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Unconditional The story of a father and son

A collection of excerpts from Beautiful Boy: A Father’s journey through his son’s drug addiction and Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines.


I have been here before. Sitting on this same log. But with Nic. More than a decade ago.

My heart pumps and my eyes water. Nic climbed this tree. Climbing, he called to me: Dad, look at me! I’m way up here!

And he absentmindedly sang: All mimsy were the borogroves and raths outgrabe.

He climbed higher up and then began to shimmy out onto a thick branch that reached over the meadow. Look at me, Dad!

I see you. I’m up in the sky.

Fantastic. I’m higher than the clouds.

He slid farther out along the gnarled limb. He sang. A puff of wind shook the tree; its leaves trembled and branches swayed. Suddenly he said, I want to come down,


It’s OK, Nic. You’re fine. Just take it slowly. I can’t, I’m stuck.

Find one foothold at a time. Go slowly. I can’t.

You can.

He wrapped his gangly legs and arms tighter around the wavering tree branch.

I’ll fall.

You won’t. I will.

I stood directly underneath and yelled up to him, You’re fine. Take your time. I said it, but I was thinking, I’ll catch you if you fall. I can’t see you from up here,

he called.

I know, but I can see you. Trust me, I am here.

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You can, I said.


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Part 1

One windy day in May 2002, my young children, Jasper and Daisy, who were eight and five, spent the morning cutting, pasting, and coloring notes and welcome banners for their brother’s homecoming. 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 nineteen, lugged his duffel bag and backpack into his old bedroom. He unpacked and emerged with his arms loaded with gifts. After dinner, he put the kids to bed, reading to them from The Witches by Roald Dahl. We heard his voice — voices — from the next room: the boy narrator, all wonder and earnestness; wry and creaky Grandma; and the shrieking, haggy Grand High Witch. The performance by Nic was irresistible, and the children were riveted. Nic was such a playful and affectionate big brother to Jasper and Daisy


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...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, quietly strumming his guitar and playing Tom Waits, Bjork and Bollywood soundtracks. I worried often about his insomnia, but I pushed away my suspicions, instead reminding myself how far he had come since the previous school year, when he dropped out of Berkeley. This time, he had gone east to college and had made it through his freshman year. Given what we had been through, this felt miraculous. As far as we knew, he was coming up on his 150th day without methamphetamine.

In the morning, Nic, in flannel pajama bottoms and a fraying woolen sweater, shuffled into the kitchen. His skin was rice-papery and gaunt, and his hair was like a field, with smashed-down sienna patches and sticking-up yellowed clumps, a disaster left over from when he tried to bleach it. his brilliant idea was to soak his head in a bowl of Clorox.


Nic hovered over the kitchen counter, fussing with the stove-top espresso maker, filling it with water and coffee and setting it on a flame, and then sat down to

at him. The giveaway was his body, vibrating 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 told him, I know you’re using again. He glared at me: What are you talking about? I’m not. His eyes fixed onto the floor. Then you won’t mind being drug-tested. Whatever. When Nic next emerged from his bedroom, head down, his backpack was slung over his back, and he held his electric guitar by the neck. He left the house, slamming the door behind him. Late that afternoon, Jasper and Daisy burst in, dashing from room to room, before finally asking, Where’s Nic?

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a bowl of cereal with Jasper and Daisy. I stared hard


Nic now claims that he had been searching for crystal 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 methamphetamine addict comes to learn, this drug has a unique, horrific quality. In an interview, Stephan Jenkins, the singer in the band Third Eye Blind, said that methamphetamine makes you feel “all bright and shiny.’’ It also makes you paranoid, incoherent, and both destructive and pathetically and relentlessly selfdestructive. Then you will do unconscionable things in order to feel bright and shiny again. Nic had always always been a sensitive, sagacious, joyful and exceptionally bright child, but on meth he became unrecognizable.

Nic’s mother Vicki and I were attentive, probably overly attentive -- part of the first wave of parents obsessed with our children in a self-conscious way. (Before us, people had kids. We parented.)


Nic spent his first years on walks in his stroller and Snugli, playing in Berkeley parks and baby gyms and visiting zoos and aquariums.

Vicki and I divorced when he was four. No child benefits from the bitterness and savagery of a divorce including ours. Like fallout from a dirty bomb, the collateral damage is widespread and enduring. Nic was hit hard. The effects lingered well after his mother and I settled on a joint-custody arrangement and, later

I was proud of his self-assuredness and individuality as a child. Nic readily rebelled against conventional habit, mores and taste. Still, he could be susceptible to peer pressure. During the brief celebrity of Kris Kross, he wore backward clothes. At eleven, he was hidden inside grungy flannel, shuffling around in Doc Martens. His bangs hung Cobain-like over his eyes.

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after we both remarried.


When I was eleven my family went snowboarding up in Tahoe, and a friend and I snuck into the liquor cabinet after dinner. We poured a little bit from each bottle into a glass, filling it almost three-quarters of the way up with the different colored, sweetsmelling liquid. I was curious to know what it felt like to get good and proper drunk. The taste was awful. My friend drank a little bit and stopped, unable to take anymore. The strange thing was, I couldn’t stop. I drank some and then I just had to drink more until the whole glass was drained empty. I’m not sure why. Something was driving me that I couldn’t identify and still don’t comprehend. Some say it’s in the genes. My grandpa drank himself to death before I was born. I’m told I resemble him more than anyone else; a long face, with eyes like drops of water running down. Anyway, that night I threw up for probably an hour straight and then passed out on the bathroom floor.


discovered a vial of marijuana in his backpack. I met Instead I started smoking pot. with his teacher, who said: “It’s normal. Most kids When I was twelve I was smoking try it.’’ Nic said that it was a mistake -- he had been pot every day -- sneaking off into influenced by a couple of thuggish boys at his new the bushes during recess. And that school -- and he promised that he would not use it pretty much continued through my time again. In his early teens, Nic was into the hippest in high school. music and then grew bored with it. By the time his favorite artists from Guns N’ Roses to Beck to Eminem had a hit record, Nic had discarded them in favor of the obscure, the ultra contemporary or plain bizarre,

