B reviews,  Bug,  Family Matters,  Life Lessons

a beautiful book

beautiful boy

I just finished Beautiful Boy by David Sheff and it has left me deep in thought. This was a great book for me right now. I don’t know if it would have the same effect on the next person or even if it would have touched me as deeply if I had read it a year ago. It was just the right thing to read at the right time.

Here I am on day two of trying to punch out this blog post and I wonder if I can even manage to string two words together. Good books do that to me. I love good writing but when I read good writing I catch myself overthinking my own words that fall so far short of what I have just read. So you’ll have to either skip over the rest of this post and read the book yourself or humor me as I feebly try to explain why it meant so much to me.

This book has changed the way I think about addiction. And that means a lot because the subject of addiction has been a life-long puzzle to me. I just didn’t understand it. I’ve never been addicted to drugs myself. I’m “addicted” to sugar and food and even the internet. But I don’t understand what it is like to have my brain chemically altered in such a way that I will continue to make bad choices even against my own best wishes.

I’ve been paranoid about drugs since the day my dad sat me down and told me about these Mickey-Mouse stamps that have LSD on the back. I used to have nightmares about going to junior high and being pushed up against a chain-link fence by some scary kid with a black mohawk and being forced to lick stamps. What a funny visual that is. I actually used to have heart palpitations when a kid that I labeled “a bad kid” would walk into the same room. Maybe my dad scared me straight. Maybe I’m just a freak. Whatever it is, this has been a subject I’ve almost been obsessed with.

As you know my mother-in-law is an addict. She is an alcoholic and has been on a painful downward spiral for the past six months. I didn’t think she was going to make it out alive this time but she proved me wrong again. I never know. That’s the hardest part I think, just not ever knowing. When to trust her. When is she lying? When is she not? When to help her? When to not?

I think the biggest thing I learned from this book is that addiction is a disease after all. I NEVER believed that before. How dare my mother-in-law slide into the same category as someone with cancer or multiple sclerosis? People with diseases don’t choose to get sick. They don’t try to kill themselves over and over and hurt their family members in the process. It was preposterous to me.

David Sheff does his research. He is very thorough. His son is a meth addict and he goes to the ends of the earth to understand the drug and what it has done to his son. He actually looks at brain scans and sees how the brain is altered after that first usage of drugs.

I think I can get my head around that. That doesn’t mean I feel sorry for my mother-in-law but I can understand that her decisions are made through a filter. Her brain is predisposed to do whatever it takes to keep that dopamine pumping. Forgive me if I get the technical terms wrong. I read that stuff and it makes perfect sense but the scientific terms run out my ear and are never contained in my memory. All I know is that there is a scientific explanation for my mother-in-law’s behavior. She isn’t off the hook totally but her behavior is predictable. Which is crazy since “predictable” is not usually a word I would use to describe her.

Mr. Sheff and his son had a special relationship. He loves his son deeper than I love my mother-in-law. She is a sweet old lady and I love moments like these but I didn’t know her when she didn’t have a problem. I didn’t know her when she was a little kid with white blond hair and innocent eyes.

I do know Baby Bug though. I may have to erase this post someday because I’m terribly afraid of her reading it and I want to protect her from my fears as long as I can. Worst of all worst-case scenarios, I don’t want to cause a self-fulfilling prophesy. I feel so terrible even admitting this to you guys that I think these things but often I stare at her and feel like crying because I’m so afraid that she is going to inherit this addictive gene and will someday be in a gutter addicted to meth. Meth addiction is my greatest fear.

Toby assures me that we are giving Baby Bug the best possible childhood and she has every chance in the world to grow up happy and healthy. Usually children that become addicted to drugs or alcohol have a gaping hole in their heart. Something terrible happened to them at young age that causes them pain and they cannot develop normally because of it. I don’t plan on ripping a hole in Baby Bug’s life. In fact I am going to do everything I can to make sure there will never be any holes at all. But you can’t control these things. Sometimes kids from perfectly healthy homes get addicted to drugs.

I’m just a mom and I worry. I am a worrywart.

