Devastating Drug Addiction
Award-winning journalist David Sheff wrote about his struggle to help his son Nic overcome a crystal meth addiction in The New York Times Magazine. After the article was published, David says he realized he was not alone. His story generated an overwhelming response from other parents of addicts.
"When this hit our family, we were like so many families in this country," David says. "I was not naive about drugs. I used drugs when I was a kid. ... But I still thought, like most of us, 'This could never happen to our family.' When it did, we were so blindsided. We were so devastated that I realized that this is something we have to talk about."
David delves deeper into Nic's drug abuse and its impact on their family in his book Beautiful Boy. "I realized the power of telling a story like this because it opens the door to other people," he says. "It gives people permission [to discuss it]."
Using journals he kept throughout his life, Nic has also written a version of the story. In his memoir Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, he recounts his experiences as a teenage drug addict to the best of his recollection.
When Nic was 4 years old, his parents divorced. He grew up splitting his time between his father's home near San Francisco and his mother's home in Los Angeles. For years, David says he thought Nic was handling the difficult situation well. "He was almost always on the honor roll," David says. "He was the captain of the water polo team."
Despite appearances, Nic says he felt so much pain inside he went searching for something to numb his emotions. When he was just 11 years old, Nic says he got drunk for the first time. "The world was really abrasive and overwhelming, and I felt really hopeless," he says. "When I started drinking [alcohol], I couldn't stop."
One year later, David found marijuana in his son's backpack. Nic eased his father's fears by saying he'd made a mistake, but the truth was, he was secretly smoking pot every day by the time he was in middle school.
"The first time I did a line of crystal, it was like my whole world changed," Nic says. "I just felt confident and strong and like I could do anything. I felt like a rock star. It was like everything I'd been missing my whole life, and I wanted to hold on to that feeling because it was exactly what I needed."
Nic's euphoric feeling didn't last long. Hours after his first hit, he came crashing down from the high. "I remember lying in my bed, and I was sweating the drug out of my body, and I was shaking," he says. "It was just this intense, horrible, wrenching pain like someone had come in with a vacuum cleaner and just sucked out every good feeling that I'd ever had in my whole life."
After that day, Nic says he used crystal meth constantly because he was afraid of crashing again. His addiction began to consume his life and take a toll on every member of his family.
"Methamphetamine stole his soul," David says. "Our lives descended, Nic's life descended, into what can only be described as hell."
When Nic began skipping classes in high school, David says he spoke to teachers and a counselor about his rebellious behavior. "[They said], 'Nic's fine. He's a smart kid. He's doing fine. He's doing well in school,'" David says. "It wasn't that I completely dismissed it. I was worried. [But] I didn't take it seriously."
The counselor also told David college would straighten Nic out. "Did I believe it?" he says. "I wanted to believe it." Nic enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, but he didn't make it through his freshman year.
In an attempt to protect his son and himself, David says he hid Nic's addiction from friends and family at first. "I didn't want them to think badly of my son," he says. "I was ashamed. My son is a drug addict. What does this mean about me?"
"Nic was already on this course, and I was desperate to connect with him," David says. "What does that say? The hypocrisy. ... It was not something I'm proud of."
David says he's heard stories of other parents trying the same tactic, but it's not something he recommends. "I took [the joint] without really thinking it through," he says. "But I did have the sense he was trying to open up to me. He was trying to talk."
When Nic was growing up, David says he made the decision to discuss his own experiences with drugs with his son. "When I was a child, my parents didn't know anything about drugs. They didn't even drink," he says. "When they said, 'Just say no,' ... I kind of rolled my eyes and thought they didn't know what they were talking about. I thought I'd have some credibility because I did know people whose lives were destroyed by drugs."
While some experts think parents should be honest with their children about past drug use, others argue that it sends a mixed message. Now, David says he's not sure if he should have opened up.
"They bring these athletes to schools or other people who have done well, and they say, 'Don't use drugs. I almost died.' Well, what do the kids see? They see this person who not only survived, but they're thriving," he says. "It is a mixed message. That's a problem. I think we have to better figure out how to talk to kids about this."
For the next five years, David says his son was on a suicide mission fueled by crystal meth. While living on the street, Nic says he dealt drugs, worked in the sex industry and stole money from his family to support his habit. At one point, Nic says he was so desperate, he came home to search for cash. He found a few dollars in his little brother's piggy bank and stole every penny. "Doing crystal made me into like an animal," he says. "I would have practically done anything to anybody in order to keep getting it."
Nic's addiction ravaged his family and his body. "I was really skinny," he says. "Crystal meth does this thing where you get kind of like scales on your skin."
Even after an overdose sent Nic to the emergency room, he refused to call his father. "I was afraid to call my dad. I was ashamed too," he says. "There was just this idea that I was just going to shoot drugs until I killed myself."