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Throughout his youth, I talked to Nic early and I woke up with almost no memory often about drugs in ways now prescribed by the of what I’d done. My excuse for Partnership for a Drug-Free America. I watched for the vomit everywhere was food poi one organization’s early warning signs of teenage soning. It scared me, honestly, alcoholism and drug abuse. (No. 15: “Does your child and I didn’t drink again like that volunteer to clean up after adult cocktail parties, but for a long time. neglect other chores?’’) Indeed, when he was 12, I


an eclectic list that included Coltrane, polka, the I smoked pot every day. I was soundtrack from ‘’The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’’ seventeen and had been accepted and, for a memorable period, samba, to which he at prestigious universities would cha-cha through the living room. His heroes, across the country and I figured including Holden Caulfield and Atticus Finch, were a little partying was due me. replaced by an assortment of misanthropes, addicts, I’d worked hard those last three drunks, depressives and suicides, role models like and a half years. Sure I’d had Burroughs, Bukowski, Cobain, and Hemingway. some problems smoking weed and drinking too much when I was At 14, when he was suspended from high school for younger, but that was all behind a day for buying pot on campus, Nic and my wife me. I was smart. I was on the Karen and I met with the freshman dean. ‘’We view swim team. My writing had been this as a mistake and an opportunity,’’ he explained. published in Newsweek. I was a Nic was forced to undergo a day at a drug-andgreat big brother. I got along alcohol program but was given a second chance. A with my dad and stepmom. I loved teacher took Nic under his wing, encouraging his them. They were some of my best interest in marine biology. He surfed with him and friends. So I just started persuaded him to join the swimming and water-polo smoking some pot and what harm teams. Nic had two productive and, as far as I know, could that do me anyway? Hell, drug-free years. He showed promise as a student my dad used to smoke pot. Most actor, artist and writer. For a series of columns in the everyone in my family did. It school newspaper, he won the Hemingway Writing was totally accepted. Award, and he published a column in Newsweek.


But with me things were different. In high school I was rolling blunts and smoking them in the car as I drove to school. Every break in classes had me driving off to get high. We’d go into the hills of Marin County, dropping acid or eating mushrooms -- walking through the dry grass and overgrown

incoherently. Plus I was drinking more and more, sometimes during the day. I almost always blacked out, so I could remember little to nothing of what’d happened. It just affected me in a way that didn’t seem normal.

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cypress trees, giggling and babbling


After his junior year, Nic attended a summer program in French at the American University of Paris. I now know that he spent most of his time emulating some of his drunken heroes, though he forgot the writing and painting part. His souvenir of his Parisian ssummer was an ulcer. What child has an ulcer at 16?

Back at high school for his senior year, he was still I guess I’ve pretty much spent an honor student, with a nearly perfect grade-point the last four years chasing that average. Even as he applied to and was accepted first high. I wanted desperately at a long list of colleges, one senior-class dean told to feel that wholeness again. me, half in jest, that Nic set a school record for It was like, I don’t know, like tardiness and cutting classes. My wife and I consulted everything else faded out. All a therapist, and a school counselor reassured us: my dreams, my hopes, ambitions, ‘’You’re describing an adolescent. Nic’s candor, relationships -- they all fell unusual especially in boys, is a good sign. Keep away as I took more and more talking it out with him, and he’ll get through this.’’ crystal up my nose. I dropped His high-school graduation ceremony was held out of college twice, my parents outdoors on the athletic field. With his hair freshly kicked me out, and, basically, buzzed, Nic marched forward and accepted his my life unraveled. I broke into diploma from the school head, kissing her cheek. He their house -- I would steal seemed elated. Maybe everything would be all right checks from my father and write after all. Afterward, we invited his friends over for a them out to myself to pay for


barbecue. Later we learned that a boy in jeans and a sport coat had scored some celebratory sensimilla. Nic and his friends left our house for a grad-night bash that was held at a local recreation center, where he tried ecstasy for the first time.

to the beach. The fog had lifted, and I was with my habit. When I had a job at a them in the driveway, helping to pack the car. Two coffee shop, I stole hundreds county sheriff’s patrol cars pulled up. When a pair of dollars from the register. of uniformed officers approached, I thought they Eventually I got arrested for needed directions, but they walked past me and a possession charge. My little headed for Nic. They handcuffed his wrists behind brother and sister watched me his back, pushed him into the back seat of one of get carted away in handcuffs. the squad cars and drove away. Jasper, then 7, was When my then seven-year-old the only one of us who responded appropriately. brother tried to protect me, He wailed, inconsolable for an hour. The arrest running to grab me from the was a result of Nic’s failure to appear in court after armed policemen, they screamed being cited for marijuana possession, an infraction for him to “get back.” His small he ‘’forgot’’ to tell me about. Still, I bailed him out, body crumpled on the asphalt confident that the arrest would teach him a lesson. and he burst into body-shaking Any fear or remorse he felt was short-lived, however, tears, sobbing uncontrollably blotted out by a new drug, crystal methamphetamine. and gasping for breath.

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A few weeks later, my wife planned to take the kids


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Part 2

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 — teetotalers. I, on the other hand, knew about drugs, including methamphetamine. On one Berkeley evening in the early 1970’s, my college roommate arrived home, yanked the thrift-shop mirror off the wall and set it upon a coffee table. He unfolded an origami packet and poured out its contents onto the mirror: a mound of crystalline powder. From his wallet he produced a single-edge razor, with which he chipped the crystals, the steel tapping rhythmically on the glass. While arranging the powder in four parallel rails, he explained that Michael the Mechanic, our drug dealer, had been out of cocaine. In its place, he had purchased crystal methamphetamine.

I snorted the lines through a rolled-up dollar bill. The methamphetamine burned my nasal passages, and my eyes watered like crazy.


When the dawn began to seep through the cracked window blinds, 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 again and again to Michael the Mechanic’s, and his meth run lasted for two weeks. Not long afterward, he moved away, and I lost touch with him. I later learned that after college, his life was defined by his drug abuse. There were voluntary

went up in flames when he fell asleep with a burning cigarette in his mouth, ambulance rides to emergency rooms after overdoses and accidents and multiple incarcerations, both in hospitals and jails. He died on the eve of his 40th birthday.

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and court-ordered rehabs, car crashes, a house that


When I told Nic cautionary stories like this and warned him about crystal, I thought that I might have some credibility. I have heard drug counselors tell parents of my generation to lie to our children about our past drug use. Famous athletes show up at school assemblies or on television and tell kids, “Man, don’t do this stuff, I almost died,’’ and yet there they stand, diamonds, gold, multimillion-dollar salaries and fame. The words: I barely survived. The message: I survived, thrived and you can, too. Kids see that their parents turned out all right in spite of the drugs. So maybe I should have lied, and maybe I’ll try lying to Daisy and Jasper.