Reading this book has given me some relief from my endless worrying. There are signs I can look for. There are actions I can take. It’s good to talk to your kids about drugs early and often, Sheff says. Of course we knew that. But it isn’t good to talk about your own experiences with drugs. Often kids will interpret your survival as a go-ahead. If my mom did it and turned out okay, then I can too sort of thing. I didn’t know that.

Mostly what I take away from Sheff’s book is that addiction isn’t the end of your relationship with your child. Sheff still has a relationship with his son. I don’t know if his son is still sober but at the time the book was published, he was. I’ve heard since that they even do press conferences together. This gives me hope. I don’t mean to be a pessimist. I one-hundred-percent expect Baby Bug to be like me and never even try the stuff… but part of me wants to be prepared for the worst. Part of me doesn’t want to be broadsided.

Sheff also explains that it is so important to take care of each other when you are dealing with an addict. Toby and I know that firsthand. Toby has been through so many ordeals with his mother, you’d think he would be an expert at dealing with it, but it still takes its toll every time. He tries to push it out of his mind and carry on but he tells me that his work suffers. He has a hard time concentrating.

I know I have a hard time being my happy cheerful self when his mom is drinking. I’m constantly waiting for the phone calls. Constantly watching the caller ID to make sure I don’t pick up the phone for another social worker who is going to sucker me into feeling guilty for something I am not guilty of.

I don’t have a solution for these problems but I do have some tools. It does help to listen to other people’s stories. It’s a huge problem and so many people are going through it. There is some strength in that. We are not alone even though at times we feel so incredibly alone. I personally haven’t had much luck with Al-Anon but I know it’s there.

Maybe I can stop looking at Baby Bug and imagining her shooting up. I can still hold her close but I won’t be crying because I see her with sunken eyes and sores all over her legs. I’m scary like that. I scare the crap out of myself. I hope she never knows the extent of my imagination and my fear for her. I’m sure she will cause me great worry for many many years. My mom says she still stays up at night worrying about my brother and I and we are in our thirties. I guess it’s something that never goes away.

I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom. I finished this book feeling uplifted. Comforted that there are other parents out there who do not give up on their children. My life may be hell if I have to go through this but for Sheff it paid off that he didn’t give up on his son. This comforts me.

Baby Bug isn’t going to be my mother-in-law. She has me.


  • sizzle

    That sounds like a really interesting book, particularly to me presently dealing with a best friend who has not yet hit bottom with her alcoholism. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • Kandace

    OMG! It’s so hard not to worry, isn’t? I have two addicts as siblings. We had the same childhood, but I guess we all process our experiences differently.

    The one thing that my parents did not do when my siblings started ‘experimenting’ was stop them or even attempt to. They turned their cheeks and let them be kids.

    My dad worked with a guy who had a daughter my sister’s age. The guy found out his daughter was ‘experimenting’ and sent her to rehab – my dad thought he was overreacting. His daughter is a successful lawyer, my sister is an alcoholic who can’t hold a job.

    Anyway, I like you am obsessed with addiction because it’s haunted me even though I am not an addict. Well maybe I am but I was too scared to even try drugs.

    You’ve peeked my interest now.

    Oh! and Baby Bug is going to be fine – she has you!

  • bethany v

    glad you got your head around that, I still haven’t I don’t think. sounds like a great book, a great dad, and you’re the most amazing mom ever. there are always fears, but getting a grip on them keeps them in check, right? i have the craziest imagination when it comes to that stuff, mine are always sudden horrible things and I find myself imagining phone calls, deaths, traumas, you name it. i pre-cope just in case :) moms :)

    hugs in the toby-absence, i just passed my first week out of 4 (2nd month in a row) and i know how it feels!

  • Beth

    I’ve been an addiction recovery counselor for quite some time. I’ve also been someone who has suffered from alcoholism in my life. It’s difficult to understand when you are on the outside looking in. My abuse of alcohol stemmed from an inability to cope with my life. It wasn’t until I learned better coping skills, that I began to take control and not use to numb what I felt I couldn’t handle. I believe addiction is a disease. But it’s a disease that has a two-fold effect. It destroys the body, and it destroys the soul. But there is a way out. It’s a hard road, but it’s possible.

