Sunday, April 13, 2008

Not A Victim, Not A Hero, Just A Man...

A few weeks ago, I purchased both Nic Sheff's memoir "Tweak (Growing Up on Methamphetamines)" and his father's counterpoint "Beautiful Boy (A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction)." I set them both aside, going back and forth in my mind about with which one I should start first, but ultimately I put off reading them both until a day I could read them back-to-back, uninterrupted, and just immerse myself in the Sheff family's world. I expected to be a bit biased toward Nic's telling of events, but I never in a million years could have imagined just how much I would find myself nodding along and connecting to the very internal issues that lead to and continue to feed his addiction.

Nic Sheff spent much of his young life hanging out with his writer-father at gallery openings, dinner parties, and VIP events; he spent more time with adults than he did children his own age and therefore was in a rush to grow up, but however he tried to emulate said adults on the outside, on the inside he was trapping himself in a perpetual state of adolescence that would come to haunt him in his later years. Nic's parents divorced when he was young, and both subsequently remarried. His father went on to have two more children, whereas his mother would just have constant fights with her new husband-- fights that got so loud Nic would run into the TV room and blast an old movie, to drown out the sounds of the screams and yelling. By the time we actually meet Nic, he has already been in and out of rehab, though (all of the aforementioned and more comes out as exposition to fill in the holes later in the story), and he is on his way to San Francisco to partake in yet another bender. This time he ends up dealing, too.

Nic describes his descent into drugs with enough detail to make his readers cringe (like when he describes the abscess he develops on his arm due to a dirty needle), but he is never gratuitously graphic. Nic is never preachy, in order to attempt to scare kids off trying drugs, but he doesn't glamorize them either, even when he talks about the famous people (all names have been changed) he meets during such exploits. Instead, he merely lays out the facts of who he was and what he did, and in reality, he could be any one of his readers speaking. While the people he met along his journey and the way in which he started taking his drugs and then spiraled, got sober, and relapsed (lather, rinse, repeat) are specific to him, the mentality with which he approaches his addiction and his life with it is universal. The feelings of alienation, inadequacy, and general discontent could be ripped from the pages of any teenager's diary. He describes his struggles with his appearance, with coming from a tumultuous home life, his obsessive need to put himself in competition with others, and even his misguided belief his mortality could never be tested (in that "it could never happen to be me" oh-so-common way) with refreshing frankness, as if he can look back now and see it was all just an obsession. And it is in that obsession that he is most vulnerable but also ironically most accessible because we can all share in and relate to that personality trait; it is just more severe for some than others. And without naivety, denial, or just bold-faced lying, there is no one who can say he or she does not obsess over something, and if you think you can, then that notion will be more detrimental than crystal meth. I have spoken often in the past about my own obsessions, and I am very aware of just how easily they could (and by all accounts, should) have translated into addictions); do I understand why one person (like Nic) can go down one path and another (like me) can take another? Of course not, nor do I think I will ever solve that enigma, but I do thank him for being so brutally honest and fearless in his tales. "Tweak" is not always easy to read because of the aforementioned connection the reader is inevitably bound to make, but that just makes it all the more powerful.

Nic talks a lot about his outlets: he always had drawing, writing, an interest in movies, his younger brother and sister; hell, he was even on the swim team! But all of that took a backseat to his addiction-- and not just to narcotics. "Tweak" looks at a few of Nic's close relationships-- from his AA sponsor whom he treats as a surrogate father to a woman with whom he had an affair and still carries a torch-- and in each one, Nic attaches himself quickly and spends all of his time with that person. That kind of dependence is an addiction within itself; he feeds off the other person's energy and spirit for the same high he gets from his drugs, and it often blinds him from the person's flaws or problems. He held that woman on such a high pedestal he couldn't even tell she started using again, even though as an addict the signs were all right in front of him (I use the past tense because I hope he has put her and his old life behind him now and for good, but only time will be the real test).

Nic is a beautifully poetic writer, and the honesty with which he opens his life and his soul to strangers in "Tweak" speaks volumes for him as an artist. He doesn't ask for pity or even empathy; he just speaks from the heart. And he may always feel a little lost-- he may always feel a little on the outside of things-- but looking through history, most true artists did. What makes them channel their energy and passion into a form like writing or painting is often the feelings of not fitting in with those around them. Instead of diving down a rabbit hole of despair and trying to make the wrong kinds of people like him (as he has already tried and which were neither particularly successful or healthy), Nic has his stories, and in the end, that's all he needs as salvation.

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