Nic, however, knew the truth. I don’t know how much it mattered. Part of me feels solely responsible -- if only his mother and I had stayed together; if only she and I had lived in the same city after the divorce and had a joint-custody arrangement that was easier on him; if only I had set stricter limits; if only I had been more consistent.


And yet I also sense that Nic’s course was determined by his first puff of pot and sip of wine and sealed with the first hit of speed the summer before he

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.)

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began college.


Nic moves home again. He promises to follow the rules we establish. He will go to therapy, honor all curfews, help around the house, work, and apply to other colleges. He meets with his therapist, who afterward tells me that he supports the plan. Indeed, Nic seems to feel a little better and so there is reason to believe that things are improving. He applies to a number of small liberal arts schools on the East Coast. His first choice is Hampshire College in western Massachusetts. When we toured the school, he had been inspired by the vibrant atmosphere and bucolic setting. He sat in on English and political science courses and toured the music and drama studios. I too, felt it was a college made with Nic in mind.

Apparently his transcripts are still relatively strong, because a few months later he receives a letter of acceptance from the school. I breathe easier. Nic is on track again on the inevitable path that will lead back to college. We’ve endured a bad period but Nic will move on.


One night when he is at work, I fall asleep early, but wake with a start after midnight. I sense that something is wrong. Maybe it’s a parent’s sixth

warning signs of imminent trouble. When I get out of bed it makes the softest rustling sound, enough to wake Karen.

Is everything all right?

Everything is fine... I whisper. Go back to sleep.

The floor is cold and the room is cold but I don’t stop for slippers or a robe because I don’t want to make more noise. The hallway is unlit, but moonlight through the living room skylight casts a maroon radiance. I turn on a kitchen light and go to Nic’s bedroom. I knock on the door. There is no answer. I open it and peer in. The unmade bed is empty. I am becoming used to an overwhelming grinding mixture of anger and worry, each emotion darkening and distorting the other. It is a bleak and hopeless

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sense. Maybe some part of me has detected the early


feeling. I may know it well, but it is no easier to bear. Nic has missed his curfew. That is as far as I will allow my worry to go. I anticipate his arrival at any minute and rehearse what I will do. I will confront him, though facing him is a painful reminder of my inability to alter his behavior.

I tiptoe into the bedroom and try to fall back to sleep, but by then it’s futile. I lie awake. Worry is beginning to consume me. We live at the crest of a small hill, before the road continues up, so that cars driving on the street in front of our house slow almost to a stop before going on. One car and then another drives up and pauses.

Each time my heart stops. It’s Nic.

But then the engine continues pushing on up the hill. At three, I give up pretending that I will fall back asleep. I get up. Karen gets up too.


What’s the matter?

I tell her that Nic hasn’t come home.

He’s probably with friends and it was too late to come home, so he slept over,

Karen says.

He would have called. Maybe he didn’t want to wake us.

I look over at her and see the despondence and worry in her eyes. She doesn’t believe it either. The minutes click by. We drink tea and fret.

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We go to the kitchen.


I confide that I can’t sleep because I can’t block out images of Nic on the San Francisco streets.

I imagine him hurt, in trouble.


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I imagine him dying.


At around seven I start calling his friends, waking some of them, but no one has seen him. I call his therapist, who even now reassures me—maybe that’s how he sees his job, to comfort me—that “Nic is working things out, he’ll be alright.” My panic mounts. Every time the phone rings, my stomach constricts. Where can he be? I cannot imagine, or more accurately, I choose not to. I push away the grisliest thoughts. Finally I call the police and hospital emergency rooms, asking if he is in jail or if there has been an accident. Each time I call, I brace myself for the unthinkable. I rehearse the conversation—the stolid, disembodied voice, and the words, “He is dead.” I rehearse it to prepare myself. I go toward the thought, pace around it. He is dead. Waiting is ghastly, but I can do nothing else. Later, Jasper, barefoot and in his pajamas, pads into the kitchen, looking at us with his clear eyes. He climbs onto Karen’s lap and chews on a piece of toast. Next Daisy, yawning, marches in, her hair wild. We say nothing about Nic. We don’t want to worry them. We have to tell them soon, though. They sense something is wrong. They know Nic isn’t around. Finally Jasper asks, Where is Nic?

I answer with more emotion than I intend to betray: We don’t know. Jasper begins to cry. Is Nicky all right?

We don’t know.

We hope so.


This horror lasts four days. Then one night he calls. His voice trembles, but still it brings a wave of relief. Dad. Nic. His voice comes as if from down a dim tunnel. I. Weakly, I blew it. A guttural sigh. I’m in trouble. Where are you?

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He tells me and I hang up.


I drive to meet him in an alleyway behind a bookstore in San Rafael. I stop the car and get out near a row of trash cans and bins strewn with empty bottles, broken glass, torn cardboard, and grimy blankets. “Dad.” The muffled, scratchy voice comes from behind one of the bins. I walk toward it, pushing aside discarded boxes, turn the corner, and see Nic. He is shakily walking toward me.

My son, the svelte and muscular swimmer, water-polo player, and surfer with an ebullient smile, is bruised, sallow, skin and bone, and his eyes are vacant black holes. When I reach him he goes limp in my arms. I half carry him, his feet shuffling beneath him. In the car, before he passes out, I tell him that he needs to go to drug rehab. “That’s it,” I say. “There’s no choice now.” “I know Dad.” I silently drive home. Nic briefly awakens and mutters in a barren monotone about owing people money, that he has to pay someone back or he will be killed, then he loses consciousness again. Occasionally he awakens and mumbles, but his words are incomprehensible.


Ill, frail, and occasionally still rambling, he spends the next three days shivering as if feverish, curled up in bed, whimpering and crying.

Though I’m terrified, I am also encouraged he said he’d go to rehab. I call the agency that we visited when he was a high school freshman and make an appointment. But on the morning of the appointment when I remind him we are going, he looks at me, revolted.

“Nick, you have to go. You told me you would.” “I don’t need rehab.” “You promised. You nearly died.” “I just messed up. That’s all. Don’t worry. I learned my lesson.” “Nic, no.” “Listen, I will be fine. I’ll never do that shit again. I learned how dangerous meth is. It’s fucked up. I’m not stupid. I’ll never mess with it ever again.” I stop. Did I hear correctly? “Crystal meth?” He nods. It sinks in.

God no. I am horrified that Nic has used meth.

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“No fucking way.”


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Part 3

Nic trembled when I dropped him off at rehab. Driving home afterward, I felt as if I would collapse from more emotion than I could possibly 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.

