Okay, so Nic Sheff's parents got divorced. And Nic lives some of the year with his remarried father and two step-sibs near San Francisco, and some of the year with his remarried mother in Los Angeles. Sure, he’s tried drugs—he’s a teenager, and about half of all American kids will try drugs. But that mostly means marijuana. No way he's going to do heroin. Unlikely he’ll try cocaine. And as for methamphetamines—never.
Why not meth? Because everybody knows that meth is the most addictive, demeaning substance ever created, a drug that takes responsible, successful citizens and turns them, with astonishing speed, into grotesque creatures with rotted teeth, wild eyes, and concentration camp bodies. David Sheff suggests that 12 million Americans have tried meth and that 1.5 million are addicted to it. Inexplicably, one of them was his son, by every measure a smart, witty, ambitious kid. Who would later say that meth was what he’d been looking for his whole life.
David Sheff, like many boomer parents, is on weak ground as a role model when it comes to drugs. Back in the day, he tried “marijuana, Quaaludes, Jack Daniels, Jose Cuervo, cocaine, and random uppers and downers.” I’m about his age, so I know firsthand of those substances. If I—or, I’m sure, David Sheff —had been looking down the barrel of addiction, we would have sobered up, and fast.
But Nic plummets into drugs. And no one knows what to do. His therapist’s advice: Don’t ban drugs from the house, he’ll just take them somewhere else. But now Nic is stealing from his family for drug money. He gets arrested. What would you do? I know a mother of four sons who, as they were growing up, cautioned them: “You will be someone’s bitch in jail before I bail you out.” (Her sons have an unblemished record.) Not David Sheff. He bails his son out.
Nic steals an old family car and disappears for almost two weeks. His father weeps “in a way that I have not wept since I was a young boy.” It is time— it is past time—for rehab.
But here’s the thing about meth addiction. Its origins may lie in moral weakness or a hole in the soul, but as a practical matter, it’s about brain damage. And there’s a real question: even if the addict stops, will his brain recover? The trick is how quickly you get clean and how long you stay clean. Nic seems to have a good chance—he wants to move from rehab to a halfway house. But then, three days in, he disappears.
Sheff quotes the old saying: “Parents can only be as happy as their unhappiest child.” So as Nic bottoms out, so do his parents. “I became addicted,” Sheff writes, “to my child’s addiction.” The father must enter the next stage: acceptance that Nic may die, the realization that his parents must save themselves.
It is difficult to speak of this part of the book without bursting into tears. Nic, overdosed, in a Brooklyn emergency room, his father racing to the airport only to learn that Nic has pulled out his IVs and catheters and fled the hospital. Nic in recovery, again. Nic missing, again.
Could you take this strain? I couldn’t. And David Sheff didn’t. He had his own brain event—a subarachnoid hemorrhage —and barely survived. With no effect on Nic. But that’s meth: “Only Satan himself could have designed a disease that has self-deception as a symptom so that its victims deny they are afflicted, and will not seek treatment.”
Except that Satan did not create this drug. Chemists did, in 1919. Soldiers of many nations used it in World War II. In 1951, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classified meth as a controlled substance, requiring a prescription. Now, according to some law enforcement officials, 80 to 100 percent of crime in some cities is meth-related. Clearly, it’s easy to get.
Most meth is cooked in clandestine labs, but it should be fairly simple to stop that part of this epidemic caused by pharmaceutical meth. As Sheff notes, only nine factories make most of the world’s legal supply. They resist what they consider excessive government control. And the highly touted, hugely expensive “war on drugs” only seems to include meth at the local level. In 2006, Sheff reports, 500 local police officials across America described meth as their number one problem. The Bush administration’s Office of National Drug Policy downplayed that survey.
No doubt the White House had a reason. But when it comes to the actual drug, reasons are in short supply. It’s a crapshoot: who lives, who dies. Nic? He’s better. For now. If you are a parent or grandparent—or are just concerned about children—you too will feel better at the end of Beautiful Boy. How could you not? You’ve been to hell and back.
Jesse Kornbluth is the editor of HeadButler.com, a cultural concierge service that recommends books, movies, and music. He has published seven books and has written for many major magazines.