The Naked Sheff: America's Most Infamous Meth Head Grows Up
His father's blockbuster memoir Beautiful Boy immortalized Nic Sheff as a troubled kid with a murderous meth habit. Now the bestselling author of Tweak has two years clean, a new book, and a new gig—writing a column for us.
You couldn't really tell by looking at him, but Nic Sheff has racked up lots of hard living in his 28 years. Reared in a comfortable Northern California suburb, he led a seemingly charmed life. The son of two accomplished writers, he grew up among some version of the cultural elite, spent a year studying in France, played water polo and published a piece in Newsweek when he was still in high school. But addiction doesn’t care how many advantages you have or how promising your life looks. Sheff started experimenting with drugs as a pre-teen, first got into trouble for it at 12, and began regular trips to rehab at 19.
The public first learned about Nic when his father David wrote a searing piece about Nic's addiction to meth in a 2005 Sunday New York Times magazine cover story. The piece followed a format familiar to most of us who know addiction narratives—rehabs, relapse, lies, stealing—but the details were extreme and the story was told with heartbreaking straightforwardness. The article became a sensation, and shortly after, both father and son were signed up for book deals. The release of Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, their respective memoirs, in 2008, did nothing to dampen interest in Nic’s dark tale. Tweak spared no one, least of all the author himself: it detailed his many drug deals and dysfunctional relationships but also calmly walked us through his forays into shoplifting, homelessness and prostitution. Most shocking of all: it was gripping, unflinching, and inarguably well written. When his book deal was announced, cynics snickered that he had landed the contract because he'd done a boatload of drugs and was the son of a successful writer. But by the time Tweak appeared, it was widely agreed that the then-23-year-old writer had considerable talent himself.
As attention to adolescent drug use began steadily mounting, the time was right for a poster child for the cause to emerge. Smart, sensitive and articulate, Nic walked, rather accidentally, right into that role. (The hardcover version of Tweak, for which he was paid a $10,000 advance, remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 14 weeks; the paperback was a bestseller for 18. His blog, New Dawn Transmission, had so many visitors that when he announced that he was shutting it down in November of 2008, the final entry attracted over 9300 comments.)
But no amount of public acclaim could keep Nic clean. He went on book tour with his dad, not telling the huge crowds they’d begun attracting that he was smoking pot again, before making several more journeys into and out of 12-step rooms and rehabs. Now two-and-a-half years sober, Sheff talks about his new book, We All Fall Down—which chronicles his post-Tweak adventures—his upcoming marriage to a girl he’s known since sixth grade, and how he finally learned he didn’t have to destroy everything before reaching out for help.
How are Tweak and We All Fall Down different?
When I look back at Tweak, I feel like I wrote it when I was so young—I was 22 or something. We All Fall Down is a lot more mature of a book. Tweak, I felt, was more like a typical drug book—where you talk about how horrible things got and then it kind of ends with, “I go to this rehab,” and it’s going to be happily ever after, hopefully. So I was excited to write We All Fall Down because I felt that I’d never really read anything that was about what my experience had been, which was that I didn’t just go to rehab and suddenly everything was better. I just kept struggling, and I kept trying all these different combinations of things that I thought would work for me—like maybe I could just drink alcohol and see how that worked, or just smoke pot and see how that worked, and I kept trying to negotiate with my recovery, and it took me experimenting with every different kind of option before I felt I was finally able to be like, “All right, I’m done.” I don’t keep a sober date but I know November of 2008 is when I stopped.
Do you purposely not know your date?
Well, in the past, I always felt like I’d get a sobriety date and I would put so much energy into getting days sober or something, so when I’d relapse, I’d be like, “Fuck it, I’ve already lost all that time, I might as well go for it." So this time I was like, “Okay, I’m not going to be worried about days and all that stuff—I’m just going to try and keep it together one day at a time and not really worry about how much time I have or how much time other people have,” and I feel like that’s kind of taken the pressure off of it a little bit for me. It’s helped me in a strange way. It allows me to not be so hard on myself. I keep not using, and so that’s really great, but I do have this feeling like, for me, progress has always had to be about making fewer mistakes and making mistakes that weren’t quite as bad as the mistakes I used to make. I don’t know if it’s a mind trick, but somehow taking that pressure off has made it easier for me. I don’t really fight cravings as much as I fight depression, and I feel like when the depression hits me and then I start to feel really hopeless, that’s when eventually I’m like, “Fuck it, I might as well use, that will make me feel better.”
Do you do the 12-step thing?
It’s weird. I feel like I’ve always been the person that when someone tells me, “The only way you can do it is this way,” I’m going to be like, “Fuck you, I’m going to do it my own way,” so I definitely went through a long period of time where I really rejected the 12-step program. But now that I look at my life and all the things that I do to stay sober, I feel like it mirrors the program so closely that I obviously have learned so much from having been in it.