For their initial week, patients were forbidden to use the telephone, but Nic managed to call, begging to come home. When I refused, he slammed down the receiver. His counselor reported that he was surly, depressed and belligerent, threatening to run away. But he made it through the first week, which consisted of morning walks, lectures, individual and group sessions with counselors, 12-step-program meetings and meditation and acupuncture. Family groups were added in the second week. My wife and I, other visiting parents and spouses, along with our addicts, sat in worn couches and folding chairs, and a grandmotherly, whiskey-voiced (though sober for 20 years) counselor led us in conversation.


“Tell your parents what it means that they’re here with you, Nic,’’ she said.

By the fourth and final week, he seemed open and apologetic, claiming to be determined to take responsibility for the mess he’d made of his life. He said that he knew that he needed more time in treatment, and so we agreed to his request to move into the transitional residential program. He did, and then three days later he bolted.

At some point, parents may become inured to a child’s self-destruction, but I never did. I called the police and hospital emergency rooms. I didn’t hear anything for a week. When he finally called, I told him that he had two choices as far as I was concerned: another try at rehab or the streets. He maintained that it was unnecessary, he would stop on his own, but I told him that it wasn’t negotiable. He listlessly agreed to try again.

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Whatever. It’s fine.


I called another recommended program, this one at Then there were the treatment centers, the St. Helena Hospital Center for Behavioral Health, two in northern California, one in improbably located in the Napa Valley wine country. Manhattan, and one in Los Angeles. I’ve Many families drain every penny, mortgaging their spent the last three years in and out homes and bankrupting their college funds and of twelve-step programs. Throughout retirement accounts, trying successive drug-rehab all of it, the underlying craving programs. My insurance and his mother’s paid most never really left me. And that was of the costs of these programs. Without this coverage, accompanied by the illusion that, the I’m not sure what we would have done. By then I next time, things would be different was no longer sanguine about rehabilitation, but in -- I’d be able to handle it better. I spite of our experience and the questionable success didn’t want to keep hurting people. I rates, there seemed to be nothing more effective for didn’t want to keep hurting myself. A someone with a meth addiction. girlfriend of mine once said to me, “I don’t understand... why don’t you just stop?”


The fact was, I couldn’t just stop. That sounds like a cop-out, but it’s the truth. It’s like I’m being held captive by some insatiable monster that will not let me stop. All my values, all my beliefs, everything I care about, they all go away the moment I get high. There is a sort of insanity that takes over.

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I couldn’t think of an answer.


Patients in the St. Helena program keep journals. In Nic’s, he wrote one day:

How the hell did I get here? ago that I was on the water of the school newspaper, ac obsessing about which girls Dostoevsky with my classmat will be starting their juni isn’t so much sad as baffling and harmless, until it wasn’t.


.

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It doesn’t seem that long polo team. I was an editor ting in the spring play, I liked, talking Marx and es. The kids in my class ior years of college. This . It all seemed so positive


By the time he completed the fourth week, Nic once again seemed determined to stay away from drugs. He applied to a number of small liberal-arts 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, located in a former apple orchard in Massachusetts.

In August, my wife and I flew east with him for freshman orientation. At the welcoming picnic, Karen and I surveyed the incoming freshmen for potential drug dealers. We probably would have seen this on most campuses, but we were not reassured when we noticed students wearing T-shirts decorated with marijuana leaves, portraits of Bob Marley smoking a spliff, and logos for the Church of LSD.

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. He tried for a few weeks. When he stopped returning my phone calls, I assumed that he had relapsed. I asked a friend, who was visiting Amherst, to stop by to check on him. He found Nic holed up in his room. He was obviously high. I later learned that not only had Nic relapsed, but he had supplemented methamphetamine with heroin and morphine.

Everyone told me not to try it, you know? Nic said about heroin.


They were like, ‘Whatever you do, stay away from dope.’ I wish I’d got the same warning about meth. By the time I got around to doing heroin, I really didn’t see what the big deal was. I prepared to follow through on my threat and stop paying his tuition unless he returned to rehab, but I called a health counselor, who advised patience, saying that often “relapse is part of recovery.’’ A few days later, Nic called and told me that he would

and, he claimed, suffered the detox and early meth withdrawal that is characterized by insuperable depression and acute anxiety -- a drawn-out agony.

He kept in close touch and got through the year, doing well in some writing and history classes, newly in love with a girl who drove him to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and eager to see Jasper and Daisy. His homecoming was marked by trepidation, but also promise, which is why it was so devastating when we discovered the truth.

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stop using. He went to 12-step program meetings


When Nic left, I sunk into a wretched and familiar malaise, alternating with a debilitating panic. One morning, Jasper came into the kitchen, holding a satin box, a gift from a friend upon his return from China, in which he kept his savings of $8. Jasper looked perplexed. I think Nic took my money.

How do you explain to an 8-year-old boy why his beloved big brother steals from him?

After a week, I succumbed to my desperation and went to try to find him. I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge from Marin County to San Francisco, to the Haight, where I knew he often hung out. The neighborhood, in spite of some gentrification, retains its 1960’s-era funkiness. Kids -- tattooed, pierced, track-marked, stoned -- loiter in doorways. Of course I didn’t find him.

After another few weeks, he called, collect: Hey, Pop, it’s me. Will you come and meet me? No matter how unrealistic, I retained a sliver of hope that I could get through to him. That’s not quite accurate. I knew I couldn’t, but at least I’d have the chance to put my fingertips on his cheek.


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For our meeting, Nic chose Steps of Rome, a cafe on Columbus Avenue in North Beach, our neighborhood after his mother and I divorced. In those days, Nic played in Washington Square Park opposite the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, down the hill from our Russian Hill flat. We would eat early dinner at Vanessi’s, an Italian restaurant now gone. The waiters, when they saw Nic, then towheaded, with a gap between his front teeth, would lift him up and set him on telephone books stacked on a stool at the counter. Nic was little enough so that after dinner, when he got sleepy, I could carry him home, his tiny arms wrapped around my neck.

Since reason and love, the forces I had come to rely on, had betrayed me, I was in uncharted territory as I sat at a corner table nervously waiting for him. Steps of Rome was deserted, other than a couple of waiters folding napkins at the bar. I ordered coffee, racking my brain for the one thing I could say that I hadn’t thought of that could get through to him.


