On the shelf: ‘Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Meth Addiction’ by David Sheff

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


Before Nic Sheff became addicted to crystal meth, he was a charming boy, joyous and funny, a varsity athlete and honor student adored by his two younger siblings. After meth, he was a trembling wraith who lied repeatedly, stole money from his eight-year-old brother, and lived on the streets.”  (Book jacket)


What’s different about Meth? Why is it worse than, say, cocaine or heroin? Why did all the drug recovery experts sigh so deeply when they heard that the “drug of choice” was Meth?  David Sheff found his answers to these and many other questions concerning one of the latest drug scourges to reappear.  Like a medical thriller, the story weaves many plot and research lines into a complex tapestry.  And like a horror story, the drug takes on a persona:  a vampire feeding on its willing victim, who seeks out the source that is draining them of life.


Drug addiction of any kind can bring families to their knees, leaving wreckage far beyond the principal player.  Al-Anon has their 3 C’s: You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.   The author, resistant at first, finds the family support groups an unbelievable source of comfort.  Who else will understand when a parent says that they are happy that their child is in jail?


Sheff’s work grew out of a piece that he wrote for the New York Times Magazine, “My Addicted Son”,  which won the American Psychological Association’s award for “Outstanding Contribution to Advancing the Understanding of Addiction”.


To tell the truth, I didn’t know if I’d like it so much — it sounded like a real downer. Once I started, though, I found it an extremely compelling book. It’s not just about one family’s tragedy, but it connects to every aspect of our own lives. Sheff constantly involves all of us in his Dantesque journey — seeming to ask, without putting it so bluntly, “so you think this does not, will not, ever touch you?”


As an example, while the author is staying at yet another hotel, waiting for yet another rehab visit with his son, he begins reading the epigraph from Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster, “Every little trifle, for some reason, does seem incalculably important and when you say of a thing that ‘nothing hangs on it’ it sounds like blasphemy. There’s never any knowing–how am I to put it–which of our actions, which of our idlenesses won’t have things hanging on it for ever.”


The author ponders this late at night, “I read it and read it again…. I am almost shaking. I think, ‘How innocent we are of our mistakes and how responsible we are for them.’”  


The narrative alternates with his research into every aspect of drug addiction: the rehab industry, support groups, crime statistics, environmental damage and the neuroscience of the brain physiology.  And the history — Meth was synthesized from amphetamine in 1919 by a Japanese pharmacologist. It was commercially available and marketed as a bronchodilator for asthma or an appetite suppressant, among other things. Ads featured slogans like, “Never again feel dreary or suffer the blues.”  Used by the military in World War II, mild formulations were still sold over the counter until 1951, when it was finally upgraded to a controlled substance.  Well, who knew…?


If you ever buy “Sudefed” for allergies, you’ve experienced how diligent the selling, signing for, and tracking of, this product has become — due to its main ingredient, pseudoephedrine. Here’s a real surprise though. According to the author, while he is laying out how the mom and pop labs have been essentially preempted by international drug cartels, operating their own “super labs”:  “Only nine factories manufacture the bulk of the world’s supply of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, but pharmaceutical companies — and legislators influenced by them — have stopped every move that would have effectively controlled the distribution of the chemical so they could not be diverted to meth super labs.”


Meth seems to be a particularly unfortunate drug, since while all the drugs of abuse affect the dopamine reward circuit; Meth quickly causes more serious harm to the brain. The dopamine system becomes so ravaged that it takes months for partial recovery, and a full two years for an almost normal brain PET scan. In the meantime, in the first weeks of recovery attempts, when a Meth user is without the drug, the areas of the brain that light up are the ones that are active when people experience intense pain.


At one completely chilling point in the story (and there are many of these) another parent tells him that the only thing that will get him through is God; and the author says he’d like to believe, but he’s just never been able to. “Before this is over,” they reply to him softly, “you will.”


The cover quote by Anne Lamott says, “This book will save a lot of lives and heal a lot of hearts.”


If any book could discourage a person from trying drugs, this would do it.