Nic Sheff on Addiction, Mental Health 


“It’s okay to regret and come out the other side.” This Tuesday, writer and speaker Nic Sheff spoke to the University of Connecticut community about mental health and addiction. His battle with drugs inspired the 2018 award-winning film, Beautiful Boy. 

Sheff experimented with substances as an adolescent. A young, persistent reliance developed with the bliss of feeling unburdened and true in his existence. Drugs allocated confidence and granted a sense of peace at a significantly developmental stage. Late in high school, Sheff would find himself addicted to crystal meth. 

Statistically, the average life span of a full-time, heavy meth user spans five to 10 years. Methamphetamine exists as a highly addictive stimulant affecting the central nervous system through increasing dopamine release and blocking chemical reuptake. Dopamine is rapidly rewarding, producing a euphoric-like state. Yet the more a user consumes, the more difficult achieving an ideal high gets. Chronic methamphetamine abuse significantly alters how the brain functions at a molecular level. The substance is associated with psychosis and violent aggression. 

As Sheff’s addiction amassed near fatality through homelessness and an overdose, he struck sudden realization that would ultimately prompt a journey of recovery. High off meth, heroin and various benzodiazepines in a hospital bed, Sheff considered the possibility of “the end of everything death.” He had just endured amphetamine-induced psychosis, residing in professional care as his then-partner dangerously toyed with the idea of doing more drugs. Sheff recalled the moment he knew “she’s gonna die.” Instantly, death became all-encompassing and actual. From there, Sheff committed to a long-term detox— making note of coming clean as his “beginning.” 

Advocating for the notion of addiction as a disease, Sheff mentioned his family history to help illustrate and consider why the brain functions as it does. This process of observing environmental and genetic factors strengthens both the individual reflecting on themself and the larger, broader belief that substance abuse and mental illness is mere triviality. 

In treatment, Sheff received psychological testing for the first time. After a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, he felt supported in knowing how to identify the wrong. The intangible, consuming instabilities that once motivated drug use were now identifiable in talk therapy and terminology. Sheff completed the Twelve-Step Program, got a sponsor and began medication. 

“That help is there, they can give it to you.” Sheff expressed feelings of contentment and joy in his current sobriety. Better is not to be like other people, better is knowing how to continue with yourself. 

Sheff reminded the audience that two things can coexist inside yourself: You can be loving and you can be angry. Family—they have every right to be scarred by your addiction. Those close to us suffer when we suffer. Ignoring this reality is impossible, though practicing ambivalence may grant personal peace. 

Sheff’s writing flourished as he got clean. He finally finished the book he always believed he would write. “Tweak” published in 2007. Recalling the days he was on the street, Sheff stated, “you don’t have to go live some crazy life to be a better writer.” You don’t have to be some “drug cool artist” or the legends of music you worshipped when you were young to be sunkenly brilliant in precious creativity. Imagination will persist regardless of what the mind and body undergo. 

During discussion, students directly asked questions and spoke openly about addiction in their individual lives. Sheff delivered empathetic and insightful responses. 

After listening to his talk, two UConn students commented on the event. 

Crista Garcia, a fifth-semester philosophy major, stated “Nic Sheff communicated his ideas in a way that was raw and relatable. Hearing the testimonies of other students with personal stories that in a way aligned with his made the event more impactful.” 

Joss Robinson, a fifth-semester digital media & design major said “Today can help those currently struggling with issues who may not have anyone to talk to. Not only was this a powerful speech, it helped connect everyone. The support radiating from the room made me very happy to see.” 

The UConn student community is indebted to Nic Sheff’s presence and perspective. 

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