Dogging Addiction

By Benoit Denizet-Lewis 07/22/14
My dog Casey has been a big part of my recovery—and in the course of traveling around America together, I found four-legged sober companions have helped many others, from Nic Sheff to sober communities. An exclusive excerpt from Travels With Casey.
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Casey and author Amanda Jones

There were times during my journey across America that I felt so deliriously happy—so content, grateful, and blessed—that I considered staying on the road forever.

One of those moments happened on Malibu’s Point Dume State Beach, which is tucked away under a promontory at the northern end of Santa Monica Bay. I was walking along the sand with Nic Sheff, a young writer who chronicled his methamphetamine addiction in the book Tweak. (Nic’s father, David Sheff, wrote his own account of Nic’s addiction, titled Beautiful Boy.)

Casey stayed with me back then not because I deserved the company. He stayed with me because he’s a dog. That’s what dogs do

It was a glorious day, and Nic had brought along his goofy Blood­hound, Rhett, named after the character in Gone With the Wind. Casey and Rhett tumbled around in the sand; Rhett, on his back, pawed at Casey’s face. In the distance, Rezzy seemed to be coming alive right before our eyes: she danced along the ocean’s edge, her playful person­ality bursting forth in a joyous mixture of sand, mud, and saltwater.

“If there’s anything better than being here right now with our dogs, I’m not sure what it is,” Nic said with an easy smile, his curly brown hair falling over his eyes. Those eyes can look vacant and sad in photographs, but on this day they were bright, hopeful. Nic is slender and boyish, and his wardrobe—blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up, thin track jacket, small backpack—gave him the look of a young indie rock star on a walkabout.

“I’m so glad we’re here, doing this!” he continued. “Your dogs are awesome!”

“Yours, too!” I said.

We had all the giddiness of starstruck lovers, but we were far from that. Nic isn’t gay, and I wasn’t interested in him in that way. But our bond was instantaneous and undeniable, perhaps because we have so much in common: We were both raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. We both have divorced parents. We both have writer fathers. We both wrote publicly about our struggles with addictive behavior. And we both have dogs who helped us get better.

In a 2011 article for The Fix, Nic wrote about the importance of dogs to his sobriety. At the height of Nic’s addiction, he wrote, he was homeless “and letting guys blow me for $50 a pop, so I could afford another gram of speed.” When his half-brother suggested that the solution to his addiction might be to get a dog, Nic angrily dismissed the advice.

“It just seemed so condescending,” Nic wrote. “Like he was totally minimizing my problem.”

But several years later, while Nic was drinking “a quart of vodka every day” and “lying to everyone” about being sober after the release of Tweak, he came upon an emaciated hound dog running through traffic in Savannah, Georgia, where he was living at the time. Nic brought her to the Humane Society, where she promptly attacked the vet. The vet told Nic the dog would have to be euthanized.

“I could really relate to this crazed, homeless dog, and I felt like she deserved another chance—maybe the same way I still believed I might deserve another chance,” Nic wrote in The Fix. He didn’t let the Humane Society put her down. Instead, he took her home, named her Ramona, “and began the long, slow process of trying to rehab this psycho dog—while, at the same time, I guess, trying to rehab myself.”

Before he knew it, Nic had stopped drinking. And though he con­cedes that therapy and medication helped in that endeavor, he believes his half-brother was right. “I needed to be responsible and accountable for a living creature that literally could not survive if I was off getting fucked up,” Nic told me.

Ramona wasn’t at the beach with us on the day of my visit; she’s still “a handful,” Nic said, and occasionally can get aggressive toward people and dogs. “I’d never heard her make a sound until she started growling at me. It sucks when you can barely pet your dog, and she doesn’t want to sleep in bed with you. She’s even bitten me a few times when she gets anxious.”

Though my problems with Casey paled in comparison to the chal­lenge of living with Ramona, Nic was eager to talk about them. Before embarking on my journey, I’d briefly mentioned to him my Casey­related insecurities. “How are things going with you both?” he asked me, sounding genuinely interested.

It was a good question, one I realized I hadn’t considered in the two weeks since adopting Rezzy. Though I’d tried not to neglect Casey, Rezzy had commanded practically all of my energy and atten­tion. And, boy, did Rezzy love attention. Even when she was tired (as she was for much of those first two weeks), she preferred to be tired with her head in my lap. She was physical and loving in a way that Casey was only rarely; Rezzy wanted to be as close to me as possible. Nic noticed.

“She’s so bonded to you already,” he said.

As we sat in the sand watching our dogs, I realized that I hadn’t felt any frustration or insecurities around Casey in weeks. “It’s almost like rescuing Rezzy made me realize that dogs are different, and that I don’t need to expect Casey to be everything,” I told him. I was talking out loud, figuring out my thoughts and feelings as they came to me.“And I know I’ve been paying more attention to Rezzy than Casey, but that’s because Rezzy is so new, and she needs me right now. I know Casey is okay.”

“Casey seems so easygoing about things,” Nic said.

“Exactly. And I love that about him.” I paused and let that sink in. “I don’t think I’ve ever realized how much I love that about him. He doesn’t even seem to mind the RV anymore. He’s happy, he’s content. And he doesn’t get jealous if I have to pay a lot of attention to Rezzy.”

“It seems like Rezzy is the perfect complement to Casey, even down to their colors—black and white,” Nic said. We laughed as we watched Rezzy dig a hole in the sand and stuff her nose in it, then run to us through a stiff wind and gently nudge her face in my lap. “She’s the most awesome dog.You really lucked out.”

“You did, too, with Rhett,” I told him, as the dog chased Casey in a circle, Rhett’s droopy ears flapping against his head as he bounded through the sand.

“You should have seen Rhett when he was little,” Nic said. “He was like this super runt of the litter. Nobody wanted him. So I took him, but he was always sick the first year. I spent so much time looking after him that a few months before my wedding my fiancée was like, ‘Why don’t you marry the dog?’ She felt like I was giving him more attention than her. But I was like, ‘He’s like this sick little puppy, and I have to take care of him.’ I had a sick puppy and a psycho rescue. They both needed me.”

“And you needed them,” I said.

“Yes! There’s no doubt in my mind—my dogs keep me sober. They do that by getting me out of myself, by forcing me to think about someone else before me. They make me less self-centered.”

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Benoit Denizet-Lewis is journalist, professor, and New York Times bestselling author. A regular contributer to The New York Times Magazine, he has written dozens of covers and features about sexual identity and behavior, youth culture, politics, mental health, sports, and dogs. His 2017 cover story about anxious teenagers is the most read piece in the history of the New York Times Magazine. Benoit also contributes to the New York Times Book Review and to Rolling Stone  and Slate and has been named one of the "50 Most Influential LGBT People in Media" by The Advocate.

Benoit's most recent book, Travels With Casey: My Journey Through Our Dog-Crazy Country, was a New York Timesbestseller and People and Time's book of the week.

A graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Benoit has taught magazine and nonfiction writing at Northeastern, Tufts, and The College of Wooster, where he served as the Merton M. Sealts Jr. Writer-in-Residence. Now an associate professor at Emerson College, Benoit teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in magazine writing and publishing, profile writing, writing about subcultures, and journalistic coverage of sexual minorities. You can find Benoit on Twitter and Linkedin.

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