We recently had the privilege of catching up with yet another one of our fabulous judges for the LIVES Challenge (which by the way, is ending in a short month!) — David Sheff. Some of you may have even read David’s work: Clean, a New York Times Best Seller, or Beautiful Boy. If you have, you’ll know that he is a powerful voice and respected leader when it comes to elevating the understanding of addiction in our society.
We sat down with David to learn more about his parental experiences with addiction and stigma, and listen to the advice he has for other parents who are dealing with an addicted child.
Q: Given your experience with addiction, what are some of the biggest things you’ve learned about the disease that you never thought you would?
The first thing I learned is that no one is immune to addiction. You may think that it only happens to other people — that it won’t happen to you or your family — but it can happen to anyone.
The next thing I learned is that addiction is a serious illness. It’s a brain disease that’s progressive, chronic, and often fatal. Understanding this was transformative for me because society has always treated addiction as a moral failing or something that only happens to people without willpower. The misconception here comes from the fact that addiction doesn’t look like a disease. It looks like a choice because no one forces a person to take drugs. However, drugs change the neurological system to the point that it’s no longer about a choice. Those who are struggling with substance abuse would stop if they could.
Finally, I learned that there is hope. I came to realize that the disease of addiction is preventable and treatable with evidence-based treatments that include medications, behavioral therapies, monitoring and management. These are the same kind of approaches that the medical field often takes for diabetes, hypertension, chronic pain, and many other illnesses.
Q: In your experience, how does stigma fuel the shame of addiction?
Because of the stigma around addiction, people keep drug use and addiction a secret. They end up keeping it hidden and suffering in silence. What’s even worse is that the longer drug use is kept secret, the less likely it is that someone will receive help. Again, there is a need here to recognize addiction as a psychological disorder rather than a choice.
It’s critical that people understand that addiction is an illness because when people make bad choices, ones we view as immoral, we blame them and punish them. We demand confession and contrition. On the contrary, when people are ill, we treat them with compassion, and the course forward is clearer. People who are ill don’t need blame, chastisement, or punishment — they need treatment.
Q: For other parents who can relate to your story, what would be your greatest piece of advice?
When a child becomes addicted to a substance, parents are in hell. We want to protect our kids and we feel powerless. I know these feelings first-hand. The first thing to know is that you’re not alone. The second is that you should do everything you can to get your child into treatment. A lot of people will tell you to kick your kids out, shun them, cut off contact with them, or to use “tough love” because they’ll need to hit rock bottom before they can be treated. This is untrue. The last thing you want to do is make someone who is ill feel worse about themselves — they feel bad enough already. Isolating them and blaming them can make it more likely they’ll continue using. Ultimately, my advice is: don’t give up on trying to save the life of a child. At the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do, so it’s not your fault if your efforts are not successful, but keep trying. In the meantime, recognize that you’re going through one of the most stressful situations available, and get help. There are support groups, and I don’t know if I would have made it if I wasn’t in therapy.
Q: Do you believe that parents have a particularly influential voice when it comes to spreading awareness of addiction and its stigma?
Parents have more of an influence on their children’s decisions than any other single force. Of course this doesn’t mean they always listen to us — often they don’t — but they learn from our attitudes and we model for them. It’s easy for parents to think that by the time kids are teenagers, they’re uninterested in what we say. However, that’s not true. Even if they don’t show it (or know it), they need us.
Kids live in a complicated world and most are under enormous stress. In fact, stress leads to drug use more than any other single factor. By supporting, talking and listening to our children we can help alleviate this stress in their lives and in turn, help them remain healthy. If you see that your child is suffering, talk to counselors or therapists in order to understand the nature and severity of their problems and what to do about it. As a pediatrician I know says, “If you think there’s a problem, there’s a problem.” That applies to drug use or other things. Do they seem depressed? Overly anxious? Are they struggling socially or academically? Don’t ignore it – get help.
Parents are in a position to help others understand addiction — what it is, how to prevent it, and how to treat it. One thing to keep in mind: kids using drugs are not BAD kids, they’re OUR kids.
Q: So many people have become familiar with your story through your books, Clean and Beautiful Boy. Why do you think that sharing your personal story of addiction and recovery is so important?
They say you’re as sick as your secrets. It’s true. When we hide what we’re going through, the suffering increases. Being open isn’t a panacea, but there’s great relief and we can get help. At first, my family kept our story a secret because we didn’t want to be judged. I thought, “I must be a terrible father if my son is struggling with addiction,” and even more than that, I didn’t want Nic to be judged.
However, once we shared our story, we found outpourings of love and offers to help rather than judgement. When Nic and I both wrote books about our experiences, we heard from thousands of people who were relieved to know they weren’t alone. The books — our stories — gave people hope. I never minimized the severity of the problem. Far too many kids are dying every day — one every 15 minutes from overdose of prescription pain pills — but as I’ve learned, drug use can be prevented and addiction can be treated.
Q: As a society, what can we do to eradicate the stigma surrounding substance abuse and mental illness?
We’re on the path to ending the stigma now that more and more people are talking about it. Recently, President Obama gave a speech about America’s drug crisis and announced that he’s allocating money for prevention, treatment, and research. Most governors and many congressmen and women have also spoken about the disease of addiction. The more we talk about this problem, the more we communicate that this isn’t a moral failing, but a disease. Once we can change the perception, the more that people will leave behind judgement and blame.
The reason the nation is finally taking on the problem of drug use and addiction is because many people have decided that they will no longer remain silent. Parents and others around the country have determined that they will no longer sit idly and hide in the shadows. They are marching on Washington, meeting their legislators and demanding action. They are telling their stories so more and more people can understand this disease the way that they do.
We’re in this together, fighting this disease that’s killing so many people we love. We need to keep talking, writing, marching, organizing, voting, donating, and otherwise educating about this disease. If we do, eventually the stigma will be replaced by compassion.
Q: What is your greatest hope for the future of the recovery movement?
Even as the stigma melts away, we’re learning more about how to effectively prevent drug use and treat addiction. Medical science is telling us more about the complex contributors of biology, environment, and psychology. The more we know, the more we can help those who are vulnerable and struggling with addiction. The more people that receive help, the more that will join the millions in recovery.
We often talk about the 23 million people in America who struggle with addiction, but there’s about the same number in recovery. Now that people are refusing to stay anonymous, there’s more hope for others. More people are beginning to realize that individuals in recovery can lead productive lives defined by joy, loving relationships, and mental health.