Father and son of ‘Beautiful Boy’ to tell their story in Park City
What: “Beautiful Boy: An Evening with Authors David Sheff and Nic Sheff”
When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 15
Where: Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd.
Twenty years ago, David Sheff realized how bad his son’s addiction to meth had gotten.
“He was in high school and that was when he disappeared and I didn’t see him for a few days,” David, a journalist, said.
One Bay Area evening, Nic Sheff, now sober, had told his dad he would be home by midnight, but he never showed up.
“I landed a connection with a dealer, who had all of these drugs, and my friends game me a list of drugs they wanted and money to buy them with,” Nic said.
At their first stop, Nic started taking them with one of his friends.
“The next thing I knew, three or four days had gone by and we had done all the drugs that I bought for everyone else,” he said. “My friend had kicked me out of the house because I was so crazy, and I ended up wandering around Oakland.”
By the time the police found him, Nic had lost his wallet and his backpack. His father was inconsolable.
“While I was gone, he had been worried and called all the area hospitals and the police,” Nic said.
The Sheffs will share their story and more when Park City Institute presents “Beautiful Boy: An Evening with Authors David Sheff and Nic Sheff” on Saturday, Dec. 15, at the Eccles Center. Their story was the subject of the recently released film “Beautiful Boy,” an adaptation of one of David Sheff’s books that stars Steve Carell (David) and Timothee Chalamet (Nic). The two will talk about their experiences they have recorded in their books — David’s “Beautiful Boy” and “Clean: Overcoming Addiction and ending America’s Greatest Tragedy,” and Nic’s memoirs, “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines” and “We All Fall Down: Living With Addiction.”
Nic, eight years sober after repeated attempts at treatment, said his addictions started with smoking marijuana.
He took his first toke when he was 11.
“When I first smoked it, I felt relief, because up until that time, I had dealt with a lot of anxiety, and I felt lost and uncomfortable in my own skin.”
As he got older, Nic found other chemicals would numb his anxiety, but couldn’t replicate the initial feeling pot had given him.
“I was in this cycle, and tried to find a harder drug to find that feeling,” he said. “Then I discovered crystal meth, which was what I had been looking for.”
The problem Nic faced was not being able to hide his meth habit like he could with alcoholism and marijuana.
“When I used, I stayed up days at a time, and it came clear quickly that I had a problem,” he said.
David had known Nic was compulsively using the substances, but believed teachers and counselors when they told him his son was “just being a teenager,” and that he was a smart kid and would be “fine.”
“But that wasn’t the case,” David said. “When I finally saw him after those four days, I realized that if we didn’t figure out something, he was going to die.”
Throughout the next 11 years, David enrolled Nic in numerous treatment programs. That experience showed him the difference a real medical acumen can make in rehabilitation.
“I was desperate and got him in one rehab program after another, and he’d come out, stay sober and relapse,” David said. “It was only after years that I learned that people who are addicted are sick and need a specific kind of treatment. That’s when I stopped sending him to programs that were run by people with good intentions, but had no medical training.”
David finally found doctors who were able to not only help his son deal with his addiction, but who also diagnosed Nic with bipolar disorder and clinical depression.
“Only then were they able to finally treat him for the whole spectrum,” David said.
Nic said the knowledge of his manic-depressive illness was another piece of the puzzle that would help him fight his addictions.
“I don’t think I was using because I was bipolar, but I do think it was harder for me to stay sober and not relapse because of the untreated bipolar disorder,” he said. “Drugs were my go-to way of trying to treat what was going on with me.”
When Nic was well on the road to recovery, David thought deeply about his experiences as a parent struggling with a child’s addiction.
“Because of the shame of the stigma of addiction, I realized that not only were we suffering through the hardest time in our family’s life, we were hiding it,” David said. “I would go to my other children’s swim meets and pretend that everything was OK on the outside, but (I was) dying on the inside.”
In 2005, New York Times Magazine published David Sheff’s reflection on his ordeal, “My Addicted Son.”
“I realized that there was a conversation that needed to happen that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I’m a journalist. I write, and it was natural for me to do this.”
The response to his account was overwhelming.
“I got letters from parents who told me that they, too, were keeping their struggle with addictions secret or that they thought they were alone, but realized they weren’t,” David said. “That was encouraging and we decided to go forward with the conversation. There was no more question about whether or not we were going to hide it anymore.”
David decided to dive deeper into his and Nic’s experience with “Beautiful Boy,” which was published in 2008.
Since then, it’s been translated to 12 languages, and it won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award for nonfiction. It also landed on Amazon’s list of the Best Books of 2008.
“It was painful and it was scary to write it,” David said. “I braced myself for fear of being judged when the article and book came out. But the reaction was an outpouring of support, love, and sharing of stories.”
Nic, who will be nine years sober on Dec. 23, said writing his memoirs was as much for him as it was for readers.
“Writing was therapeutic for me,” he said. “And when the books came out, it was really like we had allowed others to share their stories with us.”
While some authors chafe when their work crosses mediums, David couldn’t be happier with the film adaptation of “Beautiful Boy,” which debuted on Nov. 9 and has made more than $7 million on almost 800 screens as of Dec. 9, according to Box Office Mojo.
“Movies are bigger than books, and so many more people will see this,” he said. “This is a way for us to connect with more people.”
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