Thursday, July 2, 2009

Two Voices, One Story

Fortunately I have a son, my beautiful boy.
Unfortunately he is a drug addict.
David Sheff
It's not like I owe these people anything. This is my life to live--or throw away. Isn't that true?
Nic Sheff

Beautiful Boy by journalist David Sheff and Tweak by his son Nic Sheff both grew out of an article David wrote for the New York Times magazine, "My Addicted Son". Together, these two books form an unusually full account of a family impacted by hardcore drug addiction. I read Beautiful Boy first, and what a heartbreaker it was. What must it be like to have your child repeatedly steal from you, lie to you, disappear for months at a time, risk his life on a daily basis, and respond to your concern with anger and contempt? David's hope for his son's permanent recovery comes crashing down time after time with each of Nic's many relapses. His intense focus on Nic to the detriment of other aspects of life leads to the deterioration of his own health and stresses his marriage. It also compels him to research and understand his son's condition, and this book tells us as much about methamphetamine addiction and its physical effects as we would ever want to know. So great is the impact of Nic's addiction on David's mind and heart that he sometimes wishes he could just "erase' his son from his life. Ironically, when David has an aneyurism and lies in the hospital, unable to remember the year or his own name, his only clear thought is that he must call Nic, must call Nic, must call Nic.

We are connected to our children no matter what. They are interwoven into each cell and inseparable from every neuron. They supersede our consciousness, dwell in our every hollow and cavity and recess with our most primitive instincts, deeper even than our identities, deeper even than ourselves.

My son. Nothing short of my death can erase him. Maybe not even my death.

In Beautiful Boy, the father-son relationship is the crux of the story. In Tweak, it is sadly peripheral. Nic spends most of the time he describes here away from home, cut off from his family. Reading Nic's story is like watching the same car crash again and again and again. It's hard to tell whether he won't let go of the drugs or the drugs won't let go of him, but something in Nic craves the excitement, danger and edginess of his drug-fuelled lifestyle, and that something seems just as powerful as his physical addiction. It's a sure bet that no one will accuse this book of glamourizing drug use; Nic's story is replete with the most off-putting anecdotes, like the description of an arm infection after he uses a dirty needle, or the time he gets his ribs broken by a "date" as he is working as a prostitute to support his habit, or the time he OD's and ends up on life support, only to pull out the IV as soon as he comes to so he can go home for his next fix. Not to even mention the many descriptions of broken and fragmented relationships and of some rather unattractive egocentrism which Nic's drug use won't let him grow past. It's fascinating and horrifying all at once, and you get so frustrated with Nic each time he comes clean and then relapses. Although little underground glimpses of Nic's love for his family occasionally break through, for much of the book he is incapable of expressing or acknowledging this attachment. There is a kind of empty sadness in this depiction of a soul who is so loved by his family and to whom it makes so little difference.

David and Nic are both compelling writers, and while their styles are very different, they are both incredibly insightful and open about their experience. Although they have different publishers, they have toured together, and it looks to me like their writing has opened a private dialogue between the two of them, as well as the larger public dialogue they are inviting. I hope they can maintain their new connection and be at peace.

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