The Naked Sheff: America's Most Infamous Meth Head Grows Up

By Anna David 05/27/11

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.

 

 

 

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Nic Sheff, post-Tweak Photo via

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.

What do you do to stay sober?

I’ve been doing this outpatient program at Matrix in West L.A. That, for me, is just a really cool thing. It’s one or two times a week, and it’s kind of similar to the 12-step stuff, where I go in there and I’m all messed up in my head and thinking I have all these problems, and I’ll listen to my friend share, and I’ll be like, “She’s got a lot of problems, I don’t really have that many problems, I need to help her,” so I’ll spend the time trying to help her and forget about my own shit. Also, I’ve been going around and talking to all these high school kids recently. It’s funny, you can totally tell, it’s like if the kids at the high school can identify me as being cool, then they’ll all want to open up to me and tell me their secrets and stuff, but if it’s a demographic where they see me as just some stupid white kid, then the kids don’t care.

Where do you stand on the higher power issue?

I feel like I’ve sort of found my own way with it. I wouldn’t necessarily know how to define it, but I do have a lot of faith in my life now, and I’m not even sure what it’s in exactly. But as long as I’m doing the right thing—on the right path and putting one foot in front of the other in a positive direction—things seem to somehow unfold in a positive way. There is a feeling I have of being taken care of or something, and I think, again, it took me rejecting all that stuff in order to finally find my way to feeling that again. I remember being in sober living about five years ago with all these other kids, and they all started going to meetings with me, and they all got sober, and stayed sober, and somehow I just never could. I didn’t know what the hell was wrong with me, and I also felt really hopeless, like, “Well, it’s working for these people, it’s not working for me, so I’m screwed, I guess I’ll just drink and use until I die.” Back then, when I was sober, I was in so much pain—even more pain than when I was using.

Why isn’t that true now?

Partially because I think medication has been really helpful for me. I was always someone who would go on medication and then go off of it and go on it and go off of it, because I didn’t want to be playing into the hands of the pharmaceutical companies or whatever, and I felt like doctors were always over-prescribing everything, so I didn’t want to be a part of that. Another difference is that before I’d just see the psychiatrist every six months or something to get a refill, and that was it. But now I go to therapy every week or every other week, I get my blood work done so they can make sure that the medication is working at a therapeutic level, and I guess I feel like I’m taking everything a lot more seriously than I used to. At this point, my mental health is the only thing that matters, really. I’d rather go to therapy every week and not really eat out at a restaurant or something. It just feels like it’s not a luxury and if that piece of the puzzle is in place, then everything else fits in and comes together. They say this in 12-step meetings but what tends to happen is you do all this stuff, it starts to make you feel better, and then suddenly you’re feeling better and you don’t do the stuff anymore. So I guess that’s a difference now: I’ve been really good about doing all that stuff that made me feel better in the first place.

When you were promoting Tweak but had been smoking pot, did you consider yourself sober in a way?

No, not really, but in a certain way, I guess. There was this fantasy that I had that smoking pot would be the one thing that worked for me. It seemed like, “How could that be a big deal?” I really struggled with that for a really long time. But what happens is that it stops working for me. When I’m smoking pot all the time, I can’t just leave it at smoking pot at night after work or whatever; I need to be doing it from the moment I get up to the moment that I pass out at night, because the second that I start coming down, I get so, so depressed that I just have to keep smoking constantly. So it really stopped working, and so I started taking pills again, and that was when I kind of had this revelation where I felt like maybe I don’t have to lose everything before I ask for help this time—that maybe it would be okay to ask for help before I’ve destroyed every relationship in my life and gone through all the money I had and lost my car and my cell phone and sold all my stuff. That moment was really cool: I remember I called my dad when that was going on, and I told him what had been happening, and of course I was super ashamed and embarrassed and everything and I thought he was going to be really mad at me, and what he said was so cool. He just went, “Nic, I’m so sorry you have to go through this, I know how hard this is.”

How did the deal for Tweak come about? Did an editor see your dad’s story and call you?

I was writing for Nerve—doing movie reviews for them and stuff, and this woman from Simon & Schuster read my dad’s article, then I think she must have Googled me or something, and so she went online and read stuff I’d written on Nerve, and she got my email through my dad or someone. She said she was curious if I would want to maybe write my story, and I talked to her on the phone a couple times, and basically I just started submitting chapters to her, and she just kept liking them. I had probably the worst relapse I’ve had in my life halfway through writing Tweak, and my dad had this brain hemorrhage, so we both were totally out of it for a long time.

How long did the whole process take?

I think it took at least two years to get the whole thing done, and my dad and I weren’t talking by the end. It was really weird that when we finally did start talking again. I was able to be like, “Hey, I finished my book,” and he was like, “Hey, I finished my book,” and so we sent them to each other, and it was kind of a cool way of reconnecting, in a way, just because I really got to see, from his perspective, everything that I’d put him through, and I think he got to see where I was coming from in a way that I couldn’t really explain with my words.

How do you handle writing about real people? You sort of call out your step-dad in both books.

I feel like I made some mistakes, especially with Tweak. I guess just being younger, I really didn’t understand that it’s one thing to tell my story but it’s another thing to reveal information about other people and their lives that maybe they don’t want out there.

What did you write that you wish you hadn’t?

In Tweak, the stuff about [my ex-girlfriend] Zelda and her family. With We All Fall Down, I really tried a lot harder [not to do that]. I was able to write a foreword or afterword or something to the paperback edition of Tweak where I talked about regretting that. But with my stepdad, I think he’s just an asshole so I don’t care if he reads bad stuff about him in the book.

What is your relationship with Zelda like now?

We don’t really have one anymore. Until last summer, I still had this idea that I would never really get over her or whatever, and so I always kept in touch with her.

But you are over her?

Yeah, definitely. I’m involved in a new relationship. My girlfriend and I both started sixth grade at a new school at the same time, and I was super in love with her for sixth, seventh and eighth grade. She was my best friend and would come out to our house every weekend. My parents loved her. I hardly remember this but I guess we’d talk on the phone for hours and hours every night, and I also don’t remember this but I was the first boy that she ever kissed and stuff. I think at one point I asked if she’d be my girlfriend and she said no, and I was so devastated, and I ended up not seeing her again for like 14 years or something, and then I ran into her this past summer at an art gallery in San Francisco, and we hit it off immediately. I feel really so grateful for this relationship because I guess I never really understood how not nice to me girlfriends were. I feel like I am always very giving in relationships, and I guess I’ve always been with people, honestly, who have taken that without giving back. So it’s crazy to me to have someone who wants to make me dinner—just weird little things like that that no one else has ever really wanted to do for me. I feel so appreciated and loved in a way that I never imagined that I could. Hopefully it’s just that as I've gotten healthier, I've started attracting healthier and healthier people to me. We’re getting married this summer at my parents’ house.

How do her parents feel about their daughter marrying the poster child for addiction?

It’s funny. Her dad, who I never met growing up when I was a kid because he wasn’t really around then, definitely kind of freaked out a little bit. But at the same time, it’s nice to just be able to start talking about stuff really honestly and openly. I won’t say, “I’m an IV, crystal meth and heroin addict” but I’ll say something like, “I have substance abuse problems” and it’s amazing how people will open up with their own stuff. It’s like giving a gift, a little bit, to be so open, because other people really sort of use it to open up themselves.

Anna David is the Executive Editor of The Fix and a magazine and book writer who discusses addiction on TV and at colleges around the country. She also interviewed Tom Sizemore and Todd Bridges for The Fix.

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