Flip sides of an addiction

Monday, February 4, 2008

TWEAK by Nic Sheff (Pocket Books, £7.99)
Beautiful Boy by David Sheff (Pocket Books, £11.99)

When David Sheff's home was burgled, he didn't need the police to find the culprit.

There was a prime suspect, his own 21-year-old son, Nic.

Another time Nic broke into his mother's house to steal her computer. He also burgled his grandparents and once pilfered his nine-year-old stepbrother's moneybox of its $8 savings.

Nic was the walking incarnation of every parent's worst nightmare: a child lost, seemingly irredeemably, to drugs.

Growing up, Nic was the 'beautiful boy' of John Lennon's song. He seemed to have it all. The son of prosperous journalists, he was precociously intelligent, personable and popular, and by his early teens already proving himself a talented artist and writer, a handsome blond surfer, the epitome of middle-class American health.

A brilliant future seemed assured.

Except he was already experimenting with cannabis, and his childhood had not been without difficulties.

His parents divorced when he was seven and joint custody meant he became a frequent flyer between father David in San Francisco and mother Vicki in Los Angeles.

As a young man, David himself had smoked pot and experimented with other drugs. He didn't panic at finding cannabis in his son's room and indeed, Nic's dabbling with drugs, typical of his generation, might have stopped there..

Unfortunately Nic also tried a drug described as 'the number one drug problem in America', crystal meth, formal name methamphetamine, alias tweak, gak, Tina or speed, a drug so addictive it has 35 million users worldwide, compared to 15 million cocaine and seven million heroin users.

Made in makeshift labs from ingredients found in decongestants and brake cleaner, injected and sometimes smoked, crystal meth is highly addictive and very dangerous.

Users often 'tweak', experiencing a psychosis and suffering hallucinations, intense paranoia, deluassions and symptoms similar to schizophrenia.

Tweakers can go without sleep for 15 days and be extremely violent, committing spousal and child abuse, and murder. In some U.S. cities 80-100 per cent of all crime is reckoned to be methrelated.

Meth use is spreading across Britain, too.

The success rate for users permanently kicking the habit may be under ten per cent, and even then it takes at least two years for the ex-addict's burned-out brain to regain normal function, if ever.

Nic Sheff's account of his addiction begins in the middle; he's relapsed after a period of rehab and sobriety, having saved £1,000 from working. It almost seems fun he and lowlife associate Gak find ingenious ways to score drugs.

They set up as drug dealers, buying wholesale and selling in small amounts, but increasingly the merchandise ends up in their own veins and they are so stoned they get ripped off. The money dwindles and the fun stops as the inevitable downward spiral of drug addiction takes over.

We learn the history of Nic's addiction, his twice dropping out of university, his many abortive attempts at therapy and rehab, how he supported his habit by working the streets as a gay prostitute.

His desperate family get him into rehab again, he stays clean for more than a year, has a job and has film reviews published. But one phone call from an addict exgirlfriend and he's using again.

They end up utterly destitute and living in squalor with Nic so wasted he can't even resist his family's attempts to put him in long-term rehab.

Nic's father David's record of these events shows the anguish that addicts' parents face. There are the brief respites when rehab seems to work, then the inevitable relapses when Nic simply disappears and David waits anxiously for the phone to ring.

Often it's Nic spinning him pathetic lies to obtain money; once it's a hospital where Nic's on a life-support machine, having overloaded his system with drugs.

Best is when Nic is under arrest because at least then his father knows where he is. With ever-diminishing hope David gets Nic into rehab after rehab, the emotional cost matched by the financial drain, up to £5,000 a week.

He questions his own responsibility for his son's addiction, despite the '3 Cs' maxim of Al-Anon, a support organisation for families of addicts: 'You didn't cause it. You can't control it. You can't cure it.' Finally David and Vicki persuade Nic into long-term rehab that addresses the psychological roots of his addiction. It appears to work. Now 23, Nic has been sober for 18 months, has a partner and looks on course to lead a productive, happy, drug-free life.

Both takes on this story are riveting, brilliantly written, thoughtful, searingly honest and equally essential. They should be mandatory reading for every teenager and every parent of one.

Buy a copy of 'Tweak'
Buy a copy of 'beautiful Boy'
source: The Daily Mail