    We all worry about our kids. I have 4 and addiction worries me simply because we have the genetic predisposition. But I also believe that open and honest communication and teaching our kids healthy coping skills is the key. We can’t live our kids lives for them, but while we have them under our watchful eye, we can guide and direct them to make healthy choices. I’m sure you’re doing a great job with your little one and will continue to do so!

  • Corey

    Sounds like a good book. Have you read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin? It’s fantastic! I think you would like it =]

  • Laurie

    I want to read that book, too. I heard an interview with him and his son and also the son has a book out right now, too – told from his (the son’s perspective) I thought it might be interesting to read both sides.

    I worry more about my kids than I thought possible, too. I just hope that I am guiding mine as well as my parents did for me and be there for them. Seems to me that you do a fab job at both…

  • Lisa {milkshake}

    I rarely comment here, but I also read this book and had a totally different reaction to it! I felt kind of hopeless after reading – like there’s nothing we can do as parents to protect our kids from drugs. Hmmm. That sounds really depressing. What I meant was: this dad tried everything in his power to get his son away from drugs and it basically had no impact. The kid had to stop when he was ready. That scares the hell out of me.

    I’ve also had some experience with addiction. A childhood friend of mine is an addict and wasn’t taking care of her three children. My husband and I stepped in and took custody of them for a few years. I wrote about it a little here: http://milkshakecrafts.blogspot.com/2007/09/are-you-alright.html.

    Sometimes I just want to put my daughter in a bubble and keep her four years old forever.

  • Lori

    beautiful post, and so honest. i have addicts in my family and can empathize with everything you’re saying. xoxo

  • kedge

    ‘…guide and direct them to make healthy choices’ that is the key. Gramma used to silently, desperately pray when she was trying to teach us good judgement because the only way to accomplish that is to allow us to make mistakes and to suffer the negative consequences. Doing this when we were young and the choices weren’t life threatening is alot easier than trying to learn it when one is older and the bad choice could lead to another, a domino effect, or worse; a sorry life of perpetual damage control. Most importantly, you have the comfort and protection of the One who said “Suffer the children to come unto me.” He loves her most of all.

  • bluejaye

    As regular as clockwork….tomorrow is her birthday, the next mothers day.

    We are breaking the cycle and giving our kids a good, healthy childhood. I think the most important thing we can teach them is Responsibility for themselves and their actions.

  • Monica

    I heard David Sheff and his son interviewed on the NPR program Fresh Air. It was a really fascinating interview. The son has also written a book about his experiences – oh someone already told you that. I was most fascinated by the dad’s recounting the experience of having to hang up on his son and NOT go and get him from the streets. Heart wrenching decision, but he had to think of his other two kids and had been burned so many times before by his addicted son.

    I hope to read this book sometime. Thanks for the post about it — and it was beautifully written, too.

  • Melissa

    Powerful post. Thank you. And I don’t think your fears are unwarranted or overly worrisome. We have NO idea what challenges and temptations will face our children in 15-20 years. But I, like you, hope against all hope that you (and I) never see those fears realized.
    Thanks for your insights and your honesty.

  • Kaili

    Totally hear ya on the the right book at the right time thought. Love those books! And I understand the depth of how books resinate better when you are ready to read them. When you are open to that one.

    Also an AWESOME book for you would be “Hold On To Your Kids” By Gabor Mate and ____ Neufeld. SO good, no this topic.
    I know when people suggest books, and you don’t really know them, it’s all, “whateves!” but it’s a good read, promise!

  • Busymomma66

    I am married to an addict (alcohol and Vicodin)–I can understand where your at. Al-anon is a great group–helping family and friends of addicts. They also help you realize what’s your responsibility and what is not, how to help and what doesn’t.

    Thank you for talking about this book–I’m definitely going out and reading it. I’m going to try to persuade my son to read it (he’s 14).

  • ninabi

    As a mother of a little girl who is now a grown up girl, may I suggest another book?

    Reviving Ophelia by Dr. Mary Pipher. We share the same fears- particularly if substance abuse lurks in our genes. Dr. Pipher is a psychologist who grew up in a small town in Nebraska- a safe, Mayberry sort of place. She includes a description of her upbringing along with chapters about patients- girls- and how they made it through their adolescence. It’s a story about families- bad ones and also very good ones, ones that help girls and those that need assistance. Some are so sad and others make you cheer (like reading about an upbeat, good girl and her only parent, a bedridden, ill father who worries that his daughter ought to be going on to college and her own life and not living at home worrying about him).

