Interviewed for Book Passage (April 2011)
Zack Ruskin: What techniques did you use to recall all the details of your narrative in Tweak? Was it difficult to piece together, given your mental state at the time?
Nic Sheff: Yeah, that’s a good question. I actually did, and do, genuinely remember a lot of the details from that time. A lot of people in twelve-step meetings talk about being in blackouts and not remembering big chunks of their lives—but I remember everything. It’s pretty much a curse, I’d say, except for when it comes to writing. But, also, I was always writing throughout that whole time—trying to write out my story as best as I could. I remember being crammed in a car with these two street kids I was friends with. They were both asleep and I just stayed up all night writing everything we’d been doing down in a little Mead Composition book. I think it was my way of trying to make some sense of this totally nonsensical situation.
ZR: Part of the message in We All Fall Down is that rehabilitation from addiction is rarely a one-time process. Do you think the problem lies in people finding the method of treatment that will work best for them, or is it more about when an individual decides to truly commit to getting better?
NS: That’s also a good question. For me finally getting sober and staying sober has been kind of like putting together a really complex puzzle, where you’ve lost the box and have absolutely no idea what the hell it’s supposed to look like at the end. So, yeah, it was definitely a trial and error process for me. Center treatment centers definitely helped me more than others. Center philosophies of recovery fit with me better than others. But it is totally individual. Everyone is different. People will try and tell you that’s not true—that all alcohol addicts are the same and need the same kind of treatment. That hasn’t been my experience at all. So I’d want to urge people struggling with this to keep on exploring different options until they find something that feels right to them. There’s not just one answer. Being told there was, honestly kept me from getting sober—because when that one thing didn’t work for me, I totally gave up.
ZR: When you wrote Tweak, did you know you’d be following it with a sequel down the road, or was there something in particular that prompted you to write We All Fall Down?
NS: Uh, no, I had no idea I’d be able to write another memoir. I guess the main thing that prompted it was that I had relapsed again on pills—but instead of going all the way down like I would’ve in the past, I was able to ask for help and get clean again without having to lose everything. That was real progress for me. And I realized that was an important message to get out there. I’d always looked at sobriety as being so black and white—either you were clean, or you were out there shooting drugs and whatever. But for me I began to realize that recovery was going to be a process of learning to make fewer mistakes, you know, and less serious mistakes. Giving myself permission to know that it was okay if I fell down, so long as I just kept picking myself back up again. That took so much of the pressure off. And it actually helped me keep my life together. ‘Cause that’s really the goal, after all—to be a happy, productive member of society. I wanted to be able to write about that. And I wanted to be able to share about the complexity of living with addiction in a way I’ve honestly never seen before.
ZR: I’ve noticed a number of people claim that recounting their time as an addict, either orally or on the page, serves as a kind of permanent accountability to themselves to stay clean. Can you describe how writing serves your recovery process?
NS: Huh, yeah, that’s definitely true. My life now is so removed from my life as an active drug addict, sometimes it’s hard to remember that the person doing all that crazy stuff was actually me. So therefore it is really easy for me to start thinking that all my self-destructive behavior was in the past and now I’m all okay—so maybe I can drink or smoke pot just like a normal person. Having written these two memoirs, it is definitely cool to have these very detailed accounts reminding me why thoughts like that are totally insane. Writing these books and talking about this stuff and being forced to confront my past again and again really helps to keep it all present in my mind. ‘Cause it is easy to start minimizing everything that happened.
ZR: As I write this, Charlie Sheen is entering his second week of making headlines for his substance abuse and subsequent treatment and outbursts. Why do you think our society is so enamored with stories of addiction?
NS: Actually, I don’t think it’s necessarily the addiction itself that attracts people to stories like that. I’d say it’s more that people love watching other people—especially celebrities—self-destructing. As a society we love to build idols up just to tear them down. It’s been going on basically since the creation of celebrity. Even some of the early silent movie stars were victims to this societal obsession. I know Fatty Arbuckle was and even Charlie Chaplin. As a society we love to watch idols fall.
ZR: Were there any books you read during your initial recovery that really inspired you? What other books should readers of your work consider reading next?
NS: Wow, that’s a good question. The saxophone player Art Pepper’s memoir Straight Life was very inspiring to me…as well as Donald Goines’s Dopefiend. Both those books really show the horror of addiction super accurately. Art Pepper’s book is one of my favorites for sure.
ZR: Since our bookstore is located in Marin, and I know your lived in Pt. Reyes, I’m obligated to ask: are there any places or aspects of the Bay Area you particularly cherish or miss?
NS: I definitely miss the nature in Marin. It really is insanely beautiful there. And I love taking my dog on all the trails around Mt. Tam and out in Inverness—and to the beaches out there. Here in L.A., the only nature I can get to are the canyons, and they’re super hot and dry and actually just today me and my dog almost ran straight into a giant rattlesnake. So I for sure miss the Marin trails. Oh, and, of course, my dad and step-mom and little brother and sister are all still out in Inverness, too, so I miss seeing them as much.
This interview appeared on the Book Passage blog on April 14, 2011.