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Analyzing Addiction

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When David Sheff decided to write an article about his son Nic's addiction to methamphetamines for The New York Times Magazine, he worried about every word.

Even though family members had given Sheff their blessing to write the piece, he wasn't sure that he wanted to expose them to the scrutiny and shame that can follow an admission of addiction.

"The trepidation was huge," said Sheff, a freelance journalist and author based in the San Francisco Bay Area. "I kept second-guessing myself."

The article, published in February 2005, starts with Nic's return home from college and David's realization that his son--who had progressed from using alcohol and marijuana to methamphetamines--was doing drugs again. The piece shifts in time from Nic's childhood to David's adolescence to Nic's rehab stints and looks at the patterns of blame, self-examination and helplessness that families of addicts endure.

Writing from the perspective of a family member of an addict, David felt the piece would speak to those who were keeping a loved one's addiction secret or who felt isolated.

"It was a conversation people were ready to have," David said.

The article touched a nerve--and Sheff received an overwhelming response.

Though there were a few negative comments, the majority of the comments came from people who had gone through similar situations and experienced the same combination of pain, doubt and anxiety--people who, like David, awoke in a cold sweat at the sound of the telephone in the middle of the night.

The subject was both deeply personal and unfortunately common; many families contacted Sheff and told him about daughters who had overdosed or sons who had disappeared.

"They were so heartfelt and dramatic and profound," said David. "People felt like I was telling their story."

After the article appeared, David received a note from an editor asking if Nic would consider writing a memoir about his struggle with addiction. Nic, who had won awards for his writing in high school and had a piece published in Newsweek about his parents' divorce, agreed to write the book.

The product was Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, released earlier this year.

Though David was proud of his son's book, reading Nic's story of his descent into addiction was excruciating, he said.

"The truth was horrific much of the time," David said. "I imagined the worst, but the truth was worse than I ever could have imagined."

After Nic was asked to write his story, David began expanding his article into a full-length book. "Here was a chance to tell the whole arch of the story," David said. "People were able to get to know Nic and my family and me."

David began the process of turning over memories, nailing down facts and checking records.

"Reliving it was incredibly difficult; it was excruciating at times." David said. But sifting through experiences was also cathartic, allowing David to analyze both on the page and in his head what his family had been through.

At times, he stopped writing; Nic relapsed at one point, and David suffered from health problems. But he always came back to the book--and the result was Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction, also released earlier this year. The book is a No. 1 New York Times best-seller.

David, in both the article and book, examined his own role in his son's addiction, he said. He wrote about his divorce from Nic's mother and the awkward custody arrangement they had, and wondered if the instability might have played a role in Nic's addiction.

David is also candid about his own drug use. David grew up in Scottsdale and went to the UA before transferring to the University of California at Berkeley. He drank and smoked marijuana, and once, while at Berkeley, tried methamphetamine. When the drug wore off, 12 hours later, he vowed to never use it again. He questions whether his honesty with Nic about his own drug use might have contributed to his son's issues.

"I feel I contributed to a lot of the pain," David said. "But did that make him an addict? I think it was a piece of the puzzle."

David said that he now feels closer to his family.

"Openness is an enormous relief, and it is the beginning of our recovery," David said. "Because we continued to have these conversations, we've continued to talk about it. It changed us all. Having gone through it, maybe it made us better people."

David and Nic Sheff are scheduled to speak about their books at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 7, at Barnes and Noble, 5130 E. Broadway Blvd. This is a free event; call 512-1166 for more information.

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