Drug-and-alcohol counselors, most of them former addicts, tell fathers like me it’s not our fault. They preach ‘’the Three C’s’’: ‘’You didn’t cause it, you can’t

doesn’t believe that we could have done something differently that would have helped? ‘’It hurts so bad to think I cannot save him, protect him, keep him out of harm’s way, shield him from pain,’’ wrote Thomas Lynch, the undertaker, poet and essayist, about his son, a drug addict and an alcoholic. “What good are fathers if not for these things?’’ I waited until it was more than half an hour past our meeting time, recognizing the mounting, suffocating worry and also the bitterness and anger. I had been waiting for Nic for years. At night, past his curfew, I waited for the car’s grinding engine when it pulled into the driveway and went silent, the slamming door, footsteps and the front door opening with a click, despite his attempt at stealth. Our dog would yelp a halfhearted bark.

When Nic was late, I always assumed catastrophe. After 45 minutes waiting at Steps of Rome, I decided

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control it, and you can’t cure it.’’ But who among us


that he wasn’t coming -- what had I expected? -and left the cafe. Still, I walked around the block, returned again, peered into the cafe and then trudged around the block again. Another half-hour later, I was ready to go home, really, maybe, when I saw him. Walking down the street, looking down, his gangly arms limp at his sides, he looked more than ever like a ghostly, hollow Egon Schiele self-portrait, debauched and emaciated. I returned his hug, my arms wrapping around his vaporous spine, and kissed his cheek. We embraced like that and sat down at a table by the window. He couldn’t look me in the eye. No apologies for being late. He asked how I was, how were the little kids? He folded and unfolded a soda straw and rocked anxiously in his chair; his fingers trembled, and he clenched his jaw and ground his teeth. He pre-empted any questions.

I’m doing.

Great.

...I’m doing what I need to be doing, being responsible for myself for the first time in my life.


I asked if he was ready to return to the living.

Jasper and Daisy miss you a— I can’t deal with that. Don’t guilt-trip me. Nick drank down his coffee, held onto his stomach. I watched him rise and leave.

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Don’t start.


49 | 50


Part 4

Through Nick’s drug addiction, I learned that parents can bear almost anything. Every time we reach a point where we feel as if we can’t bear any more, we do. Things had descended in a way that I never could have imagined, and I shocked myself with my ability to rationalize and tolerate so many things that were once unthinkable to me.

He’s just experimenting. Going through a stage. He’s only smoking marijuana. He gets high only on weekends. At least he’s not using heroin. He would never resort to needles. At least he’s alive.

Nick returned to rehab. After six or so months, he moved to Santa Monica near his mother. He lived in a sober-living home, attended meetings regularly and began working with a sponsor. He had several jobs, including one at a drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation program in Malibu.


I’d been sober exactly eighteen months on April 1st, just two days ago. I’d made so much progress. My life was steady job at a rehab in Malibu. I’d gotten back all these things I’d lost —car, apartment, my relationship with my family. It’d seemed like, after countless rehabs and sober livings, I had finally beaten my drug problem And yet there I was, standing on Haight Street, drunk on Stoli and stoned out on Ambien, which I’d stolen from the med room at that rehab.

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suddenly working, you know? I had a


In fits and starts, Nic tells us about a new romance Zelda was a woman I thought I was madly with a girl, Zelda. Then one day he calls and is near in love with. She was fourteen years tears. She has broken off the relationship. Earlier, older than I was and, well, she was Nic would have called a dealer or one of his druggie also engaged to marry another guy, a friends or scrounged a joint or beer. Now he calls his wealthy real-estate broker named Mike. sponsor, Spencer. When I started sleeping with her, “Get over here, Nic,” Spencer says. I tried to justify it to myself. I “We’re going on a bike ride.” figured it was her decision and I wasn’t They ride for three hours—up Temescal Canyon. really doing anything wrong and it was Twice. Afterward, Nic calls and sounds elated. just for fun and blah, blah, blah. “I’m going to be all right.” Basically, I thought I could get away It is a month later. Nic stops returning my calls. with it. I mean, I thought I could stay Something is wrong. In our last conversation, detached emotionally. I couldn’t. he admitted that he was still reeling from the heartbreaking split. She came to represent for me everything “I can’t stop thinking about her.” I thought would make my life perfect. It is the morning of the third day since then. After all, she’d been married to this


biggest obsession.

Ultimately, however, she wouldn’t leave her boyfriend for me and got pregnant with his child. I was crushed. I mean, I just couldn’t handle it. So yesterday I relapsed, driving up the 5, drinking from a bottle of Jäger.

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How do I know something’s wrong? It’s not only that famous actor and was an actress and he hasn’t called back. Is it a parent’s intuition? Were grew up in Los Angeles, raised by her there warning signs that slowly seeped up into my famous uncle who was also in the movie consciousness? Were there clued in what he said business. Everyone seems to know her that I detected on a subliminal level? Or was it the in L.A. She’s sort of a celebrity, you laconic pauses between his words? know? Being with her became my


Were is he? I will not accept the most likely answer: Honestly, I was as surprised by my own that he has relapsed. He has been doing well. It’s not actions as anyone else. The morning perfect, but he has a coterie of supportive friends and of my relapse, I had no idea I was a good job. He is biking and writing. He attends AA actually going to do it. Not that meetings, including some at Herbert House, where there weren’t ominous signs. In the he sees Jace and his friends. With Spencer, possibly twelve-step program they tell you to his closest friend ever, he is devotedly working get a sponsor. Mine was a man named the twelve steps of self-evaluation, atonement, and Spencer. He was around forty, strong, what he has described as “new character building.” with a square face and hair that stood Overall, he seems enthusiastic about his life. I on end. He had a wife and a threeknow that sometimes he is lonely, but who isn’t? year-old daughter. He spent hours Sometimes he is down, but who isn’t? Sometimes he talking with me about recovery. He feels overwhelmed, but who doesn’t? helped me get into cycling and walked me through the twelve steps. We’d ride And yet he must have relapsed. What else could our bikes together along the Pacifiic explain his disappearance? Am I being paranoid? I Coast Highway, up Latigo Canyon, have reason to be hypervigilant, alert for any sign or wherever. He’d relate his own that something could go wrong, but I must allow experience getting sober from chronic him to move on and have a life. Maybe he has a new cocaine addiction. But I stopped girlfriend. Maybe he’s just down and needs some calling him as often. Maybe I felt time without being in touch; there have been times like I didn’t need his help anymore. when I needed to withdraw from my parents. I seldom went to meetings, and when I I call Vicki, who reassures me that she saw him a day did, my mind would talk to me the whole


hospital emergency rooms. Vicki drives to the police station and files a missing person report.

He is: Male. Caucasian. Twenty-one.

