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"Beautiful Boy" Nic Sheff shares his story at Harford addiction and recovery symposium

"Beautiful Boy" Nic Sheff shares his story at Harford addiction and recovery symposium
Nic Sheff speaks at Bel Air High School during the 15th annual Harford County Symposium on Addiction and Recovery. This year's conference was focused on the ways drug addiction can affect families. (Courtesy Harford County government)

When Nic Sheff’s father first started seeking drug addiction treatment for his son, one person he called told him he’d be better off kicking Nic out of the house. Another person recommended he send his son to a boot camp in the Czech Republic.

Ultimately, Sheff, the subject of last year’s star-studded Amazon flick “Beautiful Boy,” ended up in a treatment center. He went to several more facilities before his recovery.

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It wasn’t until his final treatment center that he was evaluated by a psychiatrist and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and he received medication that helped him cope with his addiction.

Sheff told his story Thursday as the keynote speaker for this year’s Harford County Symposium on Addiction and Recovery at Bel Air High School. Nearly 600 people attended the symposium, county spokeswoman Cynthia Mumby said.

It had all started when he was 11-years-old and started using marijuana. It helped him at a time when he felt uncomfortable in his own skin. And while he’s hesitant to call marijuana a gateway drug, it began his spiral into using many different drugs.

He recounted a turning point for his struggle with addiction.

One night, when Nic didn’t come home, his father David Sheff began dialing hospitals and police. He called so many times that he was told to call the morgue in search of his son, Nic said.

But in reality, Nic was roaming the streets of San Francisco. He’d been delivering drugs to his friends. But instead of just dropping them off, he took them with friends at every stop. He experienced a black-out that lasted days, until police found him and helped him reach his dad.

That’s when he began seeking treatment.

Linda Williams, the executive director of Addiction Connections Resource in Fallston, remembers facing an uphill battle, much like David Sheff, when she began her advocacy work for individuals struggling with addiction.

“We went to Annapolis and we were told ‘There’s no problem in Harford County,’ ” she said. “It was almost like we were witches, and if we kept saying that we were going to bring the problem here.”

Williams, who served on Gov. Larry Hogan’s Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force, started her nonprofit 20 years ago with several other mothers, who feared there was growing problem of opioid addiction in Harford County.

Williams recalls that, many times, when she went to speak with people about the opioid crisis, she heard responses like “That’s a city problem.”

“I would get upset,” she said. “Even if it’s just a city problem, why aren’t we doing something? Why aren’t we addressing it?”

Back then, there weren’t many resources available for people coping with drug addictions, she said. Since, things have improved. Her company works to help lower-income individuals pay for the treatment centers, and then the halfway houses that they need to recover.

This year’s symposium focused on the manners in which drug addiction affects entire families.

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For Sheff, it was most difficult to see the way in which his addiction affected his younger brother. He remembered feeling excited to be a big brother as a 12-year-old when his brother was born.

“The fact that I went from that to being this source of terror in his life was devastating to me,” he said.

In Harford County, more than 30 percent of grandparents care for their grandchildren, a number Amber Shrodes, the county’s director of Community Services, said has increased greatly as a result of the opioid crisis.

Recently though, opioid overdoses in the county have decreased for the first time.

“That is our first sign that maybe we have hit the plateