The Cycle   |  April 05, 2013

Father of recovering addict challenges everything about addiction

While helping his son battle addiction, David Sheff explains to The Cycle hosts that when it comes to how we view and treat drug addiction, we’re stuck in the past.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> your brain on drugs. any questions?

>>> tv spots have come a long way since 1988 when that first aired. our next guest said when it comes to how we view and treat drug addiction , we are stuck in the past. while helping his son fight drug addiction , how the system fails over and over . how they don't prevent first time use , how a.a. and the 12 steps don't work for every addict. how people blame addicts for relapses and how reluctant we are to treat it when in many cases, that may be the best option. clean, overcoming addiction and ending america's greatest tragedy. joining us, david sheff . his reports landed him on "time" magazine's most influential list. thank you for being with us.

>> thank you for having me.

>> one of the thing that really touched me about your book is the sort of personal stories that you shared. there was a letter early in the book from an addict talking about their struggles and the letter said in part, my children have been taken from me to be raised by someone else . i have to live with that agony every day. i am so sorry for the things i have done. and i live with so much regret. sometimes so much that i feel i can't face another day. so with those consequences, why do addicts do this to themselves and to the people they love? it is so hard to understand.

>> it is hard to understand. any person logically would, when their life is unraveling, would have got to the point of that woman, they would stop. why don't addicts stop, they would if they could but they can't. they have an illness. their brain has changed over the course of their drug use and some addicts have described it in the same way that we all need oxygen. if you're deprived of oxygen, you will kick, you will scream, you will do anything to get more. if you're deprived of drugs, the same behavior kicks in. the same desperation kicks in. your brain is starved for this chemical that it is used to functioning on.

>> i think that's absolutely right. i don't want to go into too much detail but i have seen addiction up close. and addiction becomes like a living thing in your mind. like an organism that fights to perpetuate itself and giving you all the reasons why you should continue on that path. and it is part of the challenge of getting off, isn't it?

>> it is. it is a cycle. first of all, ten kids go out and might smoke a joint or they go on a friday night to a party and ten of them will drink. nine of them will go on the rest their lives, they'll probably continue to use in moderation or they'll stop. one of them won't. their life will just unravel. it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. until you understand that this is a brain disease. and then because they're ill, they will do things. my son was this lovely, kind, moral person. and before it was over, he was on the streets, he was shooting up heroin. he was stealing from us. he stole from his little brother who he loved. how do you explain this? he had this mental illness that continued to get worse and worse and then he would do terrible things. that woin crease his desire for drugs. until finally he got the treatment that he needed.

>> david , we just showed a statistic, 90% of addicts start using drugs before the age of 18. as the parent of an addict, and in keeping kids off drugs, you say, there is too much focus on the drugs themselves. what are parents failing to notice? how are they failing to intervene appropriately in an effort to keep their kids off drugs? how do we get away from this meant at of, well, kids will be kids. they'll experiment.

>> yes. it is a hard problem . every parent i know worries about it. how do we navigate a society where drugs are everywhere? on tv, movies, and on the playground. what i think is the most important thing i learned while researching the book is that we focus so much on drugs. we tell kids not to use them. we have to understand why people use drugs in the first place. and why drug use escalates. what we know is that drugs help, the reason that some of us go home after work, after a long day, we have a cocktail is because it relieves stressful so if somebody is really stressed out, if a child is growing up and stressed out, if they're experiencing some trauma in their lives, if there is has been abuse, if there is a difficult divorce or the loss of a loved one. some kids have with, you know, their wiring, kids have. if you have these kinds of problems, you're more likely to have drug problems. what parents can do is pay very, very special attention, and as soon as they suspect that there's a problem, don't try to figure it out yourself. go see a doctor. get professional help.

>> david , pew released a poll this week that showed that a majority, for the first time, a majority of americans say that pot should be legalized. and we have, in the country now, two states, i believe it's colorado and washington state , where it's legal. now, you know, there are folks on the right and anti-drug folks who say that, you know, we shouldn't do this because pot is a gateway drug . what's your view on that?

>> well, it's a tricky one. i do -- i support legalization, but not because drugs are safe. not because marijuana is safe for kids. marijuana is dangerous for kids. their brains are rapidly developing and put marijuana in the mix and it does change the brain. it changes the development. there are consequences. but the way that we treat this as a problem, as a criminal problem, the illegality certainly hasn't helped. i mean, ask a kid in high school anywhere, they can score pot if they need to. some cases it's a lot easier to get marijuana than beer. so we're doing something wrong. so instead, we have to educate our kids. we have to figure out what's going on in their lives that is encouraging them to use drugs, why they use first of all and why they continue to use and figure out a way to slow it, stop it.

>> david , once we're past that step of prevention, what works in terms of treatment?

>> well, there's about -- there's a lot of different ways to go with treatment. this is one of the saddest things that's happening in our country. is that they -- this is a treatable disease. and, yet, addiction is rarely treated. and the reason is that we have a system that relies on tradition and it relies on pseudoscience and relies on best guesses instead of on science. we have this as a disease. we know how to deal with disease. we turn to medicine. there's a range of treatments. you mentioned aa, the 12 steps earlier. that saves the lives for a lot of people. it doesn't work for everybody. there are behavioral treatments, medication has been shown, especially for people who have addictions to opiates like heroin, it can save someone's life. and so what we need is we need a -- if somebody has cancer, they go to the doctor. they figure out what they need. rai rai radiation, might need medication. whatever it is. we do what is needed. this is -- it should be the same with addiction. whatever a specific person needs has to be available to help them.

>> well, david , i have to say, part of the way through the book, it's heartbreaking, it's moving, and it's also really informational and educational. i really recommend it to our viewers, to anyone who's a parent or knows someone who's suffering. thank you so much for coming on and sharing some of this information with us.

>> thank you very pumuch.