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or two ago and he was fine. Still, I ask her to go to time about how much better I was than Nic’s apartment to check. When she calls back in an everyone else -- or how much worse I hour, she says that his roommate hasn’t seen him, was, depending on the day. I’d stopped his bed hasn’t been slept in. We call Promises and a exercising as frequently. I’d stopped coworker says that he has not shown up in two days. taking the psych meds they had me on We call his friends, who have not heard from him. -- a mixture of mood stabilizers and Yesterday one had a date to meet Nic for lunch and antidepressants. I’d started smoking a bike ride, but he never arrived. I call the police to again. Plus there was Zelda. see if there has been an accident. Once again. I call


I continually try Nic’s cell phone but each time reach I’d driven up from L.A. the night his dead-pan voicemail. I repeatedly check with his before and slept in my old, fallingmother for news, but there is none. On a whim, apart Mazda, parked in a lot on the I call the 800 customer-assistance number for our edge of the Presidio -- a great expanse shared cell phone company to ask if there have been of forest and abandoned army housing any recent calls to or from Nic’s cell phone but and that stretches out to the cliffs operator says that she can’t access the information. overlooking the Pacific and the San Francisco Bay. A friend of mine, Akira, Vicki and I are frantic. Once again. We make phone had once lived there. He occupied a calls, hoping for some —any—news. Finally Vicki basement apartment on the edge of the tries Zelda and yes, Zelda just heard from him. Nic Presidio. I’d hoped to find him still called her—from San Francisco. Here we go again. living there, but after I wandered She says that when he called her, he was high. Of around the house some -- looking into course. I want this to stop. I cannot bear it. the dust-smeared windows -- it was clear that the place was deserted. It Nic is gone a week. was Akira who’d actually introduced me Then another. to crystal meth when I was eighteen. He Interminable days and nights. was a friend of a friend. He did a lot Where is Nic? of drugs and we immediately gravitated toward each other. Somehow that always seemed to happen -- we addicts can always find one another. There must be some strange addict radar or something.


Akira was like me, but more strung out at the time. He had dyed red, curling hair and dark, dark eyes. He was thin, emaciated, with hollowed- out features and narrow, dirty fingers. When he offered me that first line of meth, I didn’t hesitate. Growing up I’d heard, you know, never to do heroin. Like,

scared -- do heroin, get hooked. No one ever mentioned crystal to me. I’d done a little coke, Ecstasy, whatever -- I could take it or leave it. But early that morning, when I took those offwhite crushed shards up that blue, cut plastic straw -- well, my whole world pretty much changed after that. There was a feeling like -- my God, this is what I’ve been missing my entire life. It completed me. I felt whole for the first time.

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the warnings were everywhere and I was


Sometimes when Nic wasn’t all right it got so bad that I wanted to wipe out and delete and expunge every trace of him from my brain so that I would not have to worry about him anymore and I would not have to be disappointed by him and hurt by him and I would not have to blame myself and blame him and I would no longer have the relentless and hounting slide show of images of my lovely son, drugged, in the most sordid, horrible scenes imaginable. I was in wretched anguish and yearned for relief. I longed for someone to scrape out the knowledge of what was lost and scrape out the worry and not only my anguish but his. No matter what, I cannot erase Nic from my mind.


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So now I’m standing on Haight Street and Lauren, this girl I haven’t seen or thought about in five years, is here asking me what I’m doing. I’d heard rumors about what happened to Lauren. I mean, I never even knew her that well but we’d sort of hung out a few times in high school. Actually, I was sleeping with her for about two weeks. She had moved to San Francisco when I was a senior and we met somehow; at a party or something. Back in high school it was just pot, maybe I’d do some acid and mushrooms on the weekend. Lauren and I really never got very close back then. When I heard later that she’d been put in rehab for cocaine abuse and severe bulimia, I guess it wasn’t that surprising. We’d both been really screwed up all the time and I had a history of dating, well, not the most balanced girls. I remember being ashamed to bring her to my house. I remember not wanting my parents to meet her. We’d come in late, late and leave early in the morning -- whispering so as not to wake up my little brother and sister. Maybe it was them I wanted to shield from Lauren the most, or maybe well, the person I was becoming. I was ashamed of my behavior, but still I kept going forward. It was like being in a car with the gas pedal slammed down to the floor and nothing to do but hold on and pretend to have some semblance of control. But control was something I’d lost a long time ago.


Anyway, Lauren was not someone I thought about a whole lot. When she approaches me, I don’t even recognize her at first. It’s been five years. She yells my name:

I jump, turning around to look at her. She is wearing big Jackie O sunglasses and her dyed black hair is pulled back tight. Her skin is pale, pale white and her features are petite and delicately carved. The San Francisco air is cold, even though the sun has broken through the fog, and she has a long black coat pulled around her. So I think...think, think. Then I remember. L-Lauren, right? Yeah, don’t pretend like you don’t remember me. No, I... Whatever. What’re you doing here? It’s a good question. I convince myself and believe very strongly that this time, this time, it will be different. I tell myself that, after such a long time clean, these last eighteen months, I can go back to casual use. So I walk down to the Haight and start talking to the first street kid who asks me for a cigarette. Pretty soon Lauren and I drive off with fresh needles and about a gram of crystal methamphetamine.

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Nic Sheff.


63 | 64


Part 5

I remember Lauren’s dad’s house from the time we’d been together back in high school. Walking in the door with Lauren -- backpack full of drugs, drunk and stumbling -- I can’t help but feel a tightness in my stomach, thinking back to the child that I had been. I remember going on walks with my dad out to Fort Point, a jetty that stretches out underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. I remember eating sushi and tempura in Japantown, playing on the ships docked off Hyde Street, riding my bike through Golden Gate Park, being taken to the old Castro movie theater, where a man played the organ before every show. I remember my championship Little League team in Sausalito, birthday parties at the San Francisco Zoo, going to art galleries and museums. I’d been so small that my dad would shelter me from the cold by hiding me in his sweater. Our heads would stick out of the stretched-out wool neckline together. I remember the smell of him -- that indescribable smell of dad. He was so there for me always -- especially when my mom moved down south. Sober


