Ad­dic­tion and love

Fam­ily trauma be­comes a movie. Plus, Séa­mas O’Reilly

The Observer Magazine - - News - Words DAVID SH­EFF

Nic was a lovely child, though of course I’m prej­u­diced. I’m his fa­ther. Ac­cord­ing to the ex­ter­nal barom­e­ters we of­ten use to mea­sure how our kids are do­ing, as Nic grew up – in Cal­i­for­nia where we live – he was do­ing great. He was a good stu­dent, had good friends and his teach­ers de­scribed him as a leader. Nic did have to en­dure the trauma of his mother and my di­vorce (he was four), but he seemed to weather it well. Most im­por­tant in my mind, he was kind, lov­ing and moral.

I found mar­i­juana in Nic’s back­pack when he was 11. It’s not that I was naive about drugs – I knew about the ubiq­uity and temp­ta­tion (when I was a teenager I used many) – but Nic was so young. It broke my heart.

What was go­ing on? What I now know is that though it ap­peared that Nic was do­ing well, he suf­fered in­side, plagued by self-doubt, anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion.

Nic’s drug use es­ca­lated and, by the time he was 17, he’d tried pretty much ev­ery one you can name. He now says that ev­ery­thing changed for him when a friend gave him crys­tal metham­phetamine. He didn’t know it was pos­si­ble to feel so alive. No won­der he went back for more. And more. Nic be­came ad­dicted, and his life – and mine – went into freefall.

He be­came un­recog­nis­able. He broke into our home, stole from us and even from his beloved lit­tle brother, Jasper. Ev­ery time I thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. Nic was ar­rested. Once, an ER doc­tor called to say he might have to am­pu­tate Nic’s arm, which had be­come in­fected be­cause of IV drug use. He over­dosed more than once. An­other ER doc­tor called one predawn and said: “Mr Sh­eff, you’d bet­ter get down here. We don’t know if your son’s go­ing to make it.”

Nic’s drug use would be in­ter­rupted by catas­tro­phes – over­doses and ar­rests – and I was able to get him into re­hab. Each time I felt hope­ful, but he quickly re­lapsed af­ter be­ing dis­charged. This cy­cle con­tin­ued for an in­ter­minable decade un­til, af­ter half a dozen treatment pro­grammes, Nic stayed sober for a year and a half.

I’d been caught off guard when he be­came ad­dicted. Like most peo­ple I knew, I thought drug ad­dicts were the kinds of peo­ple we see in door­ways in neigh­bour­hoods most of us try to avoid – peo­ple ob­vi­ously strung out, of­ten home­less and pos­si­bly psy­chotic. I didn’t think my son could be­come ad­dicted, but he had.

I wanted to fore­warn other par­ents, so they’d know, yes, it can hap­pen to you. No fam­ily is im­mune. I wanted to plead with them not to deny what’s in front of their eyes and waste no time in in­ter­ven­ing.

To spread the word, I wrote about our fam­ily’s ex­pe­ri­ence in an ar­ti­cle in the New York Times Mag­a­zine. When it hit the news­stands, I re­ceived an out­pour­ing of let­ters from peo­ple who’d been or were then fac­ing their own or a loved one’s ad­dic­tion. Like I’d done, they’d kept it a se­cret, of­ten from their clos­est fam­ily and friends.

If a child had an­other disease, we’d be open about what we were go­ing through, but ad­dic­tion is stig­ma­tised and comes with shame and guilt. I suf­fered in si­lence like so many of those who wrote. Un­til then I didn’t know how ubiq­ui­tous ad­dic­tion is and I de­cided to ex­pand the ar­ti­cle into a book, which I called Beau­ti­ful Boy . The ti­tle came from a song I sang to Nic when he was lit­tle.

In the ar­ti­cle, I wrote that Nic had al­ways been a good writer. An editor who read my ar­ti­cle con­tacted Nic to ask if he might be in­ter­ested in writ­ing about his ad­dic­tion. Nic was thrilled. His book, Tweak , was pub­lished the same month as mine.

That was 10 years ago. Since then Nic re­lapsed twice, but he’s been sober for eight years. He is now 36.

Soon af­ter the books were pub­lished, Nic and I were con­tacted by a movie pro­ducer ask­ing if the film rights were avail­able. We were ap­pre­hen­sive to turn over our life stories to oth­ers who would have carte blanche to por­tray our fam­ily in what­ever ways they chose. In ad­di­tion, a film would open old wounds.

