A beloved son fuels his father’s quest to understand addiction and recovery

By Sarah T. Williams

sheff-addictionWhen journalist David Sheff and his son, Nic Sheff, released their twin memoirs (“Beautiful Boy” and “Tweak,” respectively) in 2007-08, readers had the unusual opportunity of seeing addiction’s hellish impact on families from both sides of the awful divide between an addict and his loved ones.

It’s impossible to decide who got more beat up in the process: The father, who watched his son “shooting poison into his arms, arms that not long ago threw baseballs and built Lego castles, arms that wrapped around my neck when I carried his sleepy body in from the car at night.” Or the son, whose meth-addicted descent took him to places that were unimaginable, including stealing from his little brother and prostituting himself on the streets.

David Sheff followed up his memoir with “Clean,” just released in paperback, in which he transforms his horror, helplessness and self-blame into a rigorous exploration of the field of addiction and recovery. His quest took him across the country – into labs, treatment centers, clinics, schools and research centers – exploring everything from the risk factors associated with drug use to the efficacy of various treatment programs and the promise of new therapies. He’s well past the hand-wringing stage, and is issuing a national call to action.

David Sheff will talk about “Clean” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Macalester Plymouth Church, 1658 Lincoln Av., St. Paul. William Moyers, vice president of public affairs at Hazelden Foundation, will moderate the discussion, which is free and open to the public.

In a recent interview, I spoke with Sheff about teens, marijuana, buprenorphine, and his beautiful boy. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

MinnPost: “Clean” notes that illicit drug use among teens is higher in the United States than in other countries. Why do you think that is?

David Sheff: There was a survey of kids across the country and their parents, thousands of them, and the main question was, “Why are you using?” Overwhelmingly parents said that the reason was peer pressure and that kids just like to get high. But the kids responded differently: They said that by far the No. 1 reason was stress. It really says a lot. We all know adults who come home from a really stressful day and say, “I need a drink” – because it works, it does alleviate stress. And if you’re a kid dealing with anything from the intense expectations around academics – filling out college résumés when you’re 12 – to poverty, a family in disarray, depression, psychiatric problems, learning disabilities, autism, or eating disorders, you are really susceptible to using as well.

MP: Why have so many of the country’s education and prevention efforts – especially those geared to teens – failed?

DS: Teenagers are smart, and we’ve been talking to them as if they aren’t. They are very skeptical of the messages they receive from adults on any issue. So many of the warnings about drugs in the past have been perceived to be exaggerated – “This is your brain on drugs” – and once they’re perceived to be exaggerated, kids sort of write off everything you say. Also, 70-some percent of schools in America use DARE, and research has shown that not only does DARE not work, it actually increases drug use … because it normalizes it. There’s so much exposure – a sense of, you know, everyone out there is doing it – almost as if you’re not cool if you’re not. That’s not the message that was intended. Read More…


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