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and living in L.A., I’d talked on the phone with him almost every day. We talked about everything -- from movies, to art, to girls, to nothing at all. I wonder how long it will be before the calls start coming in -- how long before he knows I’ve gone out, relapsed, thrown it all away. I pour in a bunch of the crystal and crush it up with the back of a Bic lighter I have in my pocket. I hold the flame to the base of the jar until the liquid starts to smoke and bubble. I drop in the cotton and then pull it all up into two of the syringes. I pass the one with less over to Lauren and set about making a fist with my right hand, watching the veins swell easily. My body is so clean, so powerful -- over a year needle-free and my veins reveal themselves instantly. I think back to how difficult it’d once been to hit -when the veins all began collapsing, hiding under the skin. But now the veins jump up right away. I pull back the plunger, watch the blood rush up into the mixture, and then slam it all home. I cough. The chemical lets off


this gas as it reaches your heart, or brain, or whatever and it rushes up your throat, choking you. I cough, choking like that. My eyes water -- my head pounding like maybe I’ll pass out, my breathing going so fast. The high is perfection. I turn and see Lauren push off and as it hits her I kiss her without saying anything and she kisses back and it is all so effortless, not like being sober and consumed by worry and fear and inhibitions. I kiss her harder, but she pushes me back. Come on, let’s go to the beach. We get outta there fast and then we are walking in the sunlight, back toward Lauren’s car. It is a different world, man, heightened, exciting. I light a cigarette and my fingers move spasmodically and I start talking, talking, talking. The waves of the drug keep sweeping through me and my palms turn sweaty and I grit my teeth. I tell Lauren about the book I’ve written and the job I want to get at this magazine in L.A. and suddenly it doesn’t seem like these are impossible dreams anymore. I feel like it is all happening -- that my book is getting published and I can get any job I want and I’m gonna take Lauren along with me in my new life. Nothing, I mean


nothing, can stop me. You know, my parents are going out of town next week, so you should stay with me in my house, unless you have somewhere else to go. No, no, I say, everything fitting together perfectly in my world, in my mind, in destiny, and fate and blah, blah, blah.

Baker Beach is mostly empty. We get out of the car and I take Lauren’s cold little soft hand in mine. We walk down along the dunes and the wind is blowing sand in my face, and suddenly I stop and strip off all my clothes down to my boxer briefs and run, headlong, into the surf. I hear Lauren giggling behind me, then nothing but the roar of the ocean and the cold, cold, cold.

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That’ll be great. “They’re gone for two weeks.” I laugh.


The current is strong and I’m immediately struggling against it, ducking the swells and feeling the pull out the mouth of the bay. But I’m a good swimmer. I navigate past the rocks and begin paddling into the waves as they break along the beach. Growing up I’d surfed all along this coastline. My friends and I would stay out sometimes five or six hours. In the end I’d gotten very comfortable in the water, able to ride the big waves off Ocean Beach or down in Santa Cruz. I’d watch the pelicans riding the updrafts of the swells, or sea otters eating crabs, floating on their backs. I’d wake up early, heading out before the sun rose to get the morning glass. But as I got deeper and deeper into my using, my surfboards went untouched on their racks in the garage. There’s something devastating about that, though I try not to think about it. I mean, here I am, bodysurfing the breakers at Baker Beach, feeling my breath catch in my lungs from the frigid water. The muscle memory is all there, in my arms and chest. I look back at Lauren, stripped and lying in the warm sand. I take another wave in, then run up to her, kissing the white of her stomach and listening to her laugh and shiver. Then I run on, up and down the beach. Fast, freezing, but not feeling it, really. I look at everything, the trees, and shells, and tall sea grass. It all seems so new


That night I drive her car through the winding back roads out to our house in Point Reyes. The drive is so familiar. I know every turn. It’s the same route I’d used to get back from school every afternoon. We pass the little towns of San Anselmo and Fairfax, curving beneath the redwood forest of Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Then we come out on the green pastureland, obscured by the darkness and fog. We turn up our street, steep, steep,bordered by dense woods on either side. The car sputters some, but makes it -- taking me home.

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and exciting. My little sister, Daisy, never failed to point out the delicate flowers or intricately shaped stones as we went on walks together. She was so present and filled with wonder. Meth gives me that childlike exuberance. It allows me to see, to really see. The world appears miraculous and I laugh and run down the beach until I’m gasping for air, then back to Lauren. She smiles at me and I kiss her more.


My parents’ house isn’t huge or anything, but it is designed by some famous architect. It’s sort of very Japanese and minimalist, with mirrors and windows all over the place. It looks out on maybe half an acre of garden -- wild, tangled vines, hedges, oaks, poplars. Gravel paths twist through the brush and in the spring and summer there are flowers everywhere. Seeing that the driveway is empty and the lights are out, I creep along to the different doors and windows and things. It’s all locked. I climb the faded wooden gate, wander over to the back doors until I find one that isn’t dead-bolted solid. I yank it open, breaking the base of the door where it has been secured to the floor. Turning on as few lights as possible, I go through the house to the front and let Lauren in. Jesus, she says. I remember these paintings. My stepmother is an artist. The walls of our house are covered with giant, swirling canvases. The oil images are dark yet organic; eyes, organs, branches, shapes repeated over and over. They’re beautiful. So haunting, right? Yeah. We go up to the living room and I put music on the stereo.


Let’s go take a shower, I say. Yeah. You wanna fix some more first? Definitely.

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I open a bottle of sake I find in the closet and pour a glass. Lauren looks at all the art books and things on the shelves. I look at the photographs of my little brother and sister on the window sill. There is one of Jasper in his lacrosse uniform, smiling. There is Daisy, who’s just two years younger than Jasper, dressed as an elf, with a fake beard and her tangled hair pulled back. And there is the whole family together, my stepmom, her parents, brother, sister, my dad, my aunt and uncle, my brother, sister, cousins, and, on the far right, me. Walking through the house, I feel dirty -like I’m this charcoal stain polluting everything I touch. I can’t even look at the goddamn photographs it hurts too much. I drink the sake down.


On a morning the following week, Karen notices that We shoot up and take a shower. We something is amiss in our house. Just a few things have sex in my old bed until my knees our of place. A hairbrush on the floor. Some books are rubbed raw. After that, I smoke strewn on a couch. A sweater is missing. cigarettes and look for stuff to steal. I take a guitar and a couple jackets, I am working in my office but I join her in the but nothing bigger than that. Oh, and I living room. What are you talking about? I ask. need a notebook, so I grab this black Immediately I am protective. My knee-jerk reaction thing with Powerpuff Girls stickers is that Karen is overreacting, paranoid—always ready on the cover. It turns out to be my to blame Nic. sister’s diary.

