An excerpt from chapter 12 of “Beautiful Boy”
Written by: David Sheff
The intent of using this excerpt as a blog post for The Virtue Center is for educational purposes only. Beautiful Boy is written from the viewpoint of a father who has a son addicted to crystal meth. This excerpt outlines what it feels like to be a parent of an addicted child. This book and particular chapter also illustrate many scientific facts about the disease of addiction itself. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse and mental health challenges, you may contact The Virtue Center at 405-321-0022 for help.
At some point, parents may become inured to a child’s self-destruction, but I do not. I know the drill.
I call the police and hospital emergency rooms. Nothing. I don’t hear a word for a day, another day, and then another. Once more, I explain it to Jasper and Daisy (my two youngest children) as well as I can. All they can comprehend is that Nic (my oldest son) is in trouble and their parents are racked with worry.
I’m trying to fathom what has happened, not only to Nic, but to our lives, which are pre-occupied with him. I am always careful around the little kids, but I snap (at my wife,) Karen. Mostly she tolerates my bursts of anger and frustration, but sometimes she gets fed up with me and my pre-occupation with Nic. It’s not that she doesn’t understand, but sometimes enough feels like enough, and this is interminable. I do not sleep much. She wakes up in the middle of the night and finds me in the living room staring at dim flames in the fireplace. I confide that I can’t sleep because I can’t block out images of Nic on the San Francisco streets. I imagine him hurt, in trouble. I imagine him dying. I imagine him dead.
With increasing desperation, I want and need to know that he is OK. On a cool, overcast morning, knowing that I am on a fool’s errand, I drive across the Golden Gate Bridge with plans to scour the Haight and Mission District. The neighborhoods where I suspect Nic might show up. In spite of gentrification, the Haight District retains its 1960s-era funkiness, and the air is spicy with burning marijuana. Runaways, dyed hair, tattoos, tie-dye, track-marks and stoners.
If you subscribe to the idea that addiction is a disease, it is startling to see how many of these children: paranoid, anxious, bruised, trembling, and some psychotic - are seriously ill. They are slowly dying. We’d never allow such a scene if these kids had any other disease. They would be in a hospital, not on the street.
I approach a girl who is sitting on a bench. When I get near, I see the telltale signs of meth. The tense jaw and pulsing body. I introduce myself and she recoils. She asks if I am a cop. After some small talk, I ask her about Nic, if she knows him.
She tells me: “You won’t find him if he doesn’t want to be found.”
I ask her if she is hungry, she nods so we walk over to McDonalds where she devours a cheeseburger.
“I was not a trouble maker. I was a sweet kid.” She says.
She tells me she played with dolls, she was “The Twister Queen” and marched in the high school band. She liked history and was good in French. She said she loved to read and names off a list of favorite authors.
“Even though I know how f——d up crystal meth is, if I had the chance to start all over, I would do it again. I can’t live without dope and I don’t want to. You can’t imagine how good it gets when it’s good and I need that in my life.”
She tells me that her father is a banker and her mother is a real-estate agent. They live in Ohio, in the house they grew up in.
“It’s white, with roses and a picket fence - the American experience.” She says.
I drive home, without Nic. I wonder about the girl’s parents. If they are anything like I imagine them to be. Are they anything like me? Whatever they are doing at this moment, they are doing it perfunctorily. They are never free of worry about their daughter. They wonder what went wrong. They wonder if she is alive. They wonder if it is their fault. I torment myself with the same unanswerable questions:
Did I spoil him?
Was I too lenient?
Did I give him too little attention?
If only we never moved to the country…
If only I had never used drugs…
If only his mother and I had stayed together…
If only. If only. If only.
Guilt and self-blame are typical responses of an addicts’ parents. In the book “Addict in the Family” Beverly Conyers wrote:
“Most parents, when looking back on how they raised their children, have at least some regrets. They may wish they had been more or less strict, that they had expected more or less of their children, that they had spent more time with them, or that they had not been so overprotective. They may reflect on difficult events such as a divorce or a death in the family, and see these as turning points in their child’s mental health. Some may bear heavy burdens of shame over past difficulties such as infidelity that damaged the family and caused mistrust. Whatever the parental failings may be, it is almost inevitable that the addict will recognize these vulnerable spots and take advantage of the parents. Addicts may have many complaints, including major and minor grievances from the past. Some of their accusations may, in fact, have truth in them. Families may well have caused pain for the addict. They may well have failed the addicts in some significant way. After all, what human relationship is perfect? But addicts bring up these problems, not to clear the air with the hope of healing old wounds. They bring them up solely to induce guilt, a tool with which they manipulate others in pursuit of their continued addiction.”
