Monday, February 16, 2009

Tweak by Nic Sheff

I'd been sober exactly eighteen months on April 1st, just two days ago. I'd made so much progress. My life was suddenly working, you know? I had a 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 on Ambien, which I'd stolen from the med room at that rehab.

Honestly, I was as surprised by my own actions as anyone else.

"Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines" is author Nic Sheff's memoirs of his last two relapses into drug abuse. Nic is the son of David Sheff, the "Beautiful Boy" in the title of the elder Sheff's own memoir. When I reviewed that book, I mentioned that I planned on reading Nic's version of the events. I'm glad I did, but I'm happy that I waited a few weeks, rather than read the two books as the companion volumes that so many critics are making them out to be.

Tweak starts with the first of Nic's most recent relapses. Nic doesn't spend a lot of time ruminating on the whys of each relapse episode. He doesn't really get very introspective until the end of the book, when a dual diagnosis (mental illness and addiction) rehab center helps him get to the root of the psychological basis for his addictions. For most of the book, Nic just details the horrors of his present, and even the relative bleakness of his year of sobriety in between his two latest relapses.

One thing I found interesting was Nic's pervasive feelings of worthlessness and his need to use others for his own self-validation. He particularly falls into this with his relationships. Each of Nic's relapses coincides with a relationship. In the first, he meets up with and dates old friend and recovering addict Lauren only after his relapse, causing her to relapse as well. The two spend a drug fueled month holed up in her parents' home why they are away, alternately shooting up mixtures of meth and heroin or having sex. It takes getting away from Lauren for Nic to achieve sobriety after that month, only after stealing from parents' and friends' homes and dealing meth with a street kid named Gack for money. Although Nic and Lauren profess to love one another, Nic notes that he has never spent time with Lauren sober. This relationship and relapse seem minor compared with the second Nic details.

While sober, Nic is consumed by feelings of depression, mania, and worthlessness. He writes about considering going back to Lauren, reasoning, "I know she had problems, but at least I had a girlfriend. So far I haven't met anyone that I could possibly have a relationship with. That is a big thing for me. I've always felt sort of worthless if I didn't have a girlfriend."

Throughout the book, Nic writes about episodes of his life from when he was younger, or from other relapses. He describes letting gay men have sex with him for money to buy drugs, and stealing cancer medication and needles from his girlfriend's mom's house to get high. He describes his "unconventional" childhood, being toted around with his single dad to movie previews, parties and around San Francisco. He describes being a little boy and running into his dad's bedroom one morning to find a naked woman in bed too. This was the late 1980s in San Francisco and precocious Nic's first worry is that his dad will catch AIDs. It is only after his dad shows him with a condom and a banana how he is protecting himself that Nic feels better. Nic writes that, "My dad used to tell that story to his friends like it was really funny and cool," subtly digging at his unsheltered upbringing.

The second half of Tweak is dominated by Nic's latest relapse, spurred in part by his relationship with Zelda, the love of his life. Zelda ("Z" from Beautiful Boy) is 15 years older than Nic, divorced and Hollywood royalty. Nic feels validated just by being with her and their friends, a group of writers, actors and other Hollywood elite. He is so defined by these relationships that at his last rehab, he is put on a "no name-dropping" contract so he can no longer use his connections to brag. Zelda is pretty damaged, the product of many failed relationships and a drug addicted mother who committed suicide by hanging herself.

Nic and Zelda become completely codependent on one another and the book becomes a twisted drug-addled love story towards the end. They find themselves getting engaged while high one night, selling their possessions for drug money, and fighting constantly while strung out and psychotic from meth, Suboxone, heroin, coke, crack, benzos (it's a product of my sheltered upbringing that I don't even know what those are...Nic doesn't elaborate), and various other prescription drugs. Nic finally bottoms out when he gets stuck in a psychotic break in his own mother's garage while trying to break into her house and steal a computer. His parents offer him a last chance: rehab or they press charges and he goes to jail.

Nic reluctantly chooses rehab, and in the process learns more about his underlying need for validation, his connections between sex and self-validation, his underlying diagnosis of bipolar disorder and his tendencies towards codependent relationships. He writes in Tweak's final chapters that he is finally listening to his feelings and beginning to grieve for the time he has lost and the experiences he has put himself through. The book ends on a hopeful note, despite his parents' reluctance to fully believe in his sobriety, having been through rehab so often with him.

Nic's story was more critical of his parents and upbringing than I would have thought going into it. He describes his ruined relationship with stepmother Karen and his dislike of his stepfather Todd, who he doesn't feel treats his mom well. He describes his dad as his best friend and hero in one breath and denounces his over exposed childhood in another. He writes that the long distance dual-custody arrangement put him directly in the middle of his parents' bickering and that they constantly subjected him to their tirades against one another. At the same time, he recognizes that what he has put his parents through during his relapses far surpasses any anger he feels towards them.

This was a very graphic book, typical of the addiction and recovery memoirs I've read, both YA and adult (Go Ask Alice, Smack, Million Little Pieces). Nic spares no detail in describing his drug-fueled marathon sex with Lauren and Zelda; an orgy he participated in as a sex worker; a festering wound from a dirty needle that abscessed and nearly caused him to lose his arm; the struggle to find a vein that hasn't collapsed in the middle of his relapses. It's definitely an interesting and quick read. I'm glad I read it, because David Sheff presents himself as a bit of a martyr in "Beautiful Boy." Tweak allows us to see the struggle on the other side. I'm not excusing anything Nic does (he doesn't ask readers to), but it is interesting to read about the influences Nic was exposed to growing up.


Anonymous said...

I just read your book. You are so gifted in so many ways. I pray you are sober today!!!!!!!!! You have so much to live for and you are so bright I cant stand to think of you ever going back there(HELL).I was struck by the fact that you thought you were so ugly,funny your father said you were so good looking and that people were always drawn to you. I believe your father.BE WELL

denise said...

I don't know if you will ever read this Nic but i read your book 3 times and i had a panic attack thru a couple scenes, feeling just what you would have felt. You are gifted, expressive and i believe an over all great person. Wish i could meet you in person, man do we have so much in common. I am doing ok now tho, just an alkie. Can't give that up, it has taken too many of my years and my kids away so i feel it is all i have left. If i gave that up i have nothing, you know? and lost everything for nothing. At least i have my bottle to show for it.
I cried with you and prayed for you. I hope you are well.