Nic And David Sheff On ‘Beautiful Boy’ And Telling Addiction Stories Responsibly

Some books have a way of finding you at just the moment you need them. That’s been the case with me and the father-son memoirs that serve as the source texts for Beautiful Boy, a new film about a family wrestling with addiction, starring a worried-sick Steve Carell as David Sheff, father to his dopesick son, Nic, played by Timothée Chalamet.

Nic Sheff’s drug memoir, Tweak, was resting on my friend’s coffee table with little crumbs of weed on the black and red cover. It was 2010 and I was a 21-year-old daily smoker of black tar heroin. I rarely left my apartment in Denver, which had become a dark opium bunker, burnt tin-foil and hollowed out Bic pens (“tooters”) strewn about. One day I left to buy some weed from a friend, and there was Nic’s book. I asked to borrow it; nonchalantly, I should add, making it seem as though addiction was only a cursory interest of mine, as opposed to a ghost that had been following me for years.

I devoured all 352 pages in a couple days. Melting wherever I sat, hours-long reading sessions on heroin were quite comfy. But after a few hours I’d have to shut one eye to keep from seeing doubles. I’m realizing only now that I never returned Nic’s book to my friend — I swear I’m not that guy anymore.

Reading Nic’s plunge into homelessness and addiction in San Francisco while on a binge of my own was one of the more profound experiences I can remember from my foggy early adulthood. In Tweak, Nic details his yearslong cycle oscillating between chaotic drug use to treatment and recovery, over and over again. Looking back, I realize now I was reading a foreshadowing of what was to come of my life. Less than a year later, my parents in Chicago caught on to my drug use, initiating my own cycle of treatment, relapse, and eventual recovery. Knowing Nic was somewhere out there, that he lived to write his story, quietly gave me the courage to do the same. Today, I write, albeit precariously, for a living.

During my third round of treatment in the summer of 2012 is when I found Beautiful Boy— or rather, when it found me. I didn’t want to go get help but like Nic, I initially went because of my parents. A memoir by David Sheff, Beautiful Boy tells the story about a family’s struggle to save their son. Published in 2008, one year after Tweak, David’s book brought into focus the totality of the pain I had caused my own parents. By this time a few of my close friends had died from overdoses, and America’s national crisis was beginning to make headlines. My suburban parents were terrified that my short life would be reduced to an anonymous point of data in a CDC mortality report.

A decade after Nic and David published their memoirs, they’ve been seamlessly synthesized in Beautiful Boy, the film taking on the same name as David’s book. But the film also captures Nic’s own terror: He’s not living in the streets to party and have fun, he’s seeking relief from intense internal pain the only way he knows how.

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