Young man of substance: The real Nic Sheff from Beautiful Boy

Nic Sheff got addicted to crystal meth when he was a teen. New film ‘Beautiful Boy’ shows how his father helped him overcome years of drug abuse. He spoke to Esther McCarthy.

Young man of substance: The real Nic Sheff from Beautiful Boy

Nic Sheff got addicted to crystal meth when he was a teen. New film ‘Beautiful Boy’ shows how his father helped him overcome years of drug abuse. He spoke to Esther McCarthy.

As Nic Sheff sat down for the first time to watch his real-life story unfold onscreen, he felt understandably anxious.

It’s not every day you revisit your lowest points of a life-threatening drug addiction and the despair it has brought to those you love most, dramatised on the big screen.

The result is Beautiful Boy, a drama starring Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell as Nic and his journalist father David, the story of a deep descent into crystal meth addiction and its impact on a loving father and family.

“It was hard to watch of course, I guess because it was so authentic and so real,” the real-life Nic tells me.

“It really brought me back in a way that I wasn’t expecting.

"But then the other side of that is because it has been such a long time, I celebrated a nine-years-sober birthday in December, my life has changed so much that I guess it was such a reminder of everything we’d been through as a family. 

"I felt really kind of grateful coming out of it.

“The whole process of talking to people about the film and talking about these issues, it’s been kind of amazing for me.

"It makes me feel grateful for my life now that my family is so close now. That we made it through and out the other side. It’s been a really positive experience.”

LOWEST POINT

For many years, it didn’t look like Nic would be here to tell his tale. He was deep into addiction, a disease that had left him homeless and estranged from his family.

At his worst point, his father would periodically check in with morgues and hospitals to see whether he had died or overdosed.

Though there were times he was close to dying, he doesn’t think twice when asked about his lowest point.

“I really regret the impact that I had on my little brother and sister. I was eleven or twelve when my little brother was born and I wanted so badly to be a good influence on him, be a good role model for him.

Nic Sheff (left) and David Sheff attend the Premiere of "Beautiful Boy" in London, October 13. (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for BFI)
Nic Sheff (left) and David Sheff attend the Premiere of "Beautiful Boy" in London, October 13. (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for BFI)

“The fact that I ended up hurting him and my little sister, scaring them, that’s the thing I regret the most.

"That scene in the movie where I steal money from my little brother, that really happened, and that’s the thing I look back on.

"Even though there were other moments that I was closer to dying, that’s the thing I regret the most.”

There are fears that the growth of highly addictive crystal meth is still an evolving story in Ireland and that its impact has yet to make itself fully known here.

Nic, who now works extensively with the recovery community, offers some insights.

“It’s the tough question. Prevention is such an important topic that my dad and I have really tried to focus on.

"How do we help young people?

"I think there’s a big myth around substance use in general, that the reason young people use drugs and alcohol is because they’re wanting to have fun or party or because of peer pressure.

“But studies have shown that the number one reason young people use drugs or alcohol is because of stress that they feel.

"We can be really proactive in helping young people to learn alternative methods of coping with stress. Letting them know that they’re not alone, there are lots of people out there who can help.

“And for people who are already going down this path, I think the really important thing to express to them is that it’s not just that recovery is possible.

"The people that I know that have gotten sober, their lives universally have gotten so much better and so much fuller.

"I’ve seen it over and over again that when people who are struggling ask for help, that help really is out there.

"I’ve seen families that were completely torn apart by this disease come back together and relationships heal. It can take time but it really is possible.”

MIDDLE CLASS

David is a successful journalist and his family live in comfortable middle-class surroundings, which debunks the myth that addictions such as this are always class related.

“It’s one of the things we were hoping that people would take away from the film, that addiction is an equal-opportunity destroyer.

"It doesn’t matter what kind of socio-economic background you come from, what cultural background, addiction can affect anyone.”

Before he first took crystal meth at the age of 18, an experience described in the film as like going “from black and white to technicolour”, Nic was already dabbling in marijuana and alcohol from a very young age.

“Even at that young age, when I started drinking, I could see the way that my body and my brain processed it was different from my peers.

"I remember my friends and I stole alcohol from my parents when we were only eleven, I think.

"My friends drank a little bit, thought it was disgusting, and stopped drinking.

"For me, I drank a little bit and the feeling it gave me I liked so much, and it felt like such a relief from the anxiety that I felt, that I kept drinking.

"I ended up getting sick. I think that whether I found crystal meth or not, I was already on this path of substance abuse.

"If anything, when I found crystal meth it just accelerated things.

"In that way, it made my problem way more apparent because that drug just made me so out of control and crazy. But I was already well on my way.”

MEETING THE STARS

He’s enjoyed being involved in the movie and says getting to meet stars like Brad Pitt (a producer on the film) has been fun.

He’s enjoyed spending time with Chalamet, who’s emerging as one of cinema’s young stars.

“Getting to know him before Call Me By Your Name came out, I was struck by what an incredibly talented actor he is but also he’s a genuinely good person, a good role model for young people.

"He’s so sensitive and thoughtful. To see Call Me By Your Name come out, for him to get so much recognition for that, and to watch his rise in popularity has been cool.

"It couldn’t be more deserved. He’s handling it with so much grace, really staying true to who he is.”

One of the most famous crystal meth dealers of all was Walter White in Breaking Bad.

Of course he watched the series, Nic laughs. “I think that Breaking Bad was really positive.

"I wish growing up that I had seen something like that because when I first did crystal meth I really didn’t know what it was.

"A friend of mine offered me some speed and I tried it not even knowing that it was crystal meth.

"What Breaking Bad shows is what meth use can look like and how destructive it can be.”

Beautiful Boy is in cinemas from today

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