Life is ‘Beautiful’ for David and Nic Sheff
What does a father do when a son is devoured by drugs? When potential is waylaid and his very life is at stake? If you’re David Sheff, you write a memoir, a searingly painful, beautiful book.
And if you’re Nic Sheff, the prodigal son, you answer - once sober - with a book of your own.
Taken together, “Beautiful Boy” (2008) and “Tweak” (2007), written, respectively, by David and Nic Sheff, are a lucent but difficult portrait of a family imploded, struggling through a modern-day worst-case scenario. Their harrowing journey through addiction and recovery was portrayed in the 2018 film adaptation of “Beautiful Boy,” with Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet cast as father and son.
The Sheffs are the upcoming featured guests of the Sonoma Speaker Series, and will tell their story at Hanna Boys Center on Feb. 3.
For David – an accomplished Marin County-based writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone and other national publications – writing “Beautiful Boy” was somewhat accidental, as he initially began writing to manage his pain. “It was like a diary at first, a journal I wrote to cope with the situation,” he told the Index-Tribune. “Beautiful Boy,” was in fact the outgrowth from an article, “My Addicted Son,” that originally ran in New York Times Magazine.
For Nic, “Tweak” was catharsis, an astonished backward look at the dark valleys he’d traveled. “We were both just telling our stories,” Nic said.
Those stories, as it turns out, are American stories. The Sheffs are just one of countless families upended by addiction.
“Communities around the country are being devastated by the opioid epidemic,” David said.
“Addiction is a disease that kills 200 people a day in this country,” Nic added. “But it is really possible to recover and live a meaningful, great life. We talk about the hope that is out there, too.”
Nic Sheff began smoking marijuana in the sixth grade, when the older brother of a classmate hooked him up. “The first time I tried it, I had a strong reaction. It gave me a feeling of relief. I felt more confident. The anxiety was taken away. Marijuana sort of felt like the answer,” Nic said.
But the marijuana became psilocybin, then cocaine, then methamphetamines. By high school, Nic was ingesting a pharmacopeia of street drugs every day.
David, who by then had two young children from a second marriage, had no idea how bad things had gotten. In fact, he didn’t really get it until he read his son’s book. “When we finally read each other’s books… it was just devastating,” David said. “I knew things were bad, but in reading his book I realized they were worse than my worst nightmares. He wasn’t out there having fun. He was in pain.”
The Sheffs have an easy, natural rapport. They riff off each other, finish one another’s sentences. But there is an undercurrent of sadness between father and son, too, as one might expect from people who have navigated a canyon of shadows. David and Nic Sheff both remember the climb.
Nic has been clean and sober since 2011, following a few years of intermittent sobriety. The monkey on his back had proved tenacious, but Nic managed to best it in the end. “I really don’t have cravings anymore. I’m coming up on 10 years, which is crazy,” Nic said. “But addiction is a chronic disease. There are things that I have to do on a daily basis to treat it. It’s something I will have for the rest of my life.”
In his decade of sobriety Nic has gotten married, written four more books, and found work in Los Angeles writing for television. For an individual who might have “died many times” while in the thick of his addiction, his transformation has been both complete and profound. “I really do have a beautiful life now,” he said. “Just the fact that I could wake up in the morning and feel real joy and happiness. I mean, that’s the most miraculous thing of all.”
The Sheffs will speak to the Sonoma Valley High School student body on Feb. 3 before meeting their adult audience on the Hanna stage that evening. And though dwelling in the dark place that nearly destroyed them is a challenge, they see their mission as a gift, not a burden. “It’s definitely emotional and can be really hard sometimes, but it also feels like a privilege,” David said. “To meet people who are going through this… not one single conversation that we have is trivial. Families that feel broken forever can be healed. To be part of that is really kind of wonderful.”
Nic agreed. “The thing I value the most and get the most out of is being of service to the best of my ability,” he said. “The goal of my drug use was to feel OK. I chased that for so long in exactly the wrong way. I’m so grateful to finally be comfortable in my own skin.”
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