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The Sheffs

Nic and David

Nic and David

-Opening the Doors committee (left to right) Scott McWilliam, Merrill Shwaid, Riva McWilliam, Ivy Kopstein, Ruth Simkin ( Co-chair), Debra Mayer, Harriet Zimmer ( co-chair), Nic Sheff – guest speaker Judy Waldman, Krista Zipper, Einat Paz Keynan, Gail Thau missing from the photo> Don Fuchs, Lee Garfinkel, Sharon Goszer-Tritt, Sherry Lercher Davis, Simone Sucharov Benarroch

David and Nick Sheff: How to Treat Addictions-Treat both the Addiction and Underlying Psychological Problems Simultaneously- A Personal Story

by Rhonda Spivak, April 10, 2014

Many people who have addictions also have psychological problems (i.e. depression, anxiety, and battered self-esteem) and we should be advocating for dual diagnosis and dual treatment centres, such that both the addiction and the psychological problems can be treated simultaneously. That is what both Nic Sheff, a recovered addict, and his father David Sheff, a journalist (whose first book on the subject was "Beautiful Boy: A father's Journey through his Son Nic's Meth Addiction"), told a large multi-faith audience at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in March. This was part of the “Opening the Door: Conversations about Addiction" conference on addictions organized by Jewish Child and Family Service  which took place on March 20th and 21st.


Both father and son said it is not enough to say that the addict must come clean, before the underlying psychological problems can be treated. The two day conference was designed to create increased awareness and education about addiction in the community. Approximately 400 people attended Thursday March 20 in the evening to hear from David and Nic Sheff.


They both spoke of the need to treat addictions and an addict's psychological problems "simultaneously" in response to a heart breaking moment during the evening when a member of the audience asked about dual treatment centres after sharing that she had a son who had committed suicide four weeks earlier. Her son had both an addiction and depression, but no one had found a way to get a handle on the depression, and treating the addiction was not enough.


In his opening remarks, David Sheff, spoke poignantly of his family's struggle in dealing with his son Nic's addiction to crystal meth for about ten years, and noted that Nic, now 31, "had been  diagnosed with bipolar disorder." But Nick wasn't diagnosed with Bi-polar disorder until he was in his 20's.  Nic spoke of how in his road to recovery it was important for him “to have a good therapist" with whom he could connect.


David Sheff noted that addiction overdose is the third highest causing of death in the United States. "Over 80% of children fewer than 18 will try drug use and one in ten children will become addicted."


Sheff explained that when researchers asked kids why they used drugs, the number one answer was “stress." (as opposed to what was expected which is that kids would answer "because it feels good," or "because of peer pressure.")


"What's stressing out our kids?" he asked. He answered that research has shown that kids who feel isolated, have battered self esteem, are depressed or anxious are more likely to have problems with addiction.


"Kids with learning disabilities are more likely to have drug use," David added.


According to him, research has also shown that having family dinners are important for children, such that children who do not have regular family dinners are two and a half times more likely to be involved in drug use. "They need consistency, and built in time with family," Sheff noted.


He also noted that research has shown that children whose parents have helped them with their homework are less likely to engage in drug abuse.


"The most important force in their lives is their parents," David Sheff added, saying "Our [Parental] values remain the most important influence in their lives."


He also pointed out that studies show that "kids who haven't used drugs by the time they get to college are more likely to know how to handle stress without drug use, than kids who have."


He emphasized that addiction is caused by biological, psychological and environmental factors, and that it can be helped by teens getting physical exercise, counselling, and having creative outlets such as through the arts.


In regard to children with battered self-esteem, David Sheff said that "Children learn what you want them to be," but “You must cherish your children for who they are, not what you want them to be."


Sheff said he wrote his first book about his family's ordeal struggling with Nic's addiction, in order to get the message across that what happened to his family "can happen to any family." He had written an article in the New York Times, and told the audience that “I saw an outpouring of concern," and he received responses form thousands of people." He heard from all sorts of people, who were keeping their their anguish hidden.


David Sheff explained that by high school Nic had tried drugs other than pot and had developed an addiction to crystal meth. It got to the point where he was living on the street, had overdosed several times and almost had to have his arm amputated as a result of the drug addiction.


While David Sheff's book came out, Nic wote "Tweak” his own memoirs of what it's like to be a drug addict.


Nic Sheff spoke after his father, and tried to explain to the audience why he had become addicted.


He remembered that as a teen "I always felt uncomfortable in my own skin. When I smoked pot I felt better. I was able to talk to girls...I started smoking pot all day long. Pot is a depressant so it made me more depressed."


Nic spoke about his going to re-hab. He said he needed to find out "what was it inside of me that I hated so much that I felt the need to use drugs."


After being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder Nic said that he tried going without medication until "finally I realized that I need to be on medication." He said that his emotions can still run high. "The littlest thing would make me want to curl up into a ball."


He continued, "I get these emotions and I don't know what to do with them. But he noted that he had found a good therapist and "she can talk me through it"


Nic concluded, "I am very grateful for the life I have today...The first time I'd been in rehab I wish I'd stayed sober then.  If you have an opportunity to get sober, get sober now."


On Friday morning over 800 students listened intently to Nic Sheff speak about his journey through addiction - followed by a question and answer period.


Last year both father and son published second book on the topic of drug addiction. Nic's new work is “We All Fall Down" and advises readers that it is a struggle to get sober, that insecurity and cravings take time to  go away and that setbacks are to be expected but can be overcome. David Sheff's new book is "Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending Americas Greatest Tragedy."

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.