Join Together chats with David Sheff, author of the new book, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, to discuss his exploration into the science, prevention and treatment of addiction. In 2008, Sheff’s New York Times bestselling memoir, Beautiful Boy, detailed his son Nic’s descent into methamphetamine addiction and provided a firsthand parent’s perspective on teenage addiction.
What do you want to accomplish when people read your book, and did that goal change in the course of your writing process?
David Sheff: I hope when people read Clean they 1) know – I emphasize the word “know,” differentiated from the word “think” … that addiction isn’t a choice, and addicts aren’t immoral and weak. Addiction is a disease, and addicts are afflicted with a terrible illness. 2) I want them to know that this disease is treatable, and it must be treated as early as possible, because it’s a progressive disease that gets worse over time. 3) I want them to know that it’s preventable if we reject scare tactics and “just say no” tactics and reach our children, because most drug addiction begins when people are in their teens, in ways that have been tested and shown to be effected. 4) I want people to understand the risk factors for addiction — that addiction is more likely if there’s addiction in a family. Those who have experienced trauma have a higher risk of addiction. Those who’ve experienced divorce, people with learning disabilities, those with psychological disorders. 5) Finally, I want people to know that everyone of us is impacted by addiction, and everyone of us is responsible for ending this catastrophe.
What advice would you give other parents whose kids are going into treatment?
Sheff: Buckle your seatbelts. Given the state of the current treatment system, there’s no easy course forward. This is a complex disease, and it’s hard to find good programs. Even when you find one, the process is trying. Sometimes treatment works the first time. But sometimes progress is interrupted by regression. Relapse can be part of this disease. This fact can be discouraging. Parents must do what they’d do if their child had any disease—everything they can to get their kids the best treatment possible. They must understand that it’s a complex problem and usually takes time to treat it. They also must recognize the unique aspects of this disease. They must realize that their kids are ill, so we must treat them with compassion and love. And they must get support, because it can be… it almost always is hell. Try Al-Anon. Give it a chance. Try multiple meetings. See a therapist who has experience working with parents who are dealing with a child’s addiction. Be open with your friends and family. Take care of yourself. If you fall apart, you can’t be good for anyone, including your addicted child.
Similarly, what advice would you give to others whose family member has relapsed?
Sheff: The same advice: Get support. And don’t give up hope.
Parents often say – “I did drugs in high school, so what’s the big deal?” What’s your answer to that?
Sheff: Many parents do believe that teenage drug use, especially of marijuana and alcohol, is inevitable and acceptable. Some say, “I smoked and it wasn’t a big deal,” or “I began drinking when I was sixteen and it’s never been a problem. A beer or two is fine.” This is a risky assumption because, first of all, it doesn’t allow for the fact that their children might use drugs in different ways and for different reasons than they did. It also ignores the fact that today’s kids aren’t growing up in the same culture, with the same influences and pressures, as their parents did. Nor are modern kids using the same drugs; even the marijuana isn’t the same. Now that growing marijuana has become a fine art, laboratory tests have detected three to ten times more THC, the drug’s active ingredient, in today’s pot than in marijuana from the 1980s.
There are a lot of problems with America’s system for preventing and treating addiction, but what is going in the right direction?
Sheff: There is a movement for our prevention and treatment systems to move away from a paradigm based on blame and morality and toward a science-based approach to prevent drug use and treat addiction for what it is, a health problem. We have so far to go, but there are incredible scientists, completely dedicated, taking this on. There are devoted practitioners dedicated to saving addicts’ lives. There are organizations of people – the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids is probably the most effective — who are working tirelessly to prevent addiction—to help kids grow up healthy. I’m hoping that pressure on politicians will help dramatically increase the budgets for organizations devoted to preventing and treating addiction. Money for research is critical. Money to get the programs into the hands of people who need them. It’s a slow process, and there are setbacks, but I’m hopeful.
Where does “hope” belong in the equation of addiction?
Sheff: There’s always hope until there isn’t. There are stories of addicts who have themselves felt hopeless and whose loved ones have given up on them who, after what can sometimes be many many years, get and stay clean. There’s also hope because we’re learning more about the disease of addiction, and the more we learn, the better prevention and treatment.
Say there’s a march on Washington tomorrow of families of addicted children. What should they march for? What would you march for?
Sheff: They should march and demand a national dialogue about addiction. Everyone is talking about guns, diabetes, and the economy. They’re all important, but addiction can no longer be ignored. Politicians must understand that this is a problem that affects every other problem in America. Politicians must be forced to take this on—to recognize it and plan a new course forward. They should march for specific initiatives, too. The Parity Act was a great step forward to get insurance companies to cover addiction treatment, but there’s a long way to go. I often hear stories of people being denied treatment who need it. Many are children. And many — too, too many have died. We should march to end the war on drugs and instead of treating addiction as a criminal problem, treat it as a heath crisis. A specific goal is earmarking much more money currently targeting interdiction and prosecution of suppliers to curtailing demand. The National Institute on Drug Abuse receives only $1 billion to spend on research into prevention and treatment and to help put effective programs into practice. Imagine if they got even $5 billion – five times more – of the $15 billion currently spent on a failed effort to curb the supply of drugs. The war doesn’t work; we’ve lost. It’s because addicts, unless they’re treated, will find drugs.
Finally, how is Nic doing? How are your two younger kids? Do you worry about them as they enter high school?
Sheff: Nic’s doing great. He’s five years sober, which feels like a miracle. There was a time when I didn’t think he’d make it to 21. He turned 30 this past summer. My younger kids are both teenagers. Being a teenager has always been complex, but I think it’s harder now. There’s enormous stress. It’s a scary time for kids. I worry about my kids like almost every parent I know worries about their children. I do what I hope other parents do: talk to them, educate them with facts, and pay close attention as much as possible so I know what’s going on in their lives, so if problems emerge, I can help them…at least try.
To find out what else David Sheff shared with Join Together, read Part 1 of his interview.
Visit Amazon.com to read an excerpt and purchase a copy of Clean.