Teenage Wasteland

By Nic Sheff 09/08/11

Once upon a time, Nic Sheff was a wasted teen. Now he gives addiction talks to young people. He can’t help but wonder: would he have listened to someone like him at that age?

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The kids may not be all right

The first time the publicist lady working with me on my book, Tweak, told me I was scheduled to talk to a group of high school kids, I gotta say, I thought it was pretty dumb on her part. The whole idea was that it might be helpful, you know, for the kids to hear my story—as a preventative measure—and also, of course, to stimulate book sales. But, to me, it just seemed like a waste of time.

Like, looking back, at when I was in high school and I was doing all those drugs and everything, I was totally sure there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could’ve said to me at any school assembly that would’ve made the slightest bit of difference. Plus I was the kinda kid that if an author came to speak at my school, I would specifically not want to buy their book—because then it meant everyone knew about it and it wasn’t cool and unique. I remember Junot Diaz came to our school to speak and I actually thought he was great and I really liked his writing, but there was no way I was gonna buy his book, ‘cause that’s what everyone else was doing.

What do they call that in rehab?

Terminal uniqueness?

Yeah, something like that.

I was the kinda kid that if an author came to speak at my school, I would specifically not want to buy their book—because then it meant everyone knew about it and it wasn’t cool and unique.

Plus, you know, I just kinda felt like a big phony, or whatever, having to do it. 

But I did have to.

I had to do whatever my publicist lady said. After all, I was 25 and my fate pretty much depended on whether I could make it as a writer, or not. So I didn’t want to do anything to piss off the people in charge.

That is, I did what they said (even having to part my hair like a preppy a-hole to go on Oprah).

And so when it came time to speak at those high school assemblies, I did that, too.

Each time walking into the schools and down the halls of fluorescent lights to their gyms or theaters or wherever they held their assemblies, I remember feeling almost the exact same sense of dread and sickness in my stomach as I did every day when I was actually in high school. 

Really, it was like some PTSD reaction or something. 

Because, yeah, back in high school, I would seriously get sick to my stomach every morning. In fact, I’d even developed a stomach ulcer by the first semester of my senior year of high school (although, admittedly, alcohol consumption played a big part in that).

So, uh, having to walk into those schools again was kind of like a nightmare coming true. And standing up at the assemblies in front of a thousand kids, well, that was frightening in its own right. I mean, high school kids can be mean as hell. I remember what we were like when there was some dumbass up there talking to us about drugs. We were ruthless. And, I have to say, I get my feelings hurt pretty goddamn easily, so that freaked me out even more. Especially as the kids filed in and took their seats and were all talking together loudly and laughing and joking around and throwing things—I just assumed it was gonna be 45 minutes of not one person paying attention to me while I droned on and on, delivering the stupid little speech thing I’d prepared.

But once I’d start talking, you know, it was the craziest thing: the whole auditorium would go instantly quiet. I’m not even sure what it was that made them start listening—but they did. I’d tell my story about addiction and recovery and relapse and, I swear, every time the kids would listen. Or, at least, they wouldn’t be whispering or messing around or anything. 

Not only that, but afterwards they would wait in a line to come talk to me. They’d even tell me a lot of really intense personal stuff. Some kids would talk to me about the drugs they’d been doing and ask for advice—or even straight up ask for help. I had to refer a number of kids to the school guidance counselors or drug counselors (if the school was lucky enough to have one of those). I even received an email from a principle telling me that the day after I spoke, this kid who had talked to me after the assembly had come into her office early that morning and admitted he had a problem and asked for her help getting into treatment.

It was so weird hearing stuff like that—especially because, like I said, I genuinely believed there was nothing anyone could’ve done to help me back when I was in high school.

In fact, the only drug education I remember paying attention to was one that came from this female San Francisco cop who came in to talk to us and told us about this guy on PCP who lifted up a police car, jumped off a two-story building, broke his leg, and then managed to run for like 10 blocks before they got him. Honestly, it sounded kind of awesome to me.

But I never had anyone tell me that, if I was in a lot of pain and thought drugs were the only thing that could make me feel better, then there was a real good chance that I was going to become seriously, possibly fatally, addicted. I also never had anyone tell me that once you do become addicted, it’s not like you can just go to rehab and you’re magically cured. Once you’re addicted, that’s fucking it. That shit stays with you the rest of your life. It’s a constant—something I have to be aware of every time I go out to dinner with people and they order drinks, or a car drives past reeking of pot (which happens at least once a day in LA).

Would knowing any of that have helped me at all?

I guess it’s hard to say, right?

I do remember the first time I went to a 12-step meeting, though—that made a difference. 

I was 18 and the speaker was like some British woman in her fifties I didn’t think I was gonna relate to at all. But when she talked about the feelings she’d had about herself and the world—how she’d always felt so vacant, like such an alien, and that alcohol was the only thing that ever made that better—it was like something, you know, clicked for me. It was the first time I realized I might actually be an addict.

So obviously that did make a difference.

And maybe there is an important lesson in that. If kids are not taught about the nature of addiction and how to recognize addictive tendencies, how are they possibly going to know if they’re in danger of becoming addicts themselves? And how are they going to know what that would mean for them in terms of the rest of their lives? 

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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.