough love sort-of way. But tough love kills people all the time.
I hope that people don’t come away from the movie thinking that that is a good and necessary step to get somebody sober. I don’t believe that.
In the self-help world, there’s this way that loving relationships have been pathologized. Parents are called enablers and co-dependent. I’ve never liked the sound of that.
David: If you go to rehab, see counselors, go to Al-Anon [a 12-step family program] you’re told all the time that you’re enabling, that you can’t give them money. Well, I still don’t think you should give money to people actively using, they’re just going to buy more drugs. But I feel like you should never shut the door on anybody. There’s a message hammered in, like it was to me, for parents and I think it’s dangerous.
There’s a scene where David is told by a treatment provider that their success rate is “80% on the high end, and 20% on the low end.” Few treatment facilities actually track outcomes at all. There are lots of hucksters in the treatment industry that use buzzwords like “evidence-based” and “CBT.” How hard was it to find legit facilities for Nic? What should parents and loved ones be looking out for?
David: In those days especially, when I didn’t even know what I was doing, I didn’t know what was a legitimate facility and what wasn’t. You don’t know who to believe. When I was looking, I had people tell me, “Give us $10,000 and we’ll have your kid back in a week drug free and clean forever.” In my book, I asked the guy who runs a program for people who are homeless in San Francisco about success rates, and he told me, “Success for us means they haven’t died.”
The treatment system was a mess then and it’s not a whole lot better now. Trying to find good treatment, you’re at the mercy of people who lie. Some programs have websites that make it look like they’re treating everybody with evidence-based treatment and they treat co-occurring disorders and things like that. But there is not one person on staff who has any medical training whatsoever. Anybody can open a drug treatment center. I can without any credentials whatsoever in a lot of states.
What I tell people to do, given that, is not to trust the internet. Rather, I tell them to do what you would do if you had any other medical condition. Go see a doctor first to get an assessment and a referral. In this case, a lot of doctors don’t know what they’re talking about so you have to find one who’s trained in addiction medicine. I refer people to directories on the websites of the American Society of Addiction Medicine or American Association for Addiction Psychiatrists. Get an assessment, work with a doctor to figure out what’s going on, How serious is the problem? Are there any other co-occurring mental illnesses? Then figure out what the best options are.
Eight years later, Nic, do you still go to 12-Step meetings?
Nic: I do, for sure. I feel like I’m always hesitant to talk about it because of the Traditions. I’m definitely super involved in 12-Step stuff. I work on my recovery on a daily basis one way or another. One of the best things about sobriety for me is the incredible friendships I have. When I was using I had using friends, but until I got sober, really, and started working the program seriously, I never really had close friends. I was maybe too vulnerable to have friends or I just didn’t know how to do it.
Now, I have this amazing group of sober guys around me I’m really close to and talk to everyday. That is something I never thought would be possible for me. I’m super grateful for that.
The treatment system was a mess then and it’s not a whole lot better now. Trying to find good treatment, you’re at the mercy of people who lie.
How have your close friends responded to the film? Must be psyched.
Nic: They’ve been incredibly supportive. Most of them got into the premier and we all got to hang out after that. It was such a crazy night, with all these fans of Timothée Chalamet screaming. He’s like a Beatle right now. So, having my core group of friends there around me made a big difference, helped me get through the night, for sure.
When I saw the movie for the first time they basically said I could see it in anyway that I was comfortable. I asked to see it by myself with one guy friend. The two of us went together, and the point in the movie when the dad is explaining to his little son what “everything” means, at that moment, we suddenly looked at each other and just burst into tears. We cried from there until the end of the movie. Was definitely a bonding experience.
David, what’s the film been like for you and your journey?
David: I don’t think Nic or I ever expected to write about addiction and be involved in all these groups. Nic talks to a lot of college and high school kids. We didn’t expect any of it. Nobody imagined a movie, but we were dragged into this thing without ever wanting to be because Nic became addicted. We were a family trying to figure it out.
As a journalist, that got us to the next stage in writing about it. We were blindsided. We didn’t think it could ever happen to us. Now, I’ve learned that it can happen to anybody and that felt like an important message to communicate. Everything sort of shifted because of our own experience, and that has opened us up to the experiences of other people who share their story with us. I certainly would never wish this on anybody. I wouldn’t wish it on my son, the hell he experienced. If there’s any good that can come out of it, it is that it has opened a door to a conversation about addiction.
Because of the power of movies, and movies starring great actors, that you get to spread the message even further. That’s the bottom line. That part of it is really meaningful, and the reaction we’ve had so far suggests that’s exactly what’s happening. The movie is only open in a few cities so far, but people are feeling that their experience is affirmed, and that they’re not alone.
In America, we learn about complicated stuff like addiction through pop-culture. I feel there’s an imperative on writers and producers to get it right, be accurate.
David: We know how hard it is to impact young people with addiction. The prevention strategies we’ve used in the past don’t work. Because this movie stars one of the hottest actors in the world, an actor who kids are enamored of, I feel like it has the potential to open a conversation with young people who may not have been open to it at all. If a movie about not doing drugs is playing in their school, they’re not going to be listening. But to go see a movie because of this amazing actor, suddenly they’re open to a conversation about drugs and addiction, what it looks and what it means. It’s an amazing, and unfortunate, coincidence that this all came together.
Nic: It’s so hard to get someone to ask for help and agree to go into treatment. To have them be at that point where they’re ready to do it, and not have it available is unconscionable. We need to be focusing on getting people help.
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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist in Chicago. He covers public health and criminal justice and co-hosts “Narcotica,” a podcast about drugs.
Editor: Dana Snitzky