Not Everyone Needs Sobriety

By Nic Sheff 06/26/12

I used to assume that every addict or alcoholic had to practice complete abstinence. Then I met some people who proved me wrong.

Sometimes a glass can mean a bottle Photo via

When I first went to rehab back when I was just 18, I assumed that I’d graduate from my 28 days of inpatient treatment and be freed of my meth addiction, so I could then go back to drinking and smoking pot like a normal teenager. I never for a second imagined that the counselors at the rehab would tell me that, because I was an addict, I was also an alcoholic. Of course, this meant I would continue to abuse any and all mind-altering substances I could get my grubby addict hands on. 

According to those counselors, alcoholism was a disease, a genetic mutation/fuck up that meant my body processed drugs and alcohol differently than the way “normal people” did. My problem, they said, wasn’t crystal meth: my problem was my brain. I was mentally ill. Once I took a drug into my system, a phenomenon of craving was set off that was nearly impossible to fight. And when I finally did get sober, my brain would trick me into thinking that the only solution to my emotional anguish would be to get high again. My brain would also tell me, each time, that I’d be able to control my using.

I didn’t think that made a whole lot of sense. After all, cancer is a disease. Diabetes is a disease. Snorting drugs up my nose? That was clearly a choice. The whole disease concept, I was certain, was for suckers.

I even found myself slightly arrogant in the way I judged those addicts around me who still felt like they’d be able to drink or use after getting clean.

So I tested it out. I tested it out all over the place, in fact, and in all sorts of different ways. I tried just drinking, just smoking pot, just taking pills, just doing heroin, just doing cocaine, and then just doing various combinations of all of the above. It never worked out too well. I would abuse any substance I took into my body no matter what it was. The phenomenon of craving would take a hold of me and I’d be off and running again, usually ending up back shooting crystal meth—or just drinking and smoking pot from the moment I woke up until the moment I passed out at night.

It really sucked to admit that those counselors had been right, that this addiction thing was literally killing me. And while it still made no sense to me, I began to accept that alcoholism truly was a disease—and a mental illness—and that I had it.

Somehow I’d crossed over an invisible line and there was no going back. In AA the expression I heard was “Once a cucumber becomes a pickle, it can never be a cucumber again.” That certainly was the way it worked for me. No matter how hard I tried, I was incapable of drinking or using casually.

And, once I’d learned that I was like that, I guess I just figured every other addict was like that, too. That is, after all, what all those counselors had told me—and it had turned out that they were right.

So when I’d be in outpatient meeting or at some treatment center with someone who was still trying to drink or use casually after having gotten clean off hard drugs, I would shake my head and pity them, knowing that they, too would eventually have to find out what I had: that once you are an addict, you are an addict forever—and with every substance. 

I even found myself slightly arrogant in the way I judged those addicts around me who still felt like they’d be able to drink or use after getting clean. Someone would tell me, “I’ve been doing really well but I do have a glass of wine with dinner every once in a while” and I’d think, “You idiot, in a month you’re gonna be licking the tiles of a public bathroom floor because you think you spilled some of your crystal on it.” (Something I had done on several occasions). I was disdainful of addicts about what I saw as their denial. And my AA friends and I would cut off or ostracize anyone we knew who started trying to casually drink or use again.

But more recently, I’ve begun to see that addiction may not be quite as black and white. See, my dad, David Sheff, has been writing this new book called Clean: 12 New Steps to Understanding Addiction and I’ve been doing some research to help him by interviewing different addicts down in LA to record their various stories of recovery. 

Going into it, I figured that most of the stories would be like mine. But in interviewing these different addicts—addicts that have worked with some of the top addiction specialists in the country—I was surprised to find that quite a few of them have now, after an extended period of abstinence, been able to go back to drinking or smoking pot casually without spiraling out of control again.

It was a baffling revelation to me. 

There was one man who’d been using crystal meth to the point that he ended up having a prolonged psychotic breakdown and came to in the shower in the process of cutting his wrists open with a carving knife. He called for help, ended up in intensive outpatient and therapy, and had been off crystal for two years when I spoke with him. Yet he admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that he still drank beer or wine on occasion with his friends at parties or whatever.

Now, normally, as I said, I would scoff at this. But, as it turned out, I began hearing that same kind of story from a number of different interviewees.

In fact, even one of my best friends, who I met at Matrix Outpatient, has given up heroin and almost completed medical school, but now drinks occasionally with no adverse effects.

So what does this mean? Are all these people just in denial, teetering on the edge of full blown relapse?

I began to think otherwise.

In examining the circumstances around their different substance abuse problems, I started to identify a commonality—something that linked all these so-called “addicts” who are now able to drink or smoke pot without any problem.

Take the example of the crystal meth addict I mentioned above. His drug use really skyrocketed around the time he was diagnosed with HIV. All his life he’d had a perfect academic record and had worked high-powered jobs and had held himself to the highest possible standard so when a reckless night after a bad breakup left him with the HIV virus, he was unable to admit he had the disease to himself or anyone else. So his increased using was tied to a specific event. And his psychotic break, it turned out, came after the death of his best friend. There was a direct connection between his environmental circumstances and his using, a concept that I’d never actually experienced. I used for no reason at all. But he had a reason.

Another woman, the 30-year old woman daughter of a major celebrity, began using heroin in her mid teens. Her mom, the big celebrity, had died when she was young and reaching out to heroin made sense as a way to dull the pain of mourning—as well as the confusion that comes with being the child of one of the most famous people who ever lived. But once she’d gotten off heroin in her mid-20s, she found that she was able to go back to casual drinking and smoking pot.

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Nic Sheff is the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction: the New York Times bestselling Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines and We All Fall Down: Living with Addiction. Nic lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes for film and television. Find Nic on Twitter.