There’s a moment in “Beautiful Boy,” the acclaimed new made-for-Amazon film, when a crystal-meth addict (Timothée Chalamet in a Golden Globe-nominated performance) phones his father (Steve Carell) from God-knows where while on a bender. He begs his dad for help.
Carell’s character refuses the request, telling his son that he must find that help on his own. Then he hangs up and weeps uncontrollably.The movie is based on author David Sheff’s 2008 memoir, “My Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction.”
Sheff, 63, and his son, Nic, 36, will appear at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center on Thursday, Jan. 17, to discuss how exactly they got to that heartbreaking point a decade ago, and how they managed to get beyond it. It's part of a national tour promoting a new book they co-authored together, “High: Everything You Want to Know About Drugs, Alcohol, and Addiction,” signed copies of which will be available at the La Jolla event.
The Light spoke to both of them last week on a conference call.
How did you feel watching the movie for the first time?
David: “We were at the Toronto Film Festival and I will tell you that it was devastating. Even though we lived the horror of all those years when Nic was addicted and almost died many times, it was different watching it. It was just really bleak for me. But, at the same time, it was a reminder of how really, really lucky we are, you know? We came so close to losing him.”
What was the worst moment of this ordeal?
David: “It’s hard to choose one, because over 10 years, you’re on this nightmarish roller coaster, hearing from the doctor in an emergency room: ‘You’d better get down here, because we don’t know if he’s going to make it.’ Not knowing where he was for days, staying up all night, never sleeping. My wife and I would be sitting up all night on the phone, calling police and emergency rooms. It was one thing after another after another. Every relapse was devastating. Every time I thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. Harder drugs, more dangerous combinations of drugs, more dangerous consequences.”
Do you think you did anything wrong as a parent?
David: “Uh, yeah. I did the best I could. I didn’t know. I was really young. But I made a lot of mistakes. One of the things was that Nic’s mom and I got divorced when he was really young. And looking back, I realize that it was a very selfish act to put Nic in the middle of a really difficult no-win situation, and I wish I had done that better. I was not proud of that at all.”
Nic: “But one of the things we learned through this process is that addiction really is an equal-opportunity destroyer. It doesn’t matter what socioeconomic or cultural background you’re from. It affects people with all different kinds of life experiences. A lot of times, there’s also a genetic component. My grandfather on my mom’s side drank himself to death. But then there are people I know who are sober who have no one in their family who are addicts. So it’s really hard to tell what’s going to be that perfect storm that’s going to make someone end up having problems with drugs and alcohol.
So, at least from my perspective, there’s nothing that my parents did that made me an addict. Looking back, I could have gotten help earlier, but we just didn’t have that information. And that’s one of things we’re doing with our new book is trying to help get that information out to people.”
David: “That was a huge one — to get help earlier and to realize how much trouble he was in or we were in. But it’s not like I’m beating myself up. We just didn’t know. One of the confusing things, for kids and for parents, is that it’s not just darkness. There are periods of relapse, which are devastating, but there are periods of recovery, where life goes back to normal, and we had so many joyful, positive times with this amazing kid.
We went to San Diego all the time. In fact, we stayed in La Jolla. Nic took a summer program at Scripps (Institution of Oceanography) and we would go down to surf at Black’s Beach. The first time we went, we didn’t realize it was a nude beach, but we found out (laughs).”
Nic, do you regret trying crystal meth for the first time?
“Yeah, definitely. I didn’t know anything about it when I first did it. It was before ‘Breaking Bad.’ I tried what I was told was just speed. Whatever my brain chemistry is, that drug really was the perfect fit for me and I was instantly addicted. And I spent seven years chasing that initial high. But looking back, I can see that my problem really started way before that. From the moment I started smoking pot and drinking, my relationship with drugs and alcohol was different from my peers’. When I was 11, my friend and I were up at his ski cabin and we stole little bits of alcohol from all these bottles in the liquor cabinet. We were drinking this combination and my friend drank a little bit and stopped. He said, ‘That’s disgusting.’ But for me, I liked the feeling that it gave me even then, so I drank the whole bottle and it made me sick the whole night.”
David, at a particularly low point, the movie shows you trying meth. Did that really happen?
“That did not happen. That was creative license. I never would have done it then, because I was so out of control and desperate to get some control over this situation that was so chaotic, that the idea of doing anything that put me out even more was not conceivable. But I know why they did it. I talked to the director about it. He wanted to, in a very quick moment, show how desperate the dad is to try to understand what is going on with his son, who has transformed himself into this unrecognizable person — just to understand why he’s doing this. It didn’t happen, but I think it communications that desperation.”
Nic, did you ever resent your dad for turning your personal tragedy into a writing project?
“The way this whole thing started is my dad approached me when I had been sober for about a year, about writing an article for the New York Times magazine about his experience being the parent of a crystal-meth addict. At the time, I just felt like we’d been through such hell, that if there’s any way that our experience could help people not to feel alone or give some information to people that they didn’t have, that would be valuable. So he had my blessing to write about our experience from the beginning.”
Nic, how much time do you have sober?
Nic: “I just celebrated 9 years in December.”
Nic, how do you think you’re alive now?
Nic: “Some of it is luck. There’s no reason that I survived when other people didn’t. I’ve had so many friends and love ones who died of this disease, and there’s really nothing that separates me from them. The thing is that I feel really lucky about is that I got to a certain point where I was so desperate that I was willing to do anything that was suggested. So I started working hard to figure out how to fight this thing. And I had a lot of support and a lot of great mentors, and I think all of that contributed to me being able to get and stay sober for this amount of time.”
David: “A lot of it is luck. But there also is the reality is that Nic just worked really hard, over the course of years, to get well. He also worked hard to repair the damage that had occurred in our family, which is why I think everybody in our family would say that we’re closer than ever and just appreciate each other.”
Nic, how sure are you that it worked permanently?
Nic: “For me, recovery is a daily process. There are things I have to do every day to maintain my sobriety. It’s just like with any chronic illness. You have to be vigilant and take your medication, in whatever form that takes. For me, I go to meetings, I work with a psychiatrist. I work with other addicts. It is something that is very much a part of my life on a daily basis. But I don’t fight cravings anymore. When I wake up in the morning, I feel a lot of joy, and it’s really the little things in life that I’ve come to love and appreciate more than anything.”
IF YOU GO: David and Nic Sheff will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17 at the David & Dorothea Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, 4216 Executive Drive. Admission is free but tickets are required to enter. (858) 457-3030, www.sdcjc.org.