David says he used to scour the streets and search alleyways looking for his son. One day, David convinced Nic to meet him at a cafe to talk. When he didn't show up, David says he found him on the street, strung out on meth and looking very frail. "My heart just sunk," David says. "There was my son, my beautiful boy, and he looked like he was walking dead."
Nic explains that he thinks he was experiencing amphetamine psychosis and was blacked out for most of the episode. "I'd seen [crystal meth] make other people go crazy, and it never really made me go crazy in that way, but I think that was the first time it did," he says. Nic says that during his psychosis he thought people were outside of the garage trying to spy on him. "I remember climbing up into the rafters and trying to peel off the shingles on the roof to try to climb out through the roof, which didn't work."
There was even a time where David says he called hospitals and the morgue every few days to see if Nic had overdosed again or died. "I just had to wait, and I waited," David says. Eventually, Nic agreed to get help.
During one stint in rehab, Nic wrote in his journal, "How the hell did I get here? It doesn't seem that long ago that I was on the water polo team. I was an editor of the school newspaper. ... The kids in my class are in college. This isn't so much sad as it is baffling."
Nic says he never intended to be a drug addict, but once he was, he says he didn't want to stop. Rehab helped Nic recognize that he had a disease, but he says he wasn't convinced at first that he couldn't control his consumption of drugs and alcohol. David says he also struggled with the idea that his firstborn was an addict. "I was very naïve," he says. "I didn't understand addiction."
Over the years, Nic says he has relapsed multiple times and completed five rehabilitation programs. David says it's important for people to remember that relapses are part of the recovery process. "I thought, 'I'll pick him up in 30 days, and thank God, this will be over.' Well, that's not the way addiction works," David says. "Sometimes it takes awhile for them to get it. It's important to understand that because otherwise you feel so defeated. You realize that there's still hope."
When this show first aired in April 2008, Nic said he'd been clean for more than two years. Since then, he's relapsed twice. Today, he says he's clean.
Over time, David says his obsession put a strain on his relationships. "It was at the expense of my wife and my beloved little children, [but] how could a parent whose son is in mortal peril like this think about anything else?" he says.
David wasn't the only one worried about Nic. Karen, his second wife, their young children, Jasper and Daisy, and Nic's mother, Vicki, also suffered. "Karen was in tears," David says. "For Jasper and Daisy, they were very young, and they revered Nic. He was their big brother, their friend, their playmate. ... They didn't understand what he was doing to himself, and they didn't understand how a family had changed."
Nic admits that although he wasn't thinking clearly during his addiction, he wasn't completely blind to the burden he put on his family. "There was a little piece of me deep down that knew what I was doing was really tearing my family apart, but I didn't want to see that," he says. "I think that's part of the reason that I kept using drugs—to blot out that pain."
Nic says he realizes he started abusing drugs to avoid seeing his true self. "I felt like if I looked inside of myself, I would see that I was just this ugly, disgusting, worthless person. I was so scared of that, I started drinking and using so that I could escape," he says. "It's so stupid. I don't know what I was running from that whole time."
On the inside, Gordon says Noah was suffering. "When he was 13, he was abused by a coach," Gordon says. "As a result of this heinous act, my son initiated the use of alcohol and drugs, which led to a spiraling of his suffering. Noah turned to marijuana and alcohol on a regular basis. Later in his life, he moved to things like cocaine and heroin."
Over a three-year period, Noah's parents say he was hospitalized 19 times and had 84 visits to the emergency room. "He tried recovery so many times," Karen says. "He was just a shell of himself."
To help wean Noah off cocaine, his parents say doctors prescribed methadone. Three days later, Karen and Gordon received a phone call they will never forget. "He was passed out," Gordon says. "A white substance had come out of his nose or mouth."
Although there are differences, Karen says she can see herself in David and Nic's story. "To me, the disease of addiction is a family disease that is so insidious and so cunning and so baffling."
David suggested that Kathleen get support so she would know she's not alone. "It helped tremendously," Kathleen says.
For the next three months, Kathleen poured her soul into 72 beautiful postcards written just for her daughter. "I wanted her to know that I was with her, and I was sharing her pain," she says. "I was sharing her fear, and I wanted her to know that we love her no matter what she does or where she is."
One postcard included a quote that Christopher Robin said to Winnie the Pooh, one of Maria's favorite childhood characters. "Promise me you'll always remember—you're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."
The thought of relapsing is still an everyday struggle for Maria. "You have that choice to either pick up or not. But for me, being the addict that I am, I know that one pickup or that one decision is going to land me right back to where I was—that endless spiral to destruction."
Nic chose to live and says he's found purpose in life. "I feel that's my mission every day to be honest and open and vulnerable and raw," he says. In Tweak, Nic writes on the last page, "My secrets will kill me if I don't get honest about my life. I can't have recovery, so my challenge is to be authentic."
Can you stop children from using drugs? Watch as Nic offers advice to parents.