Note: this post is by my very good friend Lesley, who also writes as The Beautiful Fraud. One day I’m going to talk her into having a blog of her own but until then I am honored that she lets me post her work.
The other day I felt a bit sheepish after I said I much prefer to be friends with upbeat people as I thought it might give the impression that I preferred to be friends with people without problems or complications. As you can read from Lesley’s review, it’s possible to go through pain and hurt and a life of twists and knots and still remain resilient, positive and yes, in the end, upbeat. I love her courage and her humor and I feel like I’m a better person for having met her.
Beautiful Boy by David Sheff
There is a secret club that exists all over the world. One where the members are ashamed, embarrassed, and feel hopelessly alone. It is not a club that anyone wants to belong to, yet we have no choice about entry, only about how we deal with the membership that is thrust upon us. And it takes a long time to recognize that we actually do have that choice about how we deal with our forced membership.
David Sheff is a journalist who has written for incredibly prestigious publications including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy and Wired. His interview subjects have included John Lennon, Steve Jobs and many others and he has written many well-received books. His life is filled with success, exciting opportunities with fabulous people, and sounds ridiculously glamorous. I have never had the pleasure of meeting him.
But I know a core part of his soul, and he knows a core part of mine. His words describe a part of my inner most being, that I thought was deeply buried inside me, and they bring me to tears. We belong to the same club. We both love, or sadly in my case loved, a drug addict.
Sheff’s book Beautiful Boy is a desperately honest, searing account of his son’s descent into meth addiction. It describes how his brilliant, outgoing, creative son, an honour student starts taking drugs and the inevitable deception and degradation that goes with them. It juxtaposes this with Sheff’s family life, his attempts to maintain normalcy for the younger children and his constant fluctuation between hope and despair. Despair. That word doesn’t capture the soul-numbing panic, the hyperventilation, the sleeplessness and helplessness that become all pervasive, but Sheff is a writer of considerable skill and his book does.
I have read many memoirs by drug addicts, but I have not read one by the parent of a drug addict before. I am sure they exist, but I doubt that they exist better than this one. Sheff’s anguish is tangible. He questions everything, every action he has taken, and his attempts to try and control his son in order to save him. He has anger swirling inside him, and he doesn’t know where to direct it. I know that feeling. I swallowed anger, hurt, and betrayal because I didn’t know with whom to be angry. It feels so wrong to be angry with the addict, because they are in more pain than even we are. Yet they are the ones who continue to use drugs and no one else can stop this endless hell. I martyred myself. And got the hell out of there. Not only out of the relationship, but out of my country, and out of my life. I came to America and stayed here. I did spend the first six months on the phone nightly trying to find out where he was, what he was doing, whether he was clean, but I was half a world a way. I can never thank the members of his fellowship enough for rallying round me, and gently advising me to stop calling, to let him go, to get on with my life. It took a while, but I did it.
It is impossible to control an addict. A drug and alcohol counselor I went to see in the depths of my own misery gave one of the wisest pieces of advice to me. He said to me that there were only two people who could help a drug addict and neither of them were me. One was his dealer and the other was Narcotics Anonymous and they would both always be there and it was solely up to the addict which one he saw. Wise words. So difficult to internalize. Sheff wants to help his son, that’s what parents do. I wanted to help my husband, because not helping him felt like abandoning him.
I abandoned him after eight weeks of trying to save him. I called his mother and told her what had happened, and moved to the US. I saw him one more time about eighteen months later on a brief trip back to Australia. That was nine years ago.
Sheff comes to understand that he cannot control his son, and this is the journey of the book. He reaches that place through utter exhaustion. His marriage is suffering, his quality of life is suffering, he even has a brain hemorrhage that may or may not be related to the stress, and through it all Nic does what Nic is going to do. Sheff senior’s actions have absolutely no effect.
My love had absolutely no effect.
Nic Sheff, who has written his own account of his addiction, Tweak, says that reading his father’s book alerted him to how much he hurt people. How could he not know? I have also read Tweak, which for obvious reasons doesn’t touch me in the way that Beautiful Boy does. Memoirs of drug addicts never answer the question that all of us who have loved addicts have. Nic doesn’t answer it. There is no answer. But we keep searching, keeping hoping to find it, to understand.
It is incomprehensible to any non-addict that when the stakes are so high and the solution to the problem so easy, the addict would choose to continue to use drugs, especially as they also know this and they do not want to use drugs. It seems so simple. If you don’t want to use, don’t use! Sheff struggles with this. He struggles with the two people who are his son, the one who loves him and the one who loves drugs. They are not the same man. The vibrant, ambitious, driven man who loved me was not the same man as the lying, sneaky, violent, depressed man whom I abandoned to his mother.
Except that they are.
I have spent ten years trying to get that question of why answered, from drug addicts, from therapists, from books and from movies. This is the question that runs through Beautiful Boy, and perhaps why I related so strongly. Sheff is compelled to find a reason, perhaps something he did, perhaps something situational, his divorce.
Why? Why did my ex-husband start using heroin after seven years, six with me? We split up, so if it was me, why didn’t he stop after I left? He had one of the most glorious mothers I have ever met, he had a sister who was his soul mate and he had a phenomenally successful career. It is so incomprehensible that he could have had all that if he had just stopped using. Just as Nic had a year clean and relapsed, my ex-husband had seven years clean and then relapsed. He knew the dangers. He had often said to me when he was heavily involved in his 12 step program that should he ever start using again I should just leave because he would no longer be the man I loved, and he would lie, cheat, steal, abuse. I laughed, never thinking that someone who was so committed to his sobriety, to complete abstinence would ever pick up again. He had a sponsor and a sponsee, was visible and active in the fellowship.
I left him when he started using again.
Beautiful Boy does not have a Hollywood ending. These stories rarely do. Nic had two and a half years clean and relapsed. The relapse seems to have been brief, and not to have led to the complete destruction of his carefully reconstructed life. But forgive me, David, I am not hopeful for you. My ex-husband, when sober, was a great teacher in the ways of addicts and he told me that the only real chance of staying clean was staying clean, and with every relapse the chances of getting and staying clean became slimmer and slimmer. He was right.
I flew back to Australia in March this year to honour my ex-husband at his funeral. For the first time since our traumatic breakup I allowed myself to remember the charismatic, vibrant man he was for the first 5 years and 9 months of our relationship, and to stop demonizing him as the toxic addict who ruined my life. I can understand his pain, which was, as Sheff describes, greater than mine.
I’m free to acknowledge that I loved him without being frightened that he would “get” me again. He was both my man, and that other man.
David Sheff brings humanity to drug addicts; he opens the door for the judgments to pale beside the love he feels. He freed me from judging myself for my anger and lack of compassion.
I am proud to be a member of this awful club when the other members include people like David Sheff. And though they may not be so well-known, Christine and Pete, the parents of my ex who loved him unconditionally, Michaela, his sister and soul mate and my sister, Jo, and parents Ken and Pam who accompanied me to his funeral despite having witnessed my breakdown and exile because of his actions. In the end, love is stronger than addiction, though not much else is.
I love you Christophe.
Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction is available at Amazon and other retailers (affiliate link)