Up in smoke

Well I made it through the weekend without crying on the floor of any bathroom, and finished my addiction memoir to boot. It may or may not have been karma that I read the last 50 pages while nursing a severe hangover on my couch, but a mission accomplished is a mission accomplished.

There’s something I want to say before going into the book itself, which was as heartbreaking and poignant as I expected it to be. Because in order to really, I think, appreciate Beautiful Boy, you have to step back and put the family’s story in context. Not the context of addiction itself, though that too is important, but the context of being young, of being at an age where drugs aren’t hard to come by and more importantly, aren’t unusual to do.

See, in my opinion at least, there is a pervasive sentiment among teenagers and 20-somethings that the majority of drugs are basically okay. This isn’t, as adults like to believe, simply a product of drug use at some point in youth becoming “cool,” nor is preventing drug use simply a matter of eliminating or tampering peer pressure. Many teenagers do drugs for the same reason addicts doโ€”because they want to get high. Marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, mushrooms, acidโ€”I could tell many of my friends that I had done any of the above without raising eyebrows. And I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions. Heroin, crack and meth (the latter is the focal point of Beautiful Boy) are the triumvirate of what I’d consider untouchables, but that’s three out of many. It stands to reason that cultural acceptance (however age-based) of the many is likely to make the few seem decidedly less unsafe.

It’s problematic, to say the least. I don’t know why, or when, drugs cease to become a real threat (which isn’t to say that people don’t develop addiction later in life). It may be a physical change; it may be a mental one; maybe it simply becomes unfathomable to call up a drug dealer past the age of 35. But what’s important is that between, say, ages 15 and 25, the ten years during which drugs seem most prevalent, they are also the least frowned-upon.

Which brings me to this book. I knew, as someone who has experienced the side effects of a loved one’s addiction, that Sheff’s writing would resonate with me. I expected to empathize with his situation, watching his son’s addiction. I expected to understand the worry, anger, disappointment and hopelessness. What I did not anticipate, and what became for me the most striking part of this memoir, was empathizing with the son, Nic. I did not expect to gain an understanding of how easily one might fall from recreational drug use into addiction.

It’s worth noting that Nic doesn’t try meth until about a third of the way into Beautiful Boy. Until then, his infractions as a pre-teen (he first tries pot at age 12) and teenager seem suspicious at best, but to be honest, fairly customary. He breaks curfew, tries liquor and smokes a joint. He’s surly to his father and lost in self-definition. He’s bitter over his parents’ divorce and frustrated by joint custody. He’s intelligent, interesting, unique, and like most teenagers I knew in high school, willing to try drugs.

Indeed, for the first 100 pages of Beautiful Boy, even though I knew where Nic’s dabbling in substance-based rebellion would lead, I found myself siding with him. Most teenagers really do try pot, or drink. By senior year of high school, I was at parties with drugs and alcohol every weekend. I’m not saying Sheff should have ignored his son’s infractions, any more than my parents ignored mine, but I am saying that until the words “I did meth” come out of Nic’s mouth, few of his actions seem particularly abnormal.

That, essentially, is what most upset me up about this bookโ€”Nic’s descent from “typical” drug use into addiction is swift, awful and, in its way, unpredictable. Although Beautiful Boy does, without question, an astronomically great job of highlighting how it feels to be on the outside, to watch someone you love fall from grace and lose control, it also does a wonderful job of lessening the unconscious gap we put between ourselves and those suffering from addiction. It highlights how easy it must be to try a drug once, and again, and then find you’re hooked on its effects. And it emphasizes something we all know in the historical senseโ€”after all, how many great writers, musicians and artists abused drugs?โ€”but seem to forget when it comes to 2010: Really amazing people can become addicts.


I know I havenโ€™t done a lot to sell this book as an uplifting read, because itโ€™s not. Addiction has affected almost everyone I know, either directly or indirectly. Itโ€™s something that has in many ways shaped who I am. But when addiction touches your life, itโ€™s generally private, and when it touches the life of a celebrity, itโ€™s so public as toย become impersonal. Far less frequently do we get to glimpse the in-betweenโ€”the average people who deal with this shit every day. Beautiful Boy manages that, and more. I found it eye-opening without being sensational and inspirational without sugar-coating the truth. A great read, so long as you have a box of tissues.

TITLE: Beautiful Boy
AUTHOR: David Sheff
PAGES: 331 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Game Over, China Dawn
SORTA LIKE: The Night of the Gun meets The Glass Castle
FIRST LINE: “‘Howdy Pop, God, I miss you guys so much.'”
(PS: It’s worth noting that Nic himself has written a book, which I remember coming out to critical acclaim not too long ago. It’s called Tweak, and documents many of the same experiences and periods that Beautiful Boy does, but from the other side. I have yet to pick it up, but have no doubt it is an equally inspiring read.)

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