    It’s not a how-to-parent book. It’s a book about insights. And something tells me it will be very reassuring to a good parent like you.

  • Julie

    Thank you so much for talking about this. I too have a close relative who is a alcoholic and it helps to know I’m not alone. Thank you for sharing this book with us.

  • Gingermog

    Powerful post, as I’m not a parent it makes me realise how you never stop worrying
    about your children and how your fear for a time when their not under your protection. Addiction to different levels runs in both my family and my husband’s. I always think that any child of mine would be like me, with my values somehow instilled, but who knows?. I don’t think I really understand addiction either, as I always think you have a choice to act in a certain way, but perhaps you don’t.
    Growing up I always knew I was loved, and the good things were expected from me which I think has helped me through a lot of difficult times as I had to be responsible for myself quite young due to illness in my family. I think with a mom like you Bug with grow up feeling loved.

  • amy

    My husband and his father and his father’s father are/were all alcoholics. While my husband and his dad have both been sober for decades now, their experiences before AA scare the heck out of me. At the same time, they’ve been able to learn compassion and empathy for others through their recovery experiences, and my husband is truly my hero and a role model I’m so glad our kids have in their lives.

    I’ve come to look at it like this: everyone has something they are working on. My kids may have predispositions to addictive behavior. It’s a disease, (and oh my gosh is it–the very things that make him so good at his job and other pursuits come out of that single-minded obsessive tendency) but it’s a disease that we can at least be looking out for symptoms of–something my husband and his family members DIDN’T have. So maybe the downward spiral for the next generation can be stopped earlier. Maybe not. There’s a lot we don’t control. I try to prepare for the worst while expecting the best on my good days! Baby Bug has two wonderful parents. That’s a BIG plus.

  • BeachMama

    I am so glad to hear that I am not alone in the worrying Mom field. I too have never done drugs and don’t even drink a lot because I fear the addict. I don’t even know why I fear it I just do. I do know I never wanted to be the falling down drunk that my Sister and her friends were and I didn’t want anyone cleaning up my puke (like I did for her and her friends). So that is what kept me away from booze for many years. Then years later when I slung beer for a living, I served a few too many people that all they lived for was their 5pm beer. I knew right there I would never let myself be like that. So now the question, how do I keep my kids away from the drugs and the booze like their Mom?? I haven’t figured that one out yet, but I hope to one day. BB has both you and Toby and you both seemed to turn out pretty great, so I think you both have the right foundation to work from.

  • amy

    I will have to read. Sounds fascinating.

    I understand your fears for Baby Bug. My family history is heavy on the depressive side as is my husbands. I seriously debated marrying him for this reason. But I did.

    My kids have a far greater chance of becoming depressive as adults. But I live with this knowing they have two very supportive parents who are very attuned to the symptoms and willing to help them seek the proper help.

    Try not to worry about BB. She has you and Toby to steer her in the right direction.

  • chris

    Both of my parents were alcoholics (with a family tree littered with them). I am not. And as far as I know, my sister wasn’t either. It is possible.

    I haven’t read this book, but will have to add it to my list. I am curious about the interview on NPR too.

  • C

    Baby Bug has you, she has Toby… she has a family who loves her and is vigilant. I think what you say about having open, honest conversations about drugs and alcohol is very important. Sometimes, it’s just so much easier to not talk about hard subjects. You sound like a great mom – Happy Mother’s Day!

  • Sam

    Hopefully just getting this off of your chest and putting words to it will help you breathe easier. It’s so hard not to worry, and I think you are wise in learning more about this, trying to understand it, and then being honest and upfront with Baby Bug as she gets older. I know my mom feared – and maybe still – for us but was always very open about my grandfather’s addiction and how we were also at risk. That has always stayed with me.

    I’d also like to chime in and recommend Raising Ophelia – I read it back when I was 18 and it helped me understand myself so much better. I know it would be invaluable, with all the little girls in your life!