Nonetheless: If only. If only. If only.
Worry, guilt and regret may serve a function, as a turbo charger of conscience, but in excess they are useless and incapacitating. Yet, I cannot silence them.
After days without a word from Nic, he calls from the house of a former girlfriend. He is talking fast and obviously lying. He says he quit on his own and has been sober for 5 days. I tell him he has 2 choices: another try at rehab or the streets. My tough talk belies my impulse to rush over and take him in my arms. He maintains that he does not need rehab. He will stop on his own. I tell him it is non-negotiable. He agrees to try again, concluding with the phrase: “Whatever.”
I pick him up from his former girlfriend’s house. He looks weary and empty. He has no suitcase or backpack. He has nothing. Who is he? The boy sitting near me in the car is not Nic, nor does he know anything about the child I remember. As if corroborating my observation, he speaks at last.
“What the f—k am I doing here? This is b———-t. I don’t need rehab.”
This time I get him into St. Helena Hospital in Napa Valley. Many families drain every penny, mortgaging their homes and bankrupting their college funds and retirement accounts trying successive drug-rehab programs as well as boot camps, wilderness camps and every variety of therapist. His mother’s insurance and mine pay most of the cost. Without his coverage, I am not sure what we would do. A 28-day stay can cost nearly $20K.
We enter the main building and follow the signs to the substance abuse program. We leave Nic with an intake nurse and head for the gift shop to purchase a few toiletries. When we return, it is time for Nic to go to his room. We walk with him a little way down the corridor. He holds onto my arm. He feels almost weightless as if I could lift him from the earth. We awkwardly hug. I wish him good luck and tell him to take care of himself.
This program is similar to the other rehabs except that it emphasizes education with lectures and films about brain chemistry and addiction with daily AA/NA meetings plus an expanded 2 day a week family program. At this point, I am not sanguine about rehab but I allow myself a sliver of hope, as in the Springsteen song “at the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe.” Mine is a mix of this and hope and once again, tenuous relief because I know where he is.
At home I sleep, though unsoundly. In my nightmares Nic is on drugs. I rage at him. I plead with him, I weep for him. High, he does not care. High, he stares back blankly and coldly.
My wife and I make weekly pilgrimages for the hospital. The hospital offers 4 education forums on alternating Sundays. Our first is on the disease model of addiction. This is an alien concept for me. What other diseases include, as a symptom, the willing participation of the victim? Each time he does crystal, he makes a choice (doesn’t he?) Smokers may bring on their lung cancer but otherwise, cancer patients are not responsible for their condition. Drug addicts are (aren’t they?)
The lecturer explains that the disease is genetic, at least the predisposition to addiction. Nic’s genes are partly to blame, the potent mix of his ancestry. His mother’s father died of alcoholism so we didn’t have to look far in the family tree. Nobody really knows exactly HOW the predisposition is passed down. Roughly 10% of people have it. If they do, using drugs or alcohol activates the disease. A switch gets turned on. Once it’s activated it cannot be deactivated. Pandora’s box cannot be closed.
It’s an illness, a very tricky illness. People do have choices on what they do about it. A diabetic can choose to monitor his insulin levels and take medications. An addict can choose to treat his disease through recovery. In both cases, if they don’t, the disease will progress and the person can die.
There is evidence that people who become addicted (once they begin using) have a type of compulsion that cannot be easily stopped or controlled. It’s almost like breathing. It’s not a matter of willpower. If they could stop, they would. Nobody wants to be an addict. The drug takes them over. The drug, not a person’s rational mind, is in control. We teach addicts how to deal with their illness through ongoing recovery work. It is the only way. People who say they can control it don’t understand the nature of the disease because the disease is in control.
No. I think.
Nic is in control.
Nic is out of control.
Nic seems genuinely happy to see us.
“I’m so sorry about everything he says.”
I look at Karen. We do not know what to say.
(1) Beautiful Boy - written by David Sheff
(2) Addict in the Family - written by Beverly Conyers
(3) The Photo used for the blog graphic is from the movie poster designed for Beautiful Boy, which was released in theaters Fall of 2018.