Immorality or Illness?

Article by David Sheff originally appeared on Medium

When my teenage son was raging out of control on drugs — wasted on crystal meth and heroin, careening toward death — I finally got him into treatment, the first of a dozen rehab programs he would go to. This program included lectures for family members, like one titled “The Disease of Addiction.” By then Nic had lied to me, broken into our home, and stolen from me — and even from his little brother, too. I thought I’d raised a kind, moral, and loving child, but something had gone horribly wrong. As I listened to the speaker talk about addiction as a disease, Nic was in a lockdown ward in a wing of the hospital. Getting him there had been hell — he almost leaped out of our moving car and had tried to kick out the window. My son wasn’t ill. He was selfish, reckless, and remorseless, a narcissistic teenager obsessed with being high, with no concern for his family.That was the first time I heard what is sometimes termed “the disease theory” of addiction, but it wasn’t the last. I tell about my struggle to understand that addiction is a disease in my book Beautiful Boy, about about my family’s struggle when Nic became addicted. The disease theory was repeated in more lectures at more rehabs, in countless therapists’ offices, and in many Twelve Step meetings I attended. I’d become enraged by it. People with leukemia have a disease. Those with Alzheimer’s or lymphoma have a disease. Nic was choosing to use and could stop if he wanted to. There was no such option for cancer patients. Continue Reading →
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PBS Newshour: David Sheff’s Top 8 Myths about Addiction

Interview with Judy Woodruff – PBS Newshour.

Why We Should Treat, Not Blame Addicts Struggling to Get ‘Clean’

It has been more than 40 years since Richard Nixon called for a “war on drugs,” and yet our prevention and treatment efforts have largely failed to address the chronic illness of substance addiction that afflicts one in 12 Americans and affects millions more friends and family members.

Continue Reading →

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MSNBC’s The Cycle: Challenging everything about addiction

Interview with MSNBC’s The Cycle 

While helping his son battle addiction, David Sheff explains to The Cycle hosts that when it comes to how we view and treat drug addiction, we’re stuck in the past.

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USA Today: Making a ‘Clean’ sweep of addiction in USA

Interview by Craig Wilson – USA Today

David Sheff makes a ‘Clean’ sweep of addiction

The author, who wrote a memoir about his son’s drug problem, is back to argue that substance abuse is an illness.

Q: First off, how’s Nic (now 30) doing these days?

A: Miraculously, he’s doing just great. He’s sober now for about five years, which is the most important thing after his struggles of a decade. He’s in L.A., doing lots of fun stuff.

Q: You look back now and wonder what you’d do differently with Nic, asking yourself, “How could I have…” over and over. What’s the answer to that question? Was there a co-dependence?

A: Yes, in a word. I think I definitely was in denial for a long, long time. Parents like me are wired for denial because it’s just too scary to acknowledge our kids are on the descent. Continue Reading →

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NPR’s Fresh Air: Telling Story of Son’s Struggle to Stay ‘Clean’

Interview by Terry Gross – NPR’s Fresh Air.

A Father Tells The Story Of His Son’s Struggle To Stay ‘Clean’

Why do we imprison people who are addicted to illegal drugs instead of treating them for their addiction? That question is at the heart of David Sheff’s new book Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy. It reports the latest medical and scientific research about addiction and recovery, which, Sheff says, shows that drug addicts are gravely ill, afflicted with a chronic, progressive and often terminal disease.

Sheff’s research is motivated by having watched his son Nic’s addiction nearly destroy him and the family. Nic started smoking marijuana when he was 12 and eventually moved on to shooting heroin and crystal meth. He became homeless, living on the streets, in cars, in parks, and when he did come home, he stole from and lied to the family. Sheff wrote about how the family lived through his son’s addiction in the best-selling memoir Beautiful Boy. Nic wrote about his addiction in two memoirs and has been clean for five years.

David Sheff joins Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross to talk about his family’s experience and why he feels the nation’s approach to drug treatment failed his son. Continue Reading →

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David Sheff On Addiction: Prevention, Treatment And Staying ‘Clean’

Interview by Scott Simon – NPR’s Weekend Edition.

