Interview by Craig Wilson – USA Today
David Sheff makes a ‘Clean’ sweep of addiction
The author, who wrote a memoir about his son’s drug problem, is back to argue that substance abuse is an illness.
Q: First off, how’s Nic (now 30) doing these days?
A: Miraculously, he’s doing just great. He’s sober now for about five years, which is the most important thing after his struggles of a decade. He’s in L.A., doing lots of fun stuff.
Q: You look back now and wonder what you’d do differently with Nic, asking yourself, “How could I have…” over and over. What’s the answer to that question? Was there a co-dependence?
A: Yes, in a word. I think I definitely was in denial for a long, long time. Parents like me are wired for denial because it’s just too scary to acknowledge our kids are on the descent.
Q: A lot of people still don’t believe addiction is a disease, but a moral failing. You don’t.
A: I don’t. It took me awhile. I felt that he should just stop, especially when it was becoming life-threatening. It didn’t make any sense. I thought he was making a choice. But I know now it’s a disease. You can’t just stop.
Q: You say we need to fix what’s wrong in an addict’s life in order to fix his addiction. Easier said than done, no?
A: It is. But it’s required. One of the things I discovered is that the reason they have a drug addiction is because they’re using drugs to either escape from or treat other problems in their lives. Whether it’s stress or mental illness or some trauma.
Q: You admit that addiction isn’t curable, but it can be controlled. With drugs, even?
A: Yes. What scientists have learned is that addiction is a chronic illness, which means that even after it’s treated, someone is susceptible to relapse for the rest of their lives. Many people need these medications, and many illnesses respond to medications. Many of them work. Many take away the cravings.
Q: You’re not a big fan of 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. Why?
A: I actually am a fan of the program. They’ve saved many lives. But I do criticize the insistence that some programs require participation in 12 steps, as if it’s the only way, and it’s not. That view kills people.
Q: Why are young kids so strongly drawn to drugs?
A: Kids’ brains are developing with that part of the brain that is all about pleasure- seeking and impulsivity. It develops faster than the part of the brain that regulates that. It’s stressful to grow up, and kids feel more comfortable in their own skin with drugs.
Q: And how can their parents, like you, be so clueless about what’s going on right before their eyes?
A: Part of it is we’re not educated and we don’t know what to look for. We don’t take it that seriously. But the other piece is that denial is such a powerful force.
Q: What are some of the warning signs parents can look for?
A: I would say dramatic and troubling behavior. If you think something’s wrong, something’s wrong. If the kid is stressed out, withdrawn, less communicative. I think those are the warning signs. Drops in their academic performance, too.
Q: A relapse is not a failure, just a part of recovery?
A: Yes. Relapse is very dangerous. However, relapse can be a symptom of the disease. Sometimes there are multiple relapses before you get sober and stay sober.
Q: You say that nine out of 10 people who become addicted began using before 18, and if you get to 21 without ever using, it’s certain you never will. Can that be true?
A: Well, there are still no guarantees, but adults getting addicted are far more rare.
Q: An addict’s brain is different from birth? How so?
A: There is a different response to chemicals. Variations in the system. That’s why of the 10 kids who are smoking a joint, nine will be fine. The one has a brain wired differently.
Q: Interventions — yes or no?
A: If necessary, with the guidance of the trained psychologist. But in the wrong hands, it can be dangerous.
Q: The cold-turkey approach — dangerous?
A: Well, yes. There’s an idea that they have to pay for their sins and go into withdrawal. But it’s not necessary. And they can die.
Q: And you don’t believe in the tough-love approach, either?
A: No, I don’t believe in tough love. I just believe in love.
Q: Or group therapy? You say lots of therapists don’t know what they’re doing and do more harm.
A: That’s right.
Q: Why do you think medical schools don’t deal with substance abuse much?
A: They’re behind the curve. Until recently, the medical community hasn’t signed on to the fact that addiction is a disease. Many doctors are stuck in the idea that addiction is a choice, and they don’t treat that.
Q: What one thing do you want people to take away from this book?
A: That addicts are ill. If someone you love had cancer, say, you’d go see a doctor. And this is the same. Go see a doctor.
Q: Binge drinking, followed by the rash of recent car accidents involving teens, is a big problem. So, back to the parents again. What can they do?
A: Kids have to be educated. Parents have to pay close attention and monitor them. There are rules and expectations, with clear repercussions. Some parents want to be popular, but that’s not their job.
Q: Did you ever in your wildest dreams think addiction was going to become your life’s work?
A: Not a clue!