Posted by: counselorcarmella | May 24, 2012

Thoughts on “Tweak” by Nic Sheff

I’m not an alcohol and drug counselor.  Reading books like “Tweak:  Growing Up on Methamphetamines” reminds me all over again why I  don’t want to be. I have tremendous respect for those willing to do this kind of work, whether in  hospital, residential, or outpatient settings, but I  don’t think I could ever be one of them.  I know enough to assess and refer and provide some basic information, and that’s pretty much it. 
 
 I don’t read very many  “I was a drug  addict/alcoholic and now I’m clean” books but I have read a few. I approach  drug related memoirs, the people who write them, and addicts in general,  with healthy skepticism.  I read  “A Million Little Pieces” a few years ago.  I wasn’t nearly as surprised as Oprah when it came out that James Frye had made stuff up, lied, dramatized, or whatever you want to call it. As far as being a compelling read, though, “A Million Little Pieces” was one.  “Tweak” is also one.  With both books, I’d almost like to believe a lot of the story is not true.  Hard core drug addiction isn’t pretty at all and it would be nice to hide behind the idea that its not really that bad, that everyone who writes about such things exagerates for dramatic effect.  I think it is that bad, though, and don’t believe everyone  exagerates. 
 
First of all, the title (Tweak:  Growing Up on Methamphetamines) is misleading.  Nic Sheff didn’t just use meth.  Nic Sheff used pretty much anything and everything.  If he could  snort it,  inject it, swallow it, or smoke it, Nic Sheff did.  Illegal, prescription, upper, downer, whatever.   He did everything I’ve ever heard of and a few things I  hadn’t. He did a lot of drugs and he did drugs a lot.  He didn’t dabble or experiment or use occasionally. Once a teenaged Nic Sheff got into drugs, it didn’t take long for things to get completely out of control.  The thing is, according to Nic Sheff, meth was always his favorite, the one that really took him down, the one he loved the high from,  and  what he was most likely to relapse on. 
 
Nic Sheff  was a brilliant kid with a promising future before he  got into drugs.  He had problems early on related to his parents’ marriage  breaking up, but he had  money and brains and  goals for himself. Even  the opportunity to write “Tweak” in the first place came about because he and his family had connections. That seems  kind of unfair but such is life and that’s how it goes for the rich and famous.  Like James Frye’s story, “Tweak” became a New York Times best-seller. Like James Frye, Nic was on Oprah.  Pretty nice, right? Nic’s story is no less important because  of this, though.  “Tweak,”  his follow up memoir “We All Fall Down,” and his articles  for  TheFix.com are extremely important writings about  addiction, treatment,  and the entire recovery field. I hope he keeps using his influence for good.   
 
Sheff writes in present tense and in  conversational language.  His writing isn’t polished by any means.  It kind of reads like the writings of an adolescent.  Nic was only 23 when”Tweak” was published and years of drug use probably have him several years behind developmentally. So maybe that writing style is natural for him, but I also figure his  editors kept it on purpose.  He writes that way on  TheFix.com, too. I think his youth and writing style make him someone a lot of younger people can relate to.  They might read Nic Sheff when they  wouldn’t read other materials about substance abuse.  I actually found out about “Tweak” because one of my adolescent clients was reading it for school.  I’d love to think this book will scare teens into never  trying, or  immediately stopping, drugs or alcohol.  Who would want to  end up in some of the places Nic Sheff ended up, after all?  Teenagers are notorious for thinking they’ll be the exception to all rules, though.  No one sets out to become an addict and everyone thinks they’ll be different.
 
For those who have a hard time with swearing, you also need to know that Nic Sheff curses like a sailor.  Both the language and the writing style are also  the same in the articles  he’s written for online resource TheFix.com, which describes itself as a  site about addiction and recovery “straight up.”
 
There is  no sugar coating whatsoever in “Tweak;”  Nic  gives specific details that  force the reader to  deal with his realities head on.  He talks about  digging for veins with needles, selling or trading his body for  drugs, the chemical  aftertaste of “crystal,” and  injecting himself with a substance that looks like tar (aka heroine).  He talks about crawling on the floor trying to find tiny pieces of crack rock when he runs out.  Nic  describes drug-enduced episodes of psychosis, paranoia, and hallucinations. He talks about shooting up, going into convulsions, and then shooting up again.  He  talks about   using, passing out, throwing up, passing out, then throwing up again and then using again.   He talks about how meth turns your  feces into “cement on your insides.” He describes stealing from his own family, living in his  car,  prostituting himself, and what its truly like when  getting and staying high is all you live for. He did rehab, 12 step programs, and  counseling over and over again. Nic Sheff even worked at an upscale California rehab facility for a while.  He lost that job, and various others, due to  his drug use, of course. He’d clean up, get a sponsor,  start exercising and getting healthy, and  try and rebuild bridges with loved ones  only to  go back to drugs and unhealthy relationships with women just as screwed up as he was.   
 
It was a relief to finish this book.  I wanted to just not finish it several times and made myself keep reading. The hopelessness and desperation were so obvious and almost overwhelming. Its painful to read.  I had to take a break from  it for as long as several days a couple times due to  the impact the book was having on my own emotions.  When I did read  it, I could only read so much at once without  feeling buried under the  weight of the story.  Oppressive really is the right word here. It was  truly horrible and horrifying. It almost made me ill at times.  It is by no means a light or easy read.  Nic plunges the reader into the depths of  human dysfunction and  pointlessness.  It is  revolting, crushing, and  so very disturbing.  I’ve never read a book that  made me feel those things so intensely. 
 
