David and Nic Sheff on the permission to feel

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

Listen to the full conversation below:

No one would blame David Sheff for numbing himself to avoid the pure agony of watching his son Nic descent into methamphetamine addiction.  “I didn’t want to feel, because it hurt. It’s really hard,” he plainly states in this clip. “I was either going to go insane or die. The doctors always told me it wasn’t related, but in the middle of this whole thing [with Nic] I had a brain hemorrhage. Maybe that’s at least a metaphor for shutting down and holding all this inside.”

Learning how to feel sounds simple enough. But when your thoughtful, kind-hearted son is homeless on the streets stealing and selling his body for the next fix, it’s easier said than done.

Nic Sheff is now sober and on a mission with his dad to make sure other families don’t have to endure the brutal reality of addiction that almost killed both him and his father. They’re just coming off the thrill of seeing their respective memoirs, Nic’s Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines and David’s Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction adapted into the critically-acclaimed film Beautiful Boy starring Steve Carell.

“As parents we want to protect [our children] and don’t want them to suffer anything, not even getting teased,” David says. “It a heartbreaking revelation for parents to realize that in the end we can’t decide if our children are going to live or die.”

Love can’t always save our children. But it can teach us how to live amid the suffering.

With his only options insanity or death, David summoned the courage to turn towards the wall of fear that threatened to crush him if he cracked the door open. Moment by moment, inch by inch, he built up endurance to stay with the grief, the pain, the outrage.

Instead of crushing him, giving himself permission to feel set him free.

David might not be able to control Nic’s fate, but he would never stop trying to reach his son.   He woke up every morning lucidly aware that there are no guarantees. All he could do was try until trying was no longer an option.

The Sheff’s are lucky. Nic got the help he needed. They could afford an evidence-based treatment facility and quality specialists, both rarities in addiction medicine.

Nic turned to drugs as a teen to anesthetize himself at a time when it was easier not to feel. As he travels around the country today, he sees rising hopelessness among young people. From the economy to climate crisis, from social media to inequality, Nic believes that kids today face even more stress and anxiety than he did.

What can prevent young people from using?  Echoing David’s experience, Nic’s learned that facing and understanding our emotions is the key to prevention.  “The more we can help young people deal with difficult emotions—even good emotions—and learn to sit with those feelings and teach them the skills they need to work through them, the more we’ll be setting them up for success, externally and internally,” he counsels.

This harrowing journey seems to have sloughed off David’s protective layers. Smooth as a river rock, worn like the elbow holes of his sweater, glistening, and holy.  Only tender compassion remains. He and Nic have been through hell and back together and have come out stronger, closer, wiser. The love between them burns so bright that during our conversation, it enveloped me too.

The Sheff’s have transformed their pain into goodness. They’re advancing a crucial culture shift in how we reckon with addiction. Their advocacy and research will save lives. But their most important contribution can’t be taught, it must be felt.

There aren’t any guarantees, in parenting or in life, for any of us. Nic and David understand better than anyone that love is a terrifying risk that leaves us vulnerable to pain.  But as we deepen our capacity to hold our suffering, we strengthen our capacity to feel joy. Love, only love, can take our broken pieces and make us whole anew.

Today Nic and David describe themselves simply as grateful. Grateful for each day, each moment. For walking the dog, sharing a meal, watching a movie, surfing a wave.

Clear-eyed, open, loving.

Finally, free.


More Americans died from drug overdose in 2017 than from guns, suicide, car crashes together. To learn more about David, Nic, and their work to fight this disease:

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