Breaking Dad: Nic Sheff on His Father's Scathing Memoir
When I first read my father's memoir, Beautiful Boy, I understood just how much my addiction was killing him. I promised myself I would never cause anyone that kind of pain again. But, of course, life is never so simple.
From the age of four to seven-and-a-half, it was really just me and my dad. Not that he didn’t have girlfriends and stuff, but that’s all that they were—girlfriends. They weren’t mother figures who ever disciplined me in any way. They didn’t try’n teach me table manners or lessons of any kind. They were on the periphery. And so my dad was the only parent I had.
We were a team.
It was like me destroying my own life was a rejection of him—because my life and everything I am has always been such a reflection of him.
He took me everywhere with him—to parties and movies and restaurants. And, because his job as a journalist for Playboy and Rolling Stone allowed him a lot of freedom, I even got to come along with him for most of his interviews.
In fact, one of my first memories is of throwing up on Ansel Adams’s rug. There was also the time I was playing tag with Timothy Leary’s son and I tried to run through what I thought was an open but turned out to be closed sliding glass door. What I remember best was Timothy Leary looking at my nose and saying, “Far out, it’s not broken.” I remember playing with a toy roller coaster in Tom Hanks’ house right after Big came out (which was totally one of my favorite movies). I remember going to see Cirque Du Soleil and the Bond Street Studio with Keith Haring and then crying with my dad when we heard he died just a few months later.
Honestly, my dad was my total hero growing up. And, yeah, I know this sounds corny, but he was also my best friend.
Even after he remarried and we moved north of San Francisco and my little brother and sister were born, there was always something special about our relationship. It was like, well, we’d had that time when it was just the two of us, and that was something that could never be taken away. We were connected in a way that was unlike anything else.
Of course, that also meant that when I started using crystal meth and heroin and eventually descended into hard-core drug addiction, my dad was particularly devastated. Not that most parents wouldn’t be completely consumed with trying to get their kids sober and off the streets, but I think for my dad, because we had been such a team, and it really had been just him and me, my addiction seemed even more like a failing of his. In a lot of ways, he blamed himself. And he took it super personally—like my using was a direct attack on him.
It was like me destroying my own life was a rejection of him—because my life and everything I am has always been such a reflection of him, as well. So I wasn’t just letting him down as his son, I was letting him down as an extension of himself. And it cut him really fucking deep.
Of course, most parents (at least, most good parents) would be absolutely crushed and crippled, really, by having a child shooting drugs and out on the street doing God knows what to get money. So it’s not like I was any more loved or cared for or worried about than any other kid in my situation. It’s just that, in terms of my dad and I, we did have this special bond, and so I think there was something uniquely painful about our experience together.
But it’s not like I was aware of this or anything at the time. Honestly, when I was using, I had this philosophy that, well, if I wanted to kill myself with drugs, that was my business. I felt like I lived in a vacuum, you know? Like I was the one in all this pain, so I should be able to decide whether to blot it all out with drugs or not. I had no idea whatsoever the extent of pain I was causing my family and the people that loved me. Hell, I imagined they would all just go about their days and their lives, having given up on me entirely. Besides, what did my family need me for? They had two other kids—surely, I thought, that was enough for anybody. It was inconceivable to me that I could be affecting them as much as I later found out that I was.
Because, something that does truly make my situation unique, is that, unlike with most addicts, my dad actually wrote a whole book (that is, a New York Times #1 bestselling book) about his experience with his drug addict son. So, uh, I got to read in detail about how my addiction had nearly destroyed his life and his marriage and the lives of my little brother and sister. I got to read, along with a lot of other people, just how much my actions really did affect the people that loved me.
It was super fucking intense. I remember when I got my first copy of the book, I could only read like three pages at a time ‘cause it was so painful and embarrassing. Fuck, I think I cried and got angry and had to stop and, like, take my dog on walks around the neighborhood at least a thousand different times while trying to read it.
But I got it.
I mean, I did.
I got how my behavior was tearing down my whole world around me.
And it helped.
I gotta say, it really fucking helped me to be able to read such a deeply honest account of the hurt that I’d caused.
And it made me want to change.
It made me want to never, ever do that shit again.
Of course—‘sadly, right?—it’s not that easy.
Even after reading my dad’s book and going on a national book tour with him and being allowed back into his house and back around my step-mom and brother and sister, I still fucking relapsed.
But I didn’t relapse as bad as I had before. And I definitely didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as I used to. There was nothing fun and carefree about getting high. I knew the damage I was causing. It was impossible to keep lying to myself about it.
And I honestly couldn’t get into my relapse. I was taking pills every day and I knew I couldn’t stop on my own, but there was really nothing enjoyable about it at all.
Plus, I could see so clearly where it was going to lead. I could see myself spiraling down.
The truth was, I was in a whole lot of pain and so I’d reach out to drugs to try’n make myself feel better, and then I’d end up being enslaved by the drugs.
So I did something that would have seemed pretty much impossible ever before. I called my dad. I called him and told him what had been going on and, since I knew he’d done all this research about addiction treatment for his book, I asked if he could get a recommendation for me for a good doctor and a good program.
Of course, I was expecting him to be all angry and pissed off and blaming, so I was super nervous telling him all this on the phone. But what he said to me was really amazing. I mean, seriously, it was like a miracle. What he said was, “Nic, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry that you have to go through this. And I’m sorry this is so hard for you.”
I couldn’t believe it. Hell, I started totally crying.
‘Cause it was true, you know, and he understood. I didn’t want to be an addict. This wasn’t something I was doing ‘cause it was a ton of fun and I was just flipping the whole world off all the time, being like, “Fuck you, I’m having a good time and I don’t care about anything else.” It wasn’t like that at all. The truth was, I was in a whole lot of pain and so I’d reach out to drugs to try’n make myself feel better, and then I’d end up being enslaved by the drugs—starting the cycle all over again. Because once I started, that was it: the addiction would take hold. My dad understood that. He’d stopped blaming me.
And, in a way, well, I guess that allowed me to stop blaming myself.
It was such a gift he gave to me—his willingness to understand and his willingness to share the truth with me.
It changed my life.
Hell, it saved my life.
I am so truly grateful to him.
And, if I were to have a child of my own one day who was struggling with addiction, I’d like to think I’d do the same thing for him that my dad did for me—not necessarily write a book about him or anything like that but just telling him the truth about how he was affecting me and my family. Because really, trying to “protect” an addict from the truth is like fucking nailing up their coffin. I’ve seen it before, with the parents of addicts who refuse to ever acknowledge the problem. And I’ve seen those addicts die the way I’m a hundred percent fucking sure I would have, too, if the people in my life who love me hadn’t been willing to tell me the truth about what a fucking asshole I’d become.
Nic Sheff is a columnist for The Fix and the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction, the New York Times-bestselling Tweak, and We All Fall Down. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two hound dogs, and a cat. He is currently working on a novel about sisters growing up in a Northern California cult.