If I felt those things reading it, that doesn’t begin to touch what he and his “friends” and associates must have felt living it.  Of course, they did so much stuff just to  not  face or feel the reality of what their lives were.  It all has to be  confronted at some point though, for those who want to clean up and stay clean. I honestly don’t  know how anyone manages to do it.  Not  after  putting themselves and others through so many horrible  experiences. Its amazing to me that more  people in Nic’s situation don’t purposefully kill themselves because they’re so sick and so  hopeless and so enslaved to  drugs.  One of the comments Nic makes is that suicide is said to be a permanent solution to temporary problems but that  the condition of being human  and facing life can  feel like a permanent problem.  I’m not saying suicide is the answer for anyone.  Help is ALWAYS available.  I’m just saying that recovering from addiction and facing one’s own  truly horrible behaviors  has to be one of the hardest things on earth to do.     
 
This young man is lucky to be alive. Nic Sheff should be  dead twenty times over from drugs,  unsafe sex with  all kinds of  partners,getting stabbed or shot for  crossing really scary people,  dirty needles,  driving while  under the influence of  God knows what so many times, and any number of other things. I couldn’t believe how  he  and his friends spent day after day just  constantly doing whatever was available substance wise, days without eating or sleeping. He talks about having to give a girlfriend CPR because she’d stopped breathing at one point. He talks  about almost losing  an arm after   letting an infection  from a dirty needle go untreated. I just can’t wrap my brain around that kind of life and how  one’s body can  be subjected to  that kind of treatment for hours, much less weeks, months, and even years.  Its amazing how close a person can come to dying so many times due to drug use, how a person can  live so close to  dying for so long and  still not die.  I’m struck by how  hard the body fights to  continue functioning in the face of  mind-boggling abuse. 
 
Whatever their own problems were, Nic’s parents obviously loved him.  When he   needed help, they  tried to help him get it.  They set boundaries about money or letting him live with them, though, and  waved the BS flag when  they saw it. He lied and  conned them  over and over, and would fall off the radar for periods of time.  I’m sure his family gave him up for dead more than once and braced themselves for that phone call every day at times. 
 
I have so much compassion for families in their situation. They live with so much fear when someone is as  completely lost as Nic  often was.  They hope for recovery  but don’t want to hope too much.  They’re braced for the worst, exhausted,  and struggle so much with  the tug of war of love and disappointment on a continual basis.  They want to  help but aren’t sure what is helpful or harmful and addicts are such  manipulative liars and con artists. Its hard to imagine how difficult that must be.
 
Nic’s parents loved him, but they   didn’t trust him.  When he was clean, they   seemed afraid to hope he’d stay that way and there were plenty of times when he didn’t. His Dad wrote his own book about being the father of an addict called “Beautiful Boy.”  I’ll write about it once I’ve read it.
 
As so many addicts do, Sheff got angry with his parents when they wouldn’t do what he wanted or when they voiced concerns about his choices. He would accuse them of not understanding.  They understood all too well sometimes. Like so many addicts, he pulled away from  family and friends who loved him enough to be honest and set limits. He turned away  from them and towards people who  were too messed up to have his best  interests in mind and  who were companions on the road to destruction.  It seems that part of his recovery (as is so often the case) has been about  understanding what makes relationships healthy or unhealthy. He  obviously has guilt and regret about many relationships.    
 
Nic’s  Dad tells him at one point that he’s like a baby who has to learn to hold its head up, roll over, crawl, and so on. I think that’s a good analogy for those who have struggled with  major substance issues for  any extended period of time. They have to learn how to relate to life and the world as a sober person, coping skills so that they’ll know what to do when they face stressful  situations, and social skills without the crutch of alcohol or other drugs. People who started using a lot in their teens can  be emotionally stunted to an extent maturity wise and have to catch up.  They  don’t always know how to make the best decisions while their brains are detoxing  and  while their  brains are still trying to figure out how to get what they still think they need to survive.  It takes a while to be able to  stand up and stay on one’s feet without help.  It takes a lot more to stay steady over time and  there  are still times when  support from others is crucial. 
 
Nic Sheff has continued to relapse since writing “Tweak,” but he says it has never been to the “rock bottom” extent he describes in this book. The most  it seems he’s been able to stay clean  is  maybe three or four years. I remain skeptical that he’ll stay clean.  I hope he does, but if history predicts future,  I am cautious in my optimism.
 
Nic never completely embraced the 12 step model of recovery and still struggles with the Higher Power issue to an extent.  James Frye took issue with that  part, as well.  I’m sure many do.  There’s still a sense that he tries to do recovery his own way.  I’m not sure how well that works. I do understand that different approaches work for different people and that there is usually something gained from each   experience trying to  achieve and maintain sobriety. It is worth  noting that, like many people, Nic also had a mental illness that went undiagnosed for  years.  Chances are  that his drug abuse may have been  about self medicating to  a large extent.  His  NA sponsor was anti psychiatric medication, as is often the case, but Nic  continues to  talk about how it helps him.  He is also involved in on-going counseling and  group programs to help him maintain sobriety.  My article about the “Double Trouble” program talks more about  the  common problem of co occurring substance and mental health disorders.  I hope the appropriate use of psych meds and  counseling will help Nic stay clean and  to grow more and more healthy emotionally.
 
I am pretty sure that, whatever happens,  Nic Sheff will write about it and  talk about what he’s learned from each experience.  His writings are thought-provoking and compelling. His voice is a relevant and powerful one.     
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