Sunday, September 26, 2010

Beautiful Boy

I read an interesting book over the last few weeks, Beautiful Boy by David Sheff. I bought it almost a year ago (more?) but distractions kept me from it... probably reading vampire books. I have to say that this read was similar to the worst (meaning terrifying) fiction. I tend to avoid sad stories, overly gory movies, anything that might rip my heart out or put images that I can't handle into my head; they come rising unbidden in the dark, or a dark hour.*

Beautiful Boy is the story of a smart, engaged, sweet teenager who starts down the road of addiction and his father's struggle to help him.

So Beautiful Boy sat around for months based on my fear of how bad it would hurt. Instead, when I read it, I got the strange kind of comfort (sick in some ways) that comes from a pernicious half-lie, half-truth: "I am not like this man."

It may be a lousy self-centered excuse to therefore enjoy it, but I got into this book quickly, once I started. Sheff is a very clear writer, and yet didn't give me more info that I needed. I liked that he left some things unstated, like all the emotion that comes up when you see an ex-spouse, collaborative for a child, and you flash back to who you both once were, and how strangely connected you will always be, no matter how long since the divorce.

Sheff quotes a lot of classics, and new materials on addiction, and I lapped that up. It helps me to short-hand big thoughts into paragraphs, much like the cliches of AA and Al-Anon help alcoholics and families of alcoholics. I haven't examined his resources and credits lists, but I'm sure there is plenty of side-trails to follow from his reassuringly professional (think, journalistic) documentation.

There were nights I stayed up way too late to read Beautiful Boy, always a good sign. While I both love and hate this - the lure of a good book versus the 500 lb gorilla (my need for rest) - how could I not recommend it?

It takes a very well written story to stand down a primal need for sleep. And so it goes with the story of Sheff's son fighting addiction. Even with the more modern view that addiction is a disease, it's no less dangerous than a wild, unpredictable animal, and so primal in it's own way. All our advances in modern medicine don't give us pat answers about treatment for addicts, a point that Sheff makes very well with deep research and personal experience.

Sheff's research confirmed my suspicion that the rehab industry is all over the place with theories of what works, various studies that back up their claims of what works, and solid numbers, such as how many times does an addict relapse? Sheff doesn't shy away from all the ambiguity or resulting frustration. In the end you find that even with so much uncertainty there is a way to find some balance. Sheff writes it so well, that while you share his insanity (caused by loving an addict) you also get carried along and only slowly realize all the places in his life where it's crazy, which strikes me as very authentic.

By the way the book's title, I suspect, comes from a John Lennon song. He made a good role-model for those who (wrongly) equate addition/alcoholism with greatness/genius.

Even after years of studying the topic, I found a new reference to remind me that it is our stories that heal, and we have to do the leg work. Sheff has a helluva lot of courage. Anyone who has faced alcoholism, addiction or other "crazy" behavior (aka co-dependency) among their loved ones, or in themselves should check it out.

*It took me 5 years as a Jew to read about the Holocaust for instance. I had even coordinated Holocaust Remembrance gatherings for two years in a row, but had never read about the event. The details were too much for me to face. Similarly, when I read about women crossing the Oregon Trails I felt the same way. I read their stories while a big new job was crumbling for me and I was very much at the barrel end of a gun every day (boss was pretty insane), with a teen son fighting with his stepdad nearly every night. Still, somehow at least I had a bathroom and a bed. Women on the frontier had a hellish existence I could appreciate. Not only did their courage make me feel better, and not so fool-hardy, but also the depths of their pain and losses lightened my own a bit. Tragic, true, but at least I wasn't hiking my skirt on the prairie in front of a bunch of men.

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