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An uncommon bond forged through addiction Add to ...

"Kurt Cobain had this quote that he felt that he was an alien dropped off on another planet. In the world, there were a few other aliens from that other planet, and he had to find them to connect with them. Otherwise, he is removed from humanity.

"And I always felt that way. I was an alien from another planet. ...

"So I started doing drugs and, especially when I did meth, it was the first time that I felt normal."

Nic Sheff delivers that monologue about his lost years in a straightforward manner, as though explaining a college assignment.

His level of candour, unapologetic and without self-pity, is remarkable.

A slim, pale man of 26, his brown hair worn long and curly, he is as comfortable with emotional transparency as he once was with deception.

But consider that he is offering this confession in front of his father, David, who is sitting next to him, his head turned slightly to look at him. He listens carefully, and sometimes he, too, asks his son questions. The emotions on the face of the 52-year-old man are somewhat harder to read than those of his son. There is parental concern, obviously. Some mild curiosity. (David, after all, is a seasoned journalist and author.) There is acceptance. There is pain. And, surprisingly, there is a certain detachment.

Perhaps that is because time has passed since the darkest period of Nic's addiction. The two men have also processed, analyzed, purged and swapped tales of the nightmare by writing books: Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines. The father had first written about his tortured life with an addict son in a piece for The New York Times Magazine. Released simultaneously last year by separate publishing companies, their books are now out in paperback.

I ask David if he can ever completely absolve himself for raising a son who wrote: "If I'm not living on the verge of death, I feel like I'm not really living;" who always felt "this vacancy, this hole opening wide ... I was this worthless little nothing" until drugs embraced him in a death spiral.

"I do absolve myself, but not completely," the father says. "I really did expose Nic to too much, too young - but on these [book]tours, we meet so many people, parents whose kids' lives ended tragically. They didn't make it [through their drug addiction] Was it something they did wrong? Or is it because these kids have an [addiction]illness in combination with mental illness? And I really think it was the latter. Sometimes you can't prevent these things because there is a physiological and biological basis for some of this stuff."

He may say that now - his son's maternal grandfather died of alcoholism and Nic was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 23 - but in his book, David was a terrified, frustrated and utterly self-blaming parent. He admitted that his sexual infidelity broke up his marriage to his first wife, Vicky, causing a bitter divorce and custody fight. In the end, Nic shuffled between two different existences: living with his father during the school year in San Francisco and with his mother in Los Angeles for the summers and holidays.

David Sheff didn't draw clear enough boundaries between his role as a parent and his life as a bachelor, he believes. Girlfriends came and went. He befriended his young son, rather than taking the role of authority as an elder.

His approach to examining why addiction happened to his eldest child - he has a daughter and son from a second marriage - was to confess all, including his confused decision to share a joint that his son, then 17, had lit up. At the time, David thought he could identify with his son - he, too, had experimented with drugs in his youth - and he hoped that Nic might grow out of the rebellious phase. But in retrospect, he recognized that he was in denial about his son's problems.

"I first thought that I couldn't include that story about smoking pot with Nic," he says over lunch in Toronto, where the two were on a recent book tour. "I thought if people read that, they will dismiss the whole thing and say, 'No wonder your kid is an addict.' But then I thought I have to tell the whole story. I was worried about hurting others, not myself."

Perhaps he needed to leave no stone of possible culpability unturned in order to attempt some exoneration.

"There's a little bit of that," he acknowledges. "When you have nothing to lose, you just put it all on the table. It's terrifying, but when you do it, it's an enormous relief."

Nic watches his father. How does he feel when he hears this soul-searching?

"I'm just grateful for our relationship," he replies, looking at David. "I call him almost every day, and I tell him everything. ... I am grateful that he is such an introspective person who is constantly working on himself."

The passage of time as well as therapy, medication for his mental illness and addiction-recovery meetings have helped Nic understand how sick he was. (In the middle of writing Tweak, he suffered a relapse.)

"It's totally surreal to read the book now," he says. At 11, he got drunk for the first time. He smoked pot in his teens, then shot cocaine, heroin and crystal meth for six years. "I took pills, mushrooms, acid, ketamine, GHB. I even smoked crack. Drugs were my whole life and death and whatever," he writes in his book.

"Seeing it all there and the feelings expressed, I was intensely guilty and shameful," he says about his father's book. "I didn't understand that me being destructive was destroying his life as well. I definitely had no concept of that."

He has been sober for slightly more than two years. He had a relapse again, when he moved back to Los Angeles in May last year. (He has since moved to Portland, Ore.) "I had a supermanic episode, and I found this medication in my mom's bathroom, and I had this stupid idea that I could take one pill and it would calm me down. But that wasn't the case ... I got scared. So I called my dad, and he helped me get into treatment." The ability to stop himself and recognize the problem "was progress for me even though it was a setback," he says.

"Nic never set himself up as a poster boy for recovery. It's really been about being honest and open," his father adds.

Their story about the struggle with addiction is not uncommon. One in five Canadians will experience addiction or mental-health issues, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. But their twin tales as men, as writers, as father and son, speak about love, anger and disappointment in a way that seems to have transformed not only them but also their relationship. They have an uncommon bond. What may have been a source of the problem - the father's desire to be open and non-authoritarian with his son - has also allowed for the healing.

Has David altered the way he and his wife parent their younger two children, now 12 and 14?

"It has a little bit," he answers.

"I'd say a lot," Nic puts in.

His father offers him a quizzical look. "I'm more strict, I guess, and more protective."

"You have been very careful about what you expose them to," his son points out.

And if they make mistakes?

"It will be hard," the father admits. "When you know what can happen. I might get freaked out and panic."

Then the son who turned his life upside down offers some calm advice.

"You just need to give them permission to talk about it."

And the father adds: "And then you try to make the best decisions possible about what to do."

The two men look at each other again in a moment of unspoken pain and understanding.

shampson@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @Hampsonwrites

 

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