Pubdate: Sun, 10 Feb 2008
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: David Sheff


Cautionary Tales About My Own Dabbling With Drugs May Only Have 
Fuelled My Son's Terrifying Descent

One windy day in May 2002, my young children, Jasper and Daisy, who 
were eight and five years old, spent the morning colouring welcome 
banners for their brother's home-coming. They had not seen Nic, who 
was arriving from college for the summer, in six months. In the 
afternoon, we all drove to the airport to pick him up.

At home in Inverness, north of San Francisco, Nic, who was then 19, 
lugged his duffel bag into his old bedroom. He unpacked and emerged 
with his arms loaded with gifts. Nic was a playful and affectionate 
big brother to Jasper and Daisy - when he wasn't robbing them.

Late that night, I heard the creaking of bending tree branches. I 
also heard Nic padding along the hallway, making tea in the kitchen. 
I worried about his insomnia but pushed away my suspicions, instead 
reminding myself how far he had come. As far as we knew, he was 
approaching his 150th day without methamphetamine.

In the morning, Nic shuffled into the kitchen. His skin was 
rice-papery and gaunt, his body vibrated like an idling car, his jaw 
gyrated and his eyes were darting opals. He made plans with the kids 
for after school and gave them hugs. When they were gone, I said, "I 
know you're using again."

He glared at me: "What are you talking about? I'm not." "Then you 
won't mind being drug-tested."

"Whatever." When Nic next emerged from his bedroom, his pack was 
slung over his back. He left the house, slamming the door behind him.

Nic now claims that he was searching for methamphetamine for his 
entire life, and when he tried it for the first time, as he says, 
"That was that." It would have been no easier to see him strung out 
on heroin or cocaine, but as every parent of a meth addict comes to 
learn, this drug has a unique, horrific quality. Users become 
paranoid, incoherent and both destructive and pathetically 
self-destructive. Nic had always been a sensitive, sagacious, joyful 
and exceptionally bright child, but on meth he became unrecognisable.

Nic's mother and I were attentive, possibly overly attentive, but his 
first years were idyllic. Then his mother and I divorced when he was 
four years old. No child benefits from the bitterness and savagery of 
a divorce like ours. Nic was hit hard. The effects lingered well 
after his mother and I settled on a joint-custody arrangement and, 
later, after we both remarried.

Throughout his youth, I talked to Nic about drugs, warning him. But 
when he was 12, I discovered some marijuana in his backpack. I met 
with his teacher, who said: "It's normal. Most kids try it." Nic 
promised that he would not use it again. Two years later, however, he 
was suspended from high school for a day for buying pot and was 
forced to undergo a day at a drug-and-alcohol programme. After that 
he had two productive and, as far as I know, drug-free years.

However, a few weeks after Nic graduated from high school, two county 
sheriff's patrol cars pulled up at our house. A pair of uniformed 
officers approached Nic, handcuffed his wrists, pushed him into one 
of the squad cars and drove away. The arrest was a result of Nic's 
failure to appear in court after being cited for marijuana 
possession, an infraction he "forgot" to tell me about. Still, I 
bailed him out, confident that the arrest would teach him a lesson. 
Any fear or remorse he felt was short-lived, however, blotted out by 
a new drug - crystal methamphetamine.

When I was a child, my parents implored me to stay away from drugs. I 
dismissed them, because they didn't know what they were talking 
about. They were - still are - teetotallers. I, on the other hand, 
knew about drugs, including methamphetamine. One evening in the early 
1970s, my college roommate arrived home and poured out a mound of 
crystalline powder. While arranging the powder in parallel rails, he 
explained that our drug dealer had been out of cocaine. In its place 
he purchased crystal methamphetamine.

I snorted the lines. The chemical burned my nasal passages, my eyes 
watered. Methamphetamine triggers the brain's neuro-transmitters, 
particularly dopamine. The drug destroys the receptors and as a 
result may, over time, permanently reduce dopamine levels, sometimes 
leading to symptoms normally associated with Parkinson's disease such 
as tremors and muscle twitches. Meth can also cause irreversible 
damage to blood vessels in the brain, which can lead to strokes. It 
can cause arrhythmia and cardiovascular collapse as well, possibly 
leading to death. But I felt fantastic.

Methamphetamine remains active for 10 to 12 hours, compared with 45 
minutes for cocaine. By dawn, I felt bleak, depleted and agitated. I 
went to bed and eventually slept for a full day, blowing off school.

I never touched methamphetamine again, but my roommate returned to 
the dealer, and his meth run lasted for two weeks. Not long 
afterwards, he moved away and we lost touch. I later learnt that 
after college his life was defined by drugs. He died on the eve of 
his 40th birthday.