No. Someone— She stops. Come look. I follow her, and my mind clicks from defensiveness to acceptance. Nic has been here. He broke in. Together we check throughout the house and find, in our bedroom, a broken deadbolt on a French door. The door’s redwood astragal is splintered beyond


repair. Only then do I notice that my desk drawers have been ransacked. I call the sheriff, reporting the break-in. If anyone had told me before I encountered

son, I would have thought that that person was the one on drugs. I don’t want Nic arrested. Imagining him in jail sickens me. Could anything good come of it? Suddenly I share the feelings of the parents I met in some of the Al-Anon meetings whose children were in jail and who said, “At least I know where she is.” And: “It’s safer.” The sad irony is that as violent as jail can be, as bleak and hopeless, it is probably safer for Nic than the streets.

Three days later, on Sunday but no one is on the other end. Then it happens again. There’s a number on the caller ID that I don’t recognize. Using the reverse lookup feature on anywho.com, I learn that the phone is under a familiar name. It takes a while for me to place it. It’s the parents of a girl Nic knew in highschool. I call but reach an ansering machine, on which I leave a message.

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addiction that I would be calling the sheriff on my


I’m trying to reach my son. His name is Nic Sheff. He called me from this number.

The girl’s stepmother returns my call. I am astounded by what I hear from her. You’re Nic’s father? It’s so nice to talk to you, she says. What a great son you have. He’s a pleasure to have around. We’ve been so worried about Lauren, and he’s such a good influence on her. A good influence on her?

I sigh and tell her the truth about Nic’s relapse and disappearance. She is stunned. She explains that her stepdaughter has been in and out of rehab recently for drug addiction and Nic has seemed so supportive of her recovery.

In the afternoon, Nic calls. He tells me everything— he has relapsed, and is using meth and heroin. I have rehearsed my response. I shakily tell him that there’s nothing I can do. It’s up to him. I say that the police are searching for him, that his mother reported him missing to the Santa Monica police, and that the Marin sheriffs are patrolling our home and the home of our friends where he broke in. I say, Do you want to wind up in jail? That’s where you’re headed.


God, Please help me. What do I do? All I know to tell you to do is what you already know. What do they tell you in the program? Call your sponsor. Call Spencer. I don’t know what else to say.

This isn’t how I want to respond. I want to drive to the city to get him. But I repeat, Call Spencer.

together. I may sound resolved or resigned but I’m neither of those things.

I hang up. My temples pound. I want to call back. I want to tell him I’m coming. But I don’t. Spencer calls in a half-hour or so. He says that he heard from Nic and encouraged him to return to LA. “I told him that I miss him,” Spencer says. “He told me he’d come back in.”

I breathe.

When I thank

Spencer he says, “No need to thank me. This is how I stay alive. And I really do miss than knucklehead.”

Nic returned and withdrew on his own, helped by his sponsor and other friends. He was ashamed — mortified — that he slipped. He redoubled his efforts. Ten months later, of course, I am relieved once again and hopeful once again. Nick is working and writing a children’s book and articles and movie reviews for

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I tell him I love him and hope that he gets his life


an online magazine. He is biking and swimming. He seems emphatically committed to his sobriety, but I have learned to check my optimism.

Though they have spoken on the telephone with Nic, Karen, Jasper, and Daisy have not seen him since the relapse. We keep trying to explain it to Jasper and Daisy. “He has a disease” doesn’t begin to comfort them. It’s a wholly unsatisfying, confusing explanation. From their perspective, the symptoms of a disease are things like coughing, fevers, or a sore throat. The closest they get to understanding is Jasper’s image of the devil and the angel competing for the real estate of Nic’s soul.

Regardless, Daisy and Jasper miss him. Karen and I are unwilling to let Nic visit us in Inverness. We need more time. Nic seems to understand. We are not ready to have him come home again—not after this last time. Not after the stolen checks, the car chase, the trauma of not knowing—imagining him in the trunk of a car driving east across the country.


But in late summer, we are taking a vacation to Molokai, Hawaii, staying in tent cabins above a beach, and Karen suggests we invite Nic. Finally she’s

wonderful week.

It is striking to me how our dual realities once again blur. It’s probably a vestigial survival mechanism. Now, instead of recalling the overwhelming calamity and evil, I am swept up in the loveliness of the children here together and the natural beauty. I feel as if we are all being washed clean by the ocean and warm tropical breeze. Feeling hopeful about Nic’s future, I can tuck the darkness of his addiction away—not to forget it, but set it aside—and meanwhile appreciate the sublimity. For the moment evil is at bay.

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ready to see him. We are all ready to see him. It is a


The night is filled with the sounds of crickets and mice skittering across the wood floor. From their tent with three single beds, we also can hear Nic reading to Jasper and Daisy. He has picked up The Witches where he left off more than two years ago. After goodbyes at the airport, we board separate jets, Nic for LA, us for San Francisco.

A week later, I am with Jasper in Point Reyes Station, where we pick up the mail. There’s a stack of bills, letters from their school with a schedule for the new year, and a letter for Jasper—from Nic. Jasper opens the envelope carefully. He unfolds the letter and holds it in his hands, reading aloud. Nic writes,


I’m looking for a way to say I’m sorry more than with just the meaninglessness of those two words. I also know that this money can never replace all that I stole from you in terms of the fear and worry and craziness that I brought to your young life. The truth is, I don’t know how to say I’m sorry. I love you, but that has never changed. I care about you, but I always have. I’m proud of you, but none of that makes it any this: As you’re growing up, whenever you need me — to talk or just whatever — I’ll be able to be there for you now. That is something that I could never promise you before. I will be here for you. I will live, and build a life, and be someone that you can depend on. I hope that means more than this stupid note and these eight dollar bills.

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better. I guess what I can offer you is


Paddling out there is no sound other than the smooth whoosh of the surfboard cleaving the water and then, at regular intervals, the rumble of a breaking wave. We ride one, paddle out, and then ride another. Once I look up and see Nic crouched low on his board inside a barrel, the wave’s waterfall encasing him.

It gets darker. Fog obscures the moon and envelops us. I realize that Nic and I are in two different currents that are pushing us to opposite sides of the channel. We are separated by a hundred yards. I begin to panic because the thickening fog and growing dimness prevent us from seeing each other well. I paddle out blindly toward Nic, frantically seeking him until my arms are exhausted from fighting the current.

Finally, after what seems like a half-hour of nonstop paddling, a gust of wind wipes clean a section of fog and I see him. Tall and magnificent. Nic, standing on top of the water, white spray sparkling off the edge of his board, a brilliant smile on his face. When he sees me, he waves.


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Spring 2011 Design, Editing, & Publishing: Nick Abele Authors: David Sheff, Nic Sheff Project Direction: Dan Boyarski, Dylan Vitone Text originally published by Houghton Mifflin and Ginee Seo Books; copyright 2008.


Unconditional