David Sheff wrote a book in 2008 that became a kind of landmark. Beautiful Boy was a painful, personal story of the battle he tried to fight with and alongside his son, Nic, who was addicted to methamphetamines. The book became an international best-seller and made David Sheff one of the country’s most prominent voices on addiction — not as a doctor, an addict or an academic expert, but as a father.

Sheff has continued to try to figure out a road that can lead out of addiction, and he presents that route in his new book, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy. He joined NPR’s Scott Simon to talk about prevention, treatment programs and the legalization of marijuana. Continue Reading →

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MSNBC’s The Last Word: Why America’s Losing the War on Drugs

Interview by Lawrence O’Donnell – MSNBC’s The Last Word

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The Lost War

This article by David Sheff was published at Medium

The war on drugs was lost because the war on addiction was never begun

The death last month of the Glee star Cory Monteith was tragic. All deaths are. But it is even more tragic when it could have been prevented — like Monteith’s.

Because of Monteith’s death from an overdose of heroin and alcohol, addiction is having its latest fifteen minutes of fame. Fifteen minutes, however, are better than none to serve as a reminder of the prevalence and perniciousness of this disease. It’s unfortunate that it takes the death of a TV star—a Canadian in this case, but beloved in America and thought of as one of our own—to talk about a disease that kills three hundred and fifty people every day.

In the ubiquitous coverage of Monteith’s overdose, I haven’t heard any commentator express the fact that this death isn’t merely sad. It is appalling­—because it might have been prevented if it weren’t for failed drug policies. Continue Reading →

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“Clean is the best book on drug abuse and addiction to appear in years”

This article by Glenn C. Altschuler and Patrick M. Burns was published at

Free Will Hunting

Substance abuse and addiction have reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Every day, on average, about 8,120 individuals age 12 and over try drugs for the first time and 12,800 try alcohol. About 60 million people binge drink. Mortality rates from abuse of prescription pills are skyrocketing. All-in-all, in addition to destroying families, devastating inner cities, and causing crime and car accidents, substance abuse is responsible for more deaths than any other “non-natural” cause.

In Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, David Sheff, the author of Beautiful Boy, a moving account of the addiction and treatment of his son, Nic, draws on research in psychology, neuroscience and medicine to present a new approach to dealing with what may well be our greatest social problem. Sheff insists that addiction is an incurable but treatable disease, not a moral failing. Since choice “has nothing to do with the disease,” he emphasizes, it is counter-productive to exhort young people to “Just say no” or dismiss addicts as dissolute or undisciplined. Treatment must be based on evidence, not urban legends, guilt or wishful thinking.

Providing a wealth of information and practical advice, Clean is the best book on drug abuse and addiction to appear in years. Continue Reading →

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Clean Talk: A Myth-Shattering Look at Addiction

This article originally appeared at

David Sheff first opened our eyes to the horrors of drug abuse in his bestselling memoir Beautiful Boy, a harrowing work that detailed the heartbreak caused by his son’s drug addiction. In Clean, he takes on the traditional views of addiction and its treatment, demonstrating why 12-step programs don’t work for more than 90% of those who try them—and revealing the approaches that science has shown do work.

Based on the latest research in psychology, neuroscience, and medicine, as well as conversations with scores of scientists, social workers, addicts, and their families, Clean offers clear, cogent counsel for addicts and those who love them. Sheff deals with addiction for what it is—an illness—and suggests that the approaches most likely to succeed are based on science rather than faith, tradition, contrition or wishful thinking.

Sheff explains why our country’s failure to stem the tide of addiction directly relates to the belief—as persistent as it is wrong—that addiction is a moral failing, rather than a disease. He counters this widely held belief with several shocking facts: that teens are especially prone to drug use; that the earlier one experiments with drugs, the more likely one is to become addicted; that drug addiction is almost always a symptom of another illness; that the co-occurring illnesses—ranging from PTSD to depression to obsessive disorder—are rarely treated in many recovery programs. Continue Reading →

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