Looming fatherhood drove Christopher Shulgan to crack. Love for his son Myron pulled him back.
That's how Mr. Shulgan, a well-known magazine writer, frames his compulsion to suck back a dozen beers and then score rock cocaine in downtown Toronto in the months before and after his first child was born.
He reveals his double life as a devoted father and closet crack fiend in Superdad: A Memoir of Rebellion, Drugs and Fatherhood. Pushing through jetlag after an assignment in the Himalayas, he spoke to The Globe and Mail about how he got hooked, how he got clean and why parenting is the most hard-core thing he's ever done.
Your book deals with your self-image as a new dad and your need to go wild with alcohol and drugs. You were 33, not exactly young. What made fatherhood so uncool?
It was my own messed-up view of parenthood - that it was almost as bad as moving to the suburbs. Having kids was really a concession to joining the mainstream that I'd always conceptualized myself in opposition to. And in a lot of ways the public perception of fatherhood exists in opposition to the public perception of masculinity, where one is wild and one is tamed.
Smoking crack is an extreme reaction. How did other guys in your crowd adjust to being dads?
Most of them adjusted far better than I did. [But]there's a lot of binge-drinking going on on Friday nights.
What would have prepared you for fatherhood?
Maybe I should have read the books that my wife plied me with. But reading those fathering books would have meant embracing the fact that my life was changing and I was so not ready to confront that. I tried to convince myself that my freedom hadn't, to a large extent, disappeared.
You identify with Han Solo - the "gifted bum." Why is it important for you to be exceptional?
I was always told I was exceptional. I think that's part of it, and being in gifted programs - maybe not wanting to give that up.
You quit drugs when Myron was a toddler. What took you so long to choose your son over crack?
It took me a long time to recognize that the choice was going the other way. Once I started realizing that, it was an easy choice to make.
What was the hardest part of your book to write?
That one part where I did crack while I was watching my son. That was the final thing I had to confront before I realized, yeah dude, you are messed up, and dude, you have to make huge changes in your life to ever be the sort of parent you want to be. Easily it's the most revolting part of the book. Getting that out there was a way to liberate myself from the power of that secret.
You refer to your "problems" or "troubles" with crack but never call yourself an addict. Why?
It was ego. I recognize that now. It's a real concession to your own failings to ever label yourself an addict.
Members of Narcotics Anonymous might consider this book an elaborate rationalization for drug abuse.
Rationalization is a step in the coping process. I'm progressing. It's slow. The public release of what amounts to my darkest secret is yet another stage. I look at the perfect creatures that are my children and think of the dangers that I put my perfect son through. It's terrible.
Do you attend 12-step meetings?
No. Maybe I should.
How do you express your rebellious side now?
I'm still struggling with that. For a couple of weeks I started skateboarding again - trying to see whether I could maybe take it up as a hobby - and basically concussed myself on a 12-foot half-pipe. Parenting is one of the hardest things you can do if you embrace it, so maybe it's the most hard-core thing I've ever done. I play soccer, I run when I get the chance, and spend as much time as I can with my kids.
What do you think your kids will learn by reading about your crack habit?
I hope it comes through how much I love them. I don't know what I'm going to say [when they read the book]but I have about 10 years to think about it.
Why did your parents have to learn about your drug abuse from an early plug of your book in this newspaper?
That was my own lack of courage.
How about your marriage - what's it like now?
We're still working through this. Ask me in two years.
How long has it been since you quit drinking and doing drugs?
Crack, two-and-a-half years. The last time I had a couple of drinks, it was a year and a bit. I kind of experimented with a couple of beers at my brother-in-law's wedding and realized very quickly that it was dangerous, and dude, this is a total permanent ban. In some ways, having a coke problem as a middle-aged father in Toronto is not that rebellious - it makes you a cliché. But being a dad who has successfully dealt with it and who is stone-cold sober and hard-core about it is perhaps the more exceptional thing.
This interview has been condensed and edited.