What I Learned from “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff

When you live in a well-off community, it’s all too easy to ignore the reality of drug addiction. We look at the two thousand homeless addicts in Vancouver with contempt or with pity, but very rarely with understanding. Some vote for politicians who advocate harsh minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders. Some comment that drug users “leech off of society.” The overarching problem seems to be our unwillingness to attempt to understand what life really looks like for individuals suffering from drug addictions. When Beautiful Boy by David Sheff (2008) was published, it dismantled this narrow view  through treating drug addiction as what it is: a complex and deep-rooted societal problem that cannot be solved by quick and easy policy solutions. It tells the true story of a youth whose life changes dramatically due to a methamphetamine addiction, from the point of view of his father. Apart from being a well-written and compelling read, the novel alters the reader’s outlook on the nature of addiction through explaining the physiological side of addiction and how that relates to choice, humanizing addicts, explaining rehabilitation processes, and commenting on how families cope with addiction problems.

I think most people, on some level, make the assumption that drug addiction results from a choice made by the individual. This book changed my conception of choice as it relates to drug addiction. In the instance of Nic, the youth addict in the book, using methamphetamine isn’t really a choice at all: a choice that he makes during his teenage years launches him into a reality of being controlled by substances, a reality that he didn’t understand or consent to he was first exposed to drugs. From a scientific perspective, methamphetamine is among the most addictive stimulants because, after only a few uses, it alters the central nervous system’s functions, making the body less receptive to dopamine. As a result, the user feels as though they require the boost of stimulation they get from the drug, and goes into significant withdrawal without it. Moreover, while high, the person’s conscious mind is suppressed by the body’s immediate physiological need for drugs, meaning that while under the influence, they become possessed, in a sense, by an entirely different person. In the case of the book, while at a fairly young age the boy makes the impulsive choice to experiment with drugs to begin with, from that point on the actions he chooses to make to obtain drugs aren’t really free choices at all. 

Another takeaway of the book is an explanation of how rehabilitation works for highly addictive substances such as meth, and why rehabilitation is not a simple or quick solution. Prior to reading this book, rehabilitation seemed like a magical process through which individuals could be transformed back to their vibrant, healthy, past selves. The novel is a more realistic estimation of how rehab works. Nic attends several rehabilitation programs, some willingly, some because his family intervenes. But even though he has many periods of time when he stays clean from drugs and returns to a more sustainable lifestyle, he also has phases of relapses between these as well. The key message here is that, especially for highly addictive drugs like meth, more than one round of rehabilitation is often required. The other lesson is that an individual who has gone through rehabilitation can’t always be expected to automatically become the person they were before their addiction — some of the changes that accompany addictions are irreversible. With some drugs, like meth, there may be damage, both to the brain and to the body, that cannot be repaired. In terms of the implications for drug-related policy, the liberal end of the political spectrum is probably better for drug users in that it attempts to fund services such as rehabilitation, but even still, most liberal policy makers view rehabilitation as a one-time solution rather than a gradual and lengthy process. 

The book also challenged my perceptions of addiction through the exploration of dynamics within families of drug abusers. Because the book is written from the point of view of a parent, there is an in-depth look into the emotions that come with having a child with an addiction. At the beginning of the book, when the son first becomes addicted to meth, David Sheff, the father, feels responsible for his son’s addiction. He searches constantly for flaws in his parenting that led Nic to drugs, and his life becomes an obsession with trying to fix his son’s life. The shift in perspective occurs after his son hides crystal meth in his younger sister’s music box, an act of desecration towards his childhood. It teaches him that the actions Nic takes while he’s high aren’t representative of his “real” self, the child that David raised. David also comes to the realization that addiction has taken away some parts of his son for good, and that through allowing himself to grieve those parts, he can come to a stage of acceptance. The other lesson is that because of his inability to let go of his child, he’s missing out on other parts of his life — hobbies, work, and most importantly, the rest of his family. Though this is an extreme scenario, it is in some ways reflective of the way all parents must eventually let their children make their own choices. 

Beautiful Boy leaves the reader with many questions. Who is to blame for the thousands who die namelessly from drug-related deaths? Is it the individuals who are truly responsible for their addictions, or are they coerced by physiological reactions? Can we point our fingers at bad parenting decisions or not enough drug lectures? Maybe the culprit is an education system that contributes to the disconnect between youth and communities, or a criminal justice system that is harsh and unsympathetic. In the end, the truth is that there is no simple solution to drug addiction. But what this book has taught me is that the effort to empathize with the everyday struggles that addiction presents can go a long way towards changing our outlook on drugs and helping the next generation.

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