We agreed to go for­ward for two rea­sons. First, we were im­pressed by the pro­ducer’s com­mit­ment to tell a story that avoided Hol­ly­wood clichés and stereo­types about ad­dic­tion. Sec­ond, we saw a movie as a way to reach more peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing – to af­firm their ex­pe­ri­ence, of­fer com­fort and show they aren’t alone.

The film­mak­ers cast a then-un­known ac­tor named Ti­mothée Cha­la­met as Nic and Steve Carell as me.

The movie was nearly com­pleted by last Septem­ber and we were in­vited to a pri­vate screen­ing of a rough cut.

‘Ad­dic­tion comes with shame and guilt... I suf­fered in si­lence’

I at­tended with my wife, Karen, and son Jasper. I knew the story, of course, but re­liv­ing it was dev­as­tat­ing.

Since his break­out role in Call Me By Your Name , Cha­la­met has been de­scribed as a young Leonardo DeCaprio and James Dean. Not only does Cha­la­met re­sem­ble my son when he was younger, but he em­bod­ies his spirit. I felt as if I was watch­ing a home movie.

I’d read Nic’s bru­tally hon­est ac­counts of his drug use, but watch­ing it sick­ened me. The hard­est scene to sit it through recre­ated a time Nic was liv­ing on the streets, ets, when he ran into a girl he knew. She’d been ad­dicted, d, but had never in­jected drugs. I knew what hap­pened d next and I braced my­self. Nic scored meth, shot her up and she over­dosed. When Nic re­alised that she was un­con­scious, he per­formed CPR and called 911.

In the va­cant the­atre I trem­bled. It was the first time me I’d faced the re­al­ity that it wasn’t only a mir­a­cle that t Nic sur­vived his ad­dic­tion. n. We could have had to live with the knowl­edge that hat he’d killed some­one, too.

Watch­ing Cha­la­met t broke my heart. It was s shat­ter­ing to watch Carell. I was look­ing into nto a mir­ror. In Carell’s eyes yes I saw my eyes –my pain, in, des­per­a­tion, anger and nd ter­ror. I saw my heart break. Karen, Jasper and nd I left the screen­ing, got in the car, and no one spoke. . Fi­nally Jasper said all there was to say: “We are so lucky.” ucky.”

I’ve watched the movie one more time since, at its pre­miere at the Toronto film fes­ti­val. In the dark­ened the­atre, this time with an au­di­ence of 3,000, the story un­folded. Tears came again, but at least I wasn’t caught off guard. I sat a few rows be­hind Carell and we found each other and em­braced. He’d been cry­ing, too.

Out­side I was met by a line of peo­ple who wanted to talk. Their emo­tions were pal­pa­ble. Some could barely speak be­cause they were sob­bing. They said ver­sions of the same thing: “You told my story.”

In per­son and in mes­sages on so­cial media, peo­ple have said sim­i­lar things. Many said they were grate­ful for the por­trayal of ad­dic­tion as a disease, not a choice made by self­ish peo­ple. More peo­ple than you can imag­ine told me that their stories were sim­i­lar, but had a dif­fer­ent end­ing. Their beau­ti­ful boy or girl didn’t make it.

Peo­ple tell of their heart­break, but also of hope and heal­ing. They say the movie val­i­dates their ex­pe­ri­ence and they feel less alone. Some have writ­ten to say that it caused them to face their own or a loved one’s prob­lem. A teenager wrote that she was ad­dicted to pain pills and was sui­ci­dal, but no one knew. Af­ter the movie, she told her par­ents. She was afraid they’d yell and pun­ish her, but in­stead they cried with her, em­braced her and asked how they could help. She was be­gin­ning treatment.

Peo­ple wrote that the movie led to rec­on­cil­i­a­tions in fam­i­lies shat­tered by ad­dic­tion. A boy wrote: “I just got out of de­tox and went to the movie with my dad. In the dark the­atre I sud­denly re­alised he was hold­ing my hand. d. I have never been so grate­ful to cry so much.”

My fear of agree­ing to al­low oth­ers to make a movie that would ex­pose our fam­ily has turned to grat­i­tude. The notes that flood in re­mind me that al­most ev­ery­one is suf­fer­ing, whether with ad­dic­tion or other chal­lenges. There are no easy an­swers, but iso­la­tion and si­lence make prob­lems worse. Though shar­ing our stories isn’t a panacea, we are re­minded we aren’t alone. And we aren’t. We can be sup­ported. Heal­ing can be­gin. ■ Beau­ti­ful Boy is re­leased in cine­mas on 18 Jan­uary

‘Peo­ple tell of their heart­break, but also of hope and heal­ing’

Pho­to­graph BRYAN DER­BALLA

‘No fam­ily is im­mune’: fa­ther and son David and Nic Sh­eff

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