When I told Nic cautionary stories like this, I thought that I might 
have some credibility. I have heard drug counsellors tell parents of 
my generation to lie to our children about our past drug use. Maybe I 
should have - part of me feels solely responsible for what has 
happened to Nic - and yet I also sense that his course was determined 
by his first puff of pot and sealed with the first hit of speed.

When Nic's therapist said that college would straighten him out, I 
wanted to believe him. When change takes place gradually, it's 
difficult to comprehend its meaning. At what point is a child no 
longer experimenting, no longer a typical teenager, no longer going 
through a phase or a rite of passage? I am astounded - no, appalled - 
by my ability to deceive myself into believing that everything would 
turn out all right in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary.

At the University of California at Berkeley, Nic almost immediately 
began dealing to pay for his escalating meth habit. After three 
months he dropped out, claiming that he had to pull himself together. 
I encouraged him to check into a drug-rehabilitation facility but he 
refused. (He was over 18 and I could not commit him.) Then he 
disappeared. I called emergency rooms and police stations, to no 
avail. I didn't sleep. When Nic finally called after a week, his 
voice trembled. It nonetheless brought a wave of relief - he was 
alive. I drove to meet him in an alleyway. My son, the svelte and 
muscular swimmer with an ebullient smile, was bruised, sallow, skin 
and bone, and his eyes were vacant black holes. Ill and rambling, he 
spent the next three days curled up in bed.

I knew that I had to do everything possible to get Nic into a 
drug-rehabilitation programme and used what was left of my waning 
influence - the threat of kicking him out of the house and 
withdrawing all of my financial support - to get him to commit 
himself into a well-respected programme in San Francisco.

Nic trembled when I dropped him off. Driving home afterwards, I felt 
as if I would collapse from more emotion than I could handle. 
Incongruously, I felt as if I had betrayed him, though I did take 
some small consolation in the fact that I knew where he was; for the 
first time in a while, I slept through the night.

Nic's counsellor reported that he was surly, depressed and 
belligerent, threatening to run away, but by the fourth and final 
week, he seemed open and apologetic. He said that he knew that he 
needed more time in treatment, and so we agreed to his request to 
move into a transitional residential program. He did, and then three 
days later he bolted. Once again I called the police and hospital. I 
didn't hear anything for a week. When Nic finally called, I told him 
that he had two choices: another try at rehab or the streets.

After a month in the new program, Nic once again seemed determined to 
stay away from drugs. He applied to a number of small schools on the 
east coast. His transcripts were still good enough for him to be 
accepted at the colleges to which he applied, and he selected 
Hampshire, in western Massachusetts.

In spite of his protestations and maybe (though I'm not sure) his 
good intentions and in spite of his room in substance-free housing, 
Nic didn't stand a chance. After a few weeks he stopped returning my 
phone calls and I assumed that he had relapsed. I later learnt that 
Nic had supplemented methamphetamine with heroin and morphine 
because, he explained, at the time meth was scarce in western Massachusetts.

I prepared to follow through on my threat and stop paying his tuition 
unless he returned to rehab, but I called a health counsellor, who 
advised patience, saying that often "relapse is part of recovery". A 
few days later, Nic called and told me that he would stop using. He 
kept in close touch and got through the year, doing well in his 
classes, newly in love with a girl who drove him to Narcotics 
Anonymous. His home-coming was marked by trepidation, but also 
promise, which is why it was so devastating when we discovered the truth.

When Nic left, I sunk into a sickeningly familiar malaise, 
alternating with a debilitating panic. One morning, Jasper came into 
the kitchen, holding a satin box in which he kept his savings of $8. 
Jasper looked perplexed. "I think Nic took my money," he said. How do 
you explain to an eight-year-old why his beloved big brother steals from him?

A fortnight later, Nic wrote an e-mail to his mother and asked for 
help. After they talked, he agreed to meet with a family friend who 
took him to her home in upstate New York, where he could detox. After 
six weeks he seemed stronger and somewhat less desolate. His mother 
helped him move into an apartment in Brooklyn, and he got a job. He 
stayed sober for almost two years, but then relapsed again, 
disappearing for two weeks.

He was mortified that he had slipped. He redoubled his efforts but 
relapsed again. His mother and I were confused about what to do. Many 
people said we had to let him go. Others said we had to do whatever 
we could to get him back into rehab - if he was willing. In September 
2005 he returned to rehab and has been sober since then. I am 
relieved (once again) and hopeful (once again). Nic has published a 
book entitled Tweak, a candid memoir about his addiction to meth. He 
seems emphatically committed to his sobriety, but I have learnt to 
check my optimism.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake