The new movie Beautiful Boy tells the harrowing real-life story of Nic Sheff’s battle with meth addiction in his teens and 20s — and his family’s emotional journey as they tried to help him. The film, starring Timothée Chalamet as Nic and Steve Carell as his father, David, is based on bestselling memoirs written by both David and Nic, who’s now 36 and has been sober for eight years, and focuses most strongly on the relationship between father and son.
Here, Nic’s mother, former PEOPLE writer Vicki Sheff, shares her own story: her struggles to aid Nic, her joy and pride in his hard-won sobriety, and what it was like seeing their family’s story onscreen. Vicki, who was divorced from David in 1988, is played by Amy Ryan in the movie. She’s now a freelance writer living in L.A. and writing a book of nonfiction essays. She is actively involved in Al-Anon and does public speaking engagements.
At 7 p.m. on a spring night earlier this year, I watched Beautiful Boy, a film about my son Nic’s addiction to meth. He was sitting with me in a private screening room at Plan B studios in Hollywood.
I planned to see it alone. I knew the story would trigger trauma and I didn’t want to lose it in front of him. Nic had seen the film and I think being there for me was important to him, and so I let him – a huge step for both of us.
At first, I couldn’t bear reliving the past, but when I disappeared into the film, gratitude kept bringing my mind back to the present: that my beautiful boy was next to me, holding my hand! That Nicolas was there — at all — was nothing short of a miracle.
Armed with tissue, I sobbed my way through all 120 minutes. One scene in the middle of the film shows Nic living in L.A., sober over a year, with a good job, a great AA sponsor and exercising regularly. This time, I was sure the warmth of sobriety had liberated him from the darkness of addiction. Finally, he’d learned how to stay sober. Then he disappeared.
Watching this instance of relapse, I felt the gut-wrenching pain of believing the problem had gone away forever only to be blindsided by a very different truth. This is a fantasy common to exhausted, terrified parents of addicted children.
My own memories continued after the scene ended: I filed a missing person’s report with the Santa Monica Police Department before going to my office at PEOPLE magazine. By then, I had developed multiple personalities to deal with the devastation of Nic’s addiction and to keep my job – which provided the insurance needed to pay for Nic’s rehabs.
Here’s what happened: I was interviewing a well known actress on the phone for PEOPLE’s special Most Beautiful People issue. She was pregnant with her second child. On the other line, a detective, responding to my missing persons report, was on hold. I switched back and forth between two phone lines and personalities: a shaky, desperate mother and chirpy, cheerful journalist. The detective ended our conversation by advising me to check all local hospitals and then call the morgue. Without missing a beat, I went back to the actress and in a calm, carefree voice, continued to talk about the joys of motherhood.
When women ask me what it was like from a mother’s perspective, I tell them I went into survival mode not only for me but for Nic: researching rehabs (some costing more in a month than a semester at Harvard); interviewing therapists; buying drug-test kits; searching skid row or seedy bus stations; carrying him to detox.
During the day I did what needed to be done – robotically. At home, I would be on the floor wailing. One evening, I was at the market pushing my cart down the aisle, when suddenly I flashed on my son dragging a shopping cart down a street somewhere. I ran out of the place in tears.
There were times when I was so depressed, I thought about suicide just to stop the pain, but then I’d think, “I have to keep Nic alive. I have to keep Nic alive.” I’d pull myself together and carry on.
Many times I’d be in the kitchen at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. cooking: moussaka, chocolate chip cookies, whatever. I couldn’t eat, of course, but for some reason, following precise measurements – a teaspoon of this, a cup of that — distracted me, kept me from losing my mind.
There are certain things about the film I remember differently. David and I shared joint custody, always. Because I had to move to Los Angeles to make a living, we both agreed it would be better for Nic to spend the school year with him and holidays and summers with me. But when Nic was very little, he would come to L.A. once a month as well. David and I would fly back and forth with him. It was hard on everyone, especially Nic.
I do believe a mother and father respond differently to their child’s crisis. Even though David and I love Nic more than life itself, there is something about carrying life in your body for nine months that creates a different connection. I was never giving up. I would never stop loving.
My wobbly strategy was to keep Nic alive until he saw the gift of his own life. For some reason, I focused on his 26th birthday. I’d read somewhere that at that age the brain matures and reason kicks in and listening begins.
Of course, that is a fantasy too, but fantasy was all I had. There is no magic number or certain time or guarantee of anything with an addict. But, miraculously, 26 proved true in Nic’s case. Slowly things began to turn around.
At the time, I was not involved in Al-Anon, the 12-step parachute for those of us hijacked by an alcoholic or addict. I went to a meeting once looking for advice on how to save Nic. The program encourages focusing on yourself. It espouses detaching with love. Is it sound advice? Maybe. But I couldn’t do it. Standing my ground while my son moves toward quicksand is impossible to do.
Instead, I relied on intuition. Listened to my heart. I called in favors, asking friends – some famous, some not — whom Nic respected to reach out to him. I believe each one intervened just in time to stop his downward spiral, to move him forward.
WATCH: Timothee Chalamet Freaked Out About Working With Steve Carell & Amy Ryan: I Had to Pretend This Isn’t ‘The Office’
What kept me moving forward was the love and support of best friends. Talking to me on the phone – sometimes multiple times a day and night.
One of my darkest moments came with the news that a dear childhood friend of Nic’s died after getting high and careening headlong into a cement wall after losing control of his motorcycle. I rarely lost it in the office, but this time I did.
My colleague, in the office next to mine, heard me pleading with Nic on the phone to stop. That it was a sign. I hung up the phone and sobbed uncontrollably. She quietly came into my office, lifted me out of my chair and held me. Just held me. Let me cry it out.
Feeling powerless to save my son was truly my darkest moment.
Unlike in the film, I remember playing an active role in helping my son fight addiction. I was there from the beginning.
When Nicolas was a freshman at U.C. Berkeley, I visited him for the weekend. After the first day, I was sure something was wrong. He was unfocused and scattered. I suspected drugs but when I asked, he bristled and denied the accusation.
I alerted David, who dismissed the idea, insisting Nic was happy and thriving. When I pressed, David agreed to call him. Initially, Nic denied it but later confessed to using a stunning cocktail mix of drugs — some familiar, some not.
Within days, he dropped out of Berkeley and went into rehab. Nic was a star pupil. After graduating summa cum laude, he moved in with his father.
In the summer of 2002, Nic came home from a semester at Hampshire College. Again, when I spoke to David, he was upbeat. Nic had a year of sobriety and loved Hampshire. Then all hell broke loose. Nic was shooting meth and living on the street.
I’d smoked pot in my 20s and tried a variety of recreational drugs. Needles were never ever considered. Needles were for junkies in crack houses, not kids from privilege and private schools. Not kids who were deeply loved and supported.
Needles? Meth? It was so not Nic — my sensitive, conscientious honor student, water polo captain and beloved boy. I hated myself for not seeing his pain, for not pressing when he said things were OK. Clearly they were not. I mean, how could a kid have an ulcer at 16?
I now believe, Nic repressed his feeling to care for me and for David. He wanted to make sure his parents were OK. Looking back, I can pinpoint moments. Why didn’t I see it then? He would say things like “Yes, Mama, I’m having fun, but I always feel like I’m missing someone.”
Although David and I didn’t always see eye to eye on how to help Nic, we never shut each other out. When David was arms folded, “let him hit rock bottom,” I would think dumpster diving for food, living on the street, sharing needles, turning tricks for money was rock bottom. The only bottom left was death. I wasn’t willing to let it ride. And, when I was exhausted, David would step in, grab the baton and march on.
It was a relief to talk to someone who loves Nic as much as I do, who not only feels the pain but also understands the desperate urge to help, even when it’s against AA or Al-Anon principles or well-meaning shrinks or spouses.
We knew there was no possibility of ever healing from the pain of such a loss – that the pain would define our lives forever.
When the film ended at Plan B’s screening room, Nic and I sat in silence for a long time. When I was capable of walking, we stepped out into the cool urban night and I looked at Nic. I did everything I could do to help but how the story ends is up to Nic. It took a village and help from sober alcoholics, but, ultimately, he taught himself how to live sober – through good times and bad. He is the bravest boy I’ve ever known. I never imagined a life so full of gratitude.
Beautiful Boy is now playing in select theaters.