Beautiful Boy: Can a Film About Addiction Ignore Social Causality and Harm Reduction in 2018?

We Help Thousands of Addicts Quit. Who Answers?

David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy, a #1 New York Times best-selling book and now a major film starring Timothee Chalamet and Steve Carell, describes the youthful drug addiction of Sheff’s son, Nic. Although his addiction persisted for years, Nic is now long recovered, and he too has written about it in a 2009 best seller, Tweak: Growing Up On Methamphetamines, on which the film is also based.

David Sheff has continued to write about addiction, notably in his 2013 follow-up book, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy. This year he critiqued Trump’s drug and addiction policy in “Trump’s War on Drug Users” in USA Today. Meanwhile, Nic has written a second addiction memoir, We All Fall Down: Living with Addiction.

Our Review of Beautiful Boy

We, the reviewers, face the difficult situation of, in many ways, agreeing with the evolving views of the elder Sheff, but nonetheless feeling that he misses the fundamental point – that regarding and treating addiction as a disease contributes to the very stigmatizing of drugs, drug users, and addiction that he deplores, while defeating the impulses toward social and family amelioration that motivate him.

Sheff and the film demonize drugs, in this case meth. The film shows Sheff himself snorting something after a character in the movie tells him that a meth high is akin to cocaine times a thousand. It isn’t, and the two drugs are categorized together as stimulants in the psychiatric diagnostic manual DSM-5. But, in any case, why doesn’t Sheff become addicted to whatever he’s taking? (Nic also has an alcohol problem, which raises the same question, since millions of people drink without becoming addicted.)

Sheff and the film never address this question, which is in essence unknowable. Nic is an example of a socially advantaged boy with good (if divorced) parents, a solid home in upscale Marin County California, and no observable traumas. So what went wrong for Nic? And, more important, what could have helped him avoid addiction or rerouted him instead of experiencing repeated failed resolutions to quit, accompanied by his self-recriminations and the demoralization of his father?

Sheff, hamstrung in finding ways to cope – despite amply available, but useless, even harmful, standard adolescent treatment programs – responded with fear and intolerance of drugs, something that he criticizes the current President for. (From Beautiful Boy):

“Through Nic’s drug addiction…. I shock myself with my ability to rationalize and tolerate things once unthinkable. The rationalizations escalate…. It’s only marijuana. He gets high only on weekends. At least he’s not using hard drugs….”

And so the solution would be…to forbid his son to ever take drugs? Punishing him when he did? Deciding that taking marijuana is the same as shooting up meth or heroin? Sheff, of course, doesn’t claim the latter, but he does come perilously close to endorsing the stepping-stone theory that for a “diseased” youth, use of one drug is the same as/leads to use of all others. Does that rule out safe use of drugs ever for some people? Because, as Nic proved, that’s virtually impossible to enforce.

Sheff prides himself (per his email) on favoring drug policy reform. For instance, he favors legalizing marijuana.  Yet, based on his experiences with his son, blaming drugs for his family’s problems as he does, he is the most anti-marijuana drug policy reformer in history:

“A body of research shows that marijuana causes structural and functional changes in the developing brains of adolescents. By stunting communication between brain regions, it impairs high-level thinking. There’s evidence that it impacts memory, too, and, for a small minority of kids, can trigger latent mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Also, marijuana users are more likely to suffer from clinical depression than other.” (Although he concedes more depressed people might smoke pot.)

Sheff notes – as does Stanton – that pot can be addictive. But, in Sheff’s case, this is personal:

“I once visited an adolescent treatment center where most patients between 14 and 20 were there because of an addiction exclusively to pot – anyone who says that marijuana isn’t addictive should talk to these kids. Indeed, in spite of a basketball net outside and other recreational facilities, it wasn’t summer camp; those kids had all suffered devastating consequences from their pot smoking, and most had tried to stop but couldn’t.”

A Lesson Worth a Parent’s Learning

Sheff has his finger on a true worry: that his desire to see the best version of Nic led to wishful thinking.

As a parent, Sheff discovered that he had less control over his son’s life than he believed, maybe none – a lesson worth a parent’s learning. He might have used this recognition constructively. Instead, he depicts himself as a victim of drugs and his boy’s disease, as though he is hypnotized into self-deceit by Nic’s drug use.

