It’s hard to write an honest book when the book will reveal that you, its central character, are a helpless onlooker to the terrible waste of a beautiful person, your beautiful boy, your eldest son. David Sheff has written that book.
David's son Nic was, is, special. He began winning writing prizes at an early age. He had a clear, tender visage and a brilliant mind. He was obviously destined for worldly success. All that promise died when, at age 11, he started using pot, then booze, then LSD.
Then he graduated. To meth.
Methamphetamine isn't a trendy drug. It isn't imported. It isn't a party favorite. It's manufactured in filthy garages by deranged addicts-turned-dealers, a trip of last resort for people who simply must go the downward route. It turns its users into raging animals, then passive wraiths, enhancing their sexual peaks and darkening their lowest fevered valleys. Nic, the sweet, smart, beautiful boy, became evasive, dishonest, a thief, a prostitute, a street person --- he sank and sank.
David grew up in a generation that embraced the use of drugs --- pot smoking, in the Berkeley hills where he raised Nic and his two half-siblings, was completely acceptable. Not using drugs would have been abnormal. So the good, liberal dad anticipated that Nic might have contact with drugs and might need some guidance. He saw his son turn into a skeletal stranger, but he chose to believe it was just a little pot, just a little alcohol, just something that could be dealt with easily by counseling or, at the most, a period of a few weeks in standard rehab.
For both father and son, it took years --- agonizing, tragic, lost years --- to understand that Nic was not going to emerge one day as a normal guy, finish college and settle down. Nic was unmoored. David learned that addiction begins with a predilection lurking way back in the genetic code. But what happens next are acts of will. The addict knows that he or she must break the addictive cycle, go into rehab and stay with the program. But over and over again, addicts like Nic refuse and reject that avenue of salvation. They are in a dance with evil, and often, for reasons no one else can understand, they want to die.
David and his wife despaired when Nic would sneak in and steal their belongings or write bad checks on their accounts. They were exhausted by trying to care and yet be tough, forced to use every encounter with Nic as a confrontation to convince him to do something he didn't want to do. David lived through all the guilt trips --- it was his fault for divorcing when Nic was young, for not figuring things out soon enough, for not doing something that could have saved Nic. But what? Then came anger and resentment at being used, ripped off by his addict son; then Nic would disappear again and David would think with horror, "Nic could die." David knew that Nic needed to have a serious crisis so he could see the need for a change. He'd been told that for the change to take hold "you have to be alone, broke, desolate, desperate." Surely Nic had been all those, but he didn't come up and stay up. Nic's little half-sister Daisy put it wisely: "It's like Nic is like my brother who I know and this other guy who I don't."
David realized one day that he missed Nic and wanted him back, but that the Nic he loved was gone already, and forever. Yet still there were those precious times, such as when Nic would come home occasionally and play with his half-sister and brother, or when David was immobilized after a near-fatal subarachnoidal hemorrhage and Nic was there, sitting by his bed, holding out a lifeline to his ailing father like a flickering promise. Such times keep a parent hoping, even when they find themselves collapsing in tears at an Al-Anon meeting, pouring out their story to a roomful of strangers.
It took guts to write this book, and guts to live through what David Sheff has lived through. He offers the few tips he has picked up along the way, but he doesn't consider himself a font of advice. With Nic still in some stage of recovery at the book's close, David can only say, "I am confident I have done everything I could to help Nic. Now it's up to him…our relationship can evolve into one of independence, acceptance, and compassion, with healthy boundaries. The love is a given."
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 11, 2011