Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Books Yay!: Beautiful Boy, by David Sheff

Addiction is really just incredibly hard.

That seems overly simplistic, but at the end of the day I think that's what it comes down to.   It's why it's so hard to kick, and why rehab works sometimes and not other times.  It's why what works for one person doesn't work for another person, even if that other person is their twin.  I think it's because addiction germinates in the brain, and as much as we study the brain and discover how it works, we'll never be able to find out what it is in there that makes each person so unique.  Addiction is just as unique as the brain in which it is born.

One of the greatest strengths of David Sheff's Beautiful Boy is his understanding that there is no silver bullet, and his admission that he often just plain did not know what to do about his son's meth addiction.  A lot of these books - and TV shows, etc. - strive for a control that is simply not possible, and Sheff does not do that.  Instead, he chronicles his research and his attempts at "fixing" Nic and all of his guilt and sense of failure and ends up somewhere like: "you have to try your best and hope that something will work."

I most appreciate the accounting Mr. Sheff does of his son's slide into addiction.  He is brutally honest about his own denial, and his agonizing over what the appropriate response is to each bump in the road.  The account reads like a horrible version of the frog-in-a-pot metaphor; had Sheff's son not been his son, but rather been presented to him with his addiction at its worst, Sheff would certainly have recognized the severity of the disease (dropping the frog in boiling water), but as it was, he kept being able to excuse the steps forward as insignificant, or as flukes (bringing the water to boil with the frog already in the pot).  It adds a whole other level of legitimacy to those hokey "talk to your kids early and often" commercials.  Sheff's belief that Nic was "a good kid" - and I think he was and is - totally interfered with his ability to assess Nic's addiction.

It seems like every time some youth drug story crops up in the news, someone connected to the case will appear on TV or in print saying that the kid in trouble was "a good kid."  We have to stop thinking of these kids as outliers.  The American attitude towards drugs is so ridiculously warped; we villify drugs and convince ourselves that only mysterious "bad people" use them, while we know that our population takes them by the literal tons.  This attitude renders us unable to assess drugs' actual dangers where they do exist.  By treating marijuana the same way we do heroin, we send the message that there is no disparity between drugs, and makes us blind to the idea that marijuana is simply not the hazard of heroin or meth.  The sooner we abandon this foolishness, the sooner we can start addressing drug abuse in a meaningful way and develop an understanding of drugs that is more realistic.

This is not a perfect book.  I found Sheff deeply irritating throughout, and he frequently comes off as a pretentious yuppie-ish figure, talking about all the upper-middle accoutrement he gave his son. like he's trying to prove he can't be held culpable.  While he does note that he understands that addiction is not about things people had when they were young, it is unclear how much he understands this.  You cannot say addiction is not contingent on childhood and then extensively detail all the benefits you lavished on your child with a silent "...unlike those people who sent their kids to *gasp* poor-people school" at the end.  I seriously doubt that if questioned, Sheff would actually say he thought this way, and I don't think he actually does look down on those who are less well off, but that he comes off like this indicates a serious need for an editor to police tone.  This book is very popular, and hit #1 on the NYT Bestseller list, but it regrettably reads in some places as though it was written by the worst stereotypes of NYT readers.

1 comment:

  1. The last statistic I read said only about 1 in 7 people get addicted to substances like alcohol, nicotine or other drugs. Physical addiction to alcohol is rare, nicotine addiction is almost immediate in many people but still takes more than one use. The idea that you'll try drugs and be automatically addicted is sooo pervasive. The thing about these "good kids" being addict outliers is they kind of are. Most people will try a cigarette or a drink or some pot or even harder shit like cocaine and heroin and NOT become addicted long term or even short term. They will remain, at best, party drugs that only really accidently OD on. Not to say that OD'ing accidently is acceptable but most people who use drugs will not binge themselves to death and will eventually just grow out of using them. We just never hear about these people because "kid took drugs, nothing happened" is not news-worthy. Tales of addiction and overdose just make great tools to scare the shit out of children.

    I think a concession needs to be made for meth though. That shit is fucked. It's probably a lot more dangerous than heroin in the long run. Even including opiate prescription drug use, meth kicks heroin's ass on fucking up people's lives permanently. Along the lines of deadlier than thou, the OTC things we use for pain are more harmful than opiates.

    Something about addiction and rehab that a lot of discussions also fail to bring up is the fact that rehab, largely, doesn't actually work. Programs like NA/AA etc AND in-patient programs don't really do much for addicts. The long-term success rate is about the same as if people just quit on their own and eventually got it. And in fact, quitting on your own takes just as many times which I think the average is near a dozen in and outs. Beyond physical addiction, we just don't have psychiatric care. Even though rehab clinics and therapists emphasize heavily the necessity of a support system for the patient, it often isn't there. America for some god awful reason refuses to teach our population that we need other people.

    Final thought or whatever, I don't think addiction is contingent on childhood like that either. The fact that you spoil the crap out of your kid isn't an indicator one way or another how the thing will end up. If he sees it like that it's sad. It's that other American idea where we replace relationships and involvement with objects and call it acceptable.