After journalist David Sheff's heartbreaking memoir about his son's struggles with addiction — and with the American health care system — came out in 2008, the author started getting letters.
First there was a little trickle. But before long it was a flood of thousands upon thousands, he said, and they told some of the saddest stories ever.
"We've been through hell and no one knows," is what they said. But in "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction," they said, Sheff told their stories. Except that some of those tales had a different ending than his hopeful one — with a young man in real recovery, with years of hard-won sobriety now under his belt.
"Our beautiful boy didn't make it," they said. "He died."
So much sadness, desperation, grief and confusion, Sheff marvelled, "and no one was talking about it."
That's why addiction is "America's greatest tragedy," Sheff told an audience at Clark College on Wednesday night: because it is so stigmatized. Because the people who suffer what is clearly a genetic predilection and a brain disease are hit with moral judgment and punishment instead of loving kindness and appropriate treatment, he said.
Sheff said 112,000 Americans die of addiction every year, and that there's a heroin or prescription medication overdose death every 20 minutes. Overall, he said, there are 23 million people who are addicted in the U.S.; add in their families and Sheff figures that some 100 million Americans are directly impacted by addiction.
And yet, addiction is mostly seen as a joke by media that laughs at celebrity misadventures and cycles of detox, he said. When he wrote a magazine piece following the overdose death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in February, the negative and "vitriolic" reaction was swift: What do you mean he was ill? He was a selfish person who wanted to get high and didn't care about taking care of his kids or about anything else. That's addiction: a personal failure.
"Addiction is the only disease that carries shame and blame and guilt," Sheff said. "We have this image of what a drug addict looks like." It's someone passed out in a doorway, someone whose teeth are falling out — someone who's a major mess.
The fact is, Sheff said, an addict "can look like any one of us."
Addiction is caused by some combination of genes, brain wiring and situational stress, Sheff said. There's a reason why 10 kids can go get drunk or high after school and most of them still grow out of the habit while one or two just can't, Sheff said. It's not their fault.
Sheff sketched out the tale of "Beautiful Boy": He first caught his son drinking and smoking pot at age 12. He took the problem straight to teachers and counselors, but they told him "what I wanted to hear: He's a great kid, don't worry, he's fine. But he wasn't," Sheff said.
Still, it took years for the real trouble to surface: the three-day stretch when his son disappeared, finally called for help, and looked emaciated and ready to die when Sheff rescued him.
Sheff started making phone calls in search of help. The advice he got, he said, was "appalling." Throw the boy out. Send him to boot camp. Use "tough love."
Eventually Sheff took his son to a 28-day treatment program in San Francisco. His son emerged clean and sober, clear-eyed and excited about a new life.
But 28 days is nothing, Sheff discovered; what's really needed is months. His son promptly vanished again. Eventually Sheff received a call from an emergency room doctor who said the boy's needle-ruined arm might have to be amputated. That didn't happen, but it was the beginning of a cycle of ups and downs, treatment and relapse, that lasted for a decade. The boy got into crime and nearly died more than once, Sheff said.
One thing it all proves, Sheff said: "What we call the treatment system in this country is a disaster. Any other disease, we'd know what to do, who to call." With addiction, he said, insurance has been insufficient and even the best-meaning professionals sometimes fall back on old-fashioned treatments that do not work, including the just-say-no philosophy.
"That never worked and it never will work," Sheff said. "Addiction is not a choice. But it looks like a choice. It doesn't look like a disease."
That results in widespread misunderstanding and stigma, he said. But it also means there's hope.
"Addiction is preventable and treatable," he said, and it's also so widespread that a political movement is now building around it. The Affordable Care Act should help on the treatment end, he said, but people have to hold the government accountable for making sure the law does what it's supposed to do.
And he said Daybreak Youth Services, the treatment clinic that sponsored his visit to Vancouver, is doing it right.
Sheff added that he is in favor of marijuana legalization because keeping it under wraps has done more harm than good; but it needs to be accompanied by an "intensive" educational campaign aimed at young people, he said. It's a myth that marijuana isn't addictive and has no harmful side effects, he said.
"Just because marijuana is legal, does not mean it's safe," he said.