But what if Sheff had followed his own parenting instincts rather than reifying his son’s challenging behavior? Adolescents seek purpose, a community to connect with, and the skills to meet life’s – and parents’ – expectations. Nic communicated through his behavior that he was struggling to find those things. He was a confused adolescent, desperate for guidance. His father’s fear of drugs for Nic and lack of connection to his son made him miss what his own good sense told him.

None of us but Sheff understand his situation, of course. But as general rules of harm reduction prevention and therapy (a la Families for Sensible Drug Policy), he might have focused his energy on regaining family order. This might have involved acknowledging the truth about his son’s drug use, setting clear limits for Nic, keeping his son safe when he failed at those limits, and establishing honest communication with him. These are strategies that Sheff now values, but surrendered at the time due to his overwhelming fear of drugs.

A Primary Focus on Social and Psychological Problems

The book and film naturally lead to the conclusion that drugs and addiction affect people in all social classes equally. But they don’t. Nic became addicted despite his fortuitous social position. Sheff now recognizes in his addiction writing that people facing social and psychological disadvantages and depredations are more susceptible to addiction, along with other drug and life problems. Sheff’s book Clean makes clear that these social and psychological problems should be our primary focus.

But some, like Joshua Rivera in his review of Beautiful Boy in GQ, express outrage at Beautiful Boy’s blindness towards social privilege:

“It seems wholly uninterested in examining a reality wherein, were the film’s David Sheff not a nice white journalist of some means, the kind of help he’d get might be totally different – if not nonexistent…”

“Beautiful Boy relies on and exploits a toxic cultural shorthand that makes it read as a dirge for white innocence… That it arrives in the midst of an opioid epidemic that’s largely understood through the same racial and socioeconomic prejudices only compounds this problem: Here is, it says, a problem we all must have empathy for.”

They’re not going to make popular films about the far higher number of people addicted to drugs in disadvantaged areas like Appalachia and Baltimore (although the documentary on Baltimore’s murder epidemic, ironically titled Charm City, brings drugs into the picture). Sad to say, we don’t seem to care equally about these people.

Beautiful Boy taps into middle-class anxieties that our children will fail to achieve our own secure perches in life. We care about and act on drug addiction in the relatively rare cases when it affects us. And, so, in 2018, due to anti-drug, pro-disease notions, a film about the causes and consequences of drug addiction ignores both the social realities of drug addiction and harm reduction.

We of course rejoice with David and his son that he has been “clean” for many years. But what is “clean” – or “recovery” or “sober”? David Sheff now endorses MAT (medication-assisted treatment – which is used with opiates, but not meth), but speaks out against drug use by young people. So what do we do about the 15 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds revealed to have a substance use disorder (mainly with alcohol) by the 2016 Household Survey on Drug Use and Health? (Meanwhile, only 6.5 percent of those 26 and older have an SUD.)

Does Sheff expect his son never to have a drink for the rest of his life, or not smoke marijuana, or not take a painkiller? Or, indeed, never use a stimulant? (One author, Zach Rhoads, formerly used drugs problematically, became addicted to heroin, and now no longer uses illicit drugs. But he still drinks and takes painkillers if medically required.) Does he expect that his other children will never do, or never did, any of these things before the age of 26? Because that’s not going to happen. And everything else is harm reduction.

Something to Keep in Mind…

In the meantime, we can rejoice through the film that Sheff’s son is a privileged person with supportive parents, financial resources, and academic and intellectual skills. And, thusly, he has a strong foundation from which to quit meth and focus on his writing career.

But we must realize that people with those social assets succeed far better at overcoming addiction, regardless of any and which treatment they receive. And when children of prominent and successful people – like Nic Sheff, William Cope Moyers, and Christopher Lawford – outgrow addiction, they often launch a career in recovery. Just keep in mind that none of them would have achieved the success they did were it not for their addictions.

Author Bios: The authors, Stanton Peele and Zach Rhoads, are, respectively, an addiction psychologist and a developmental specialist. Stanton is the father of three children and a grandfather, while Zach is a new father. Together, they are soon to publish, Outgrowing Addiction: With Common Sense Instead of “Disease” Therapy. They work together on the online Life Process Program for addiction coaching.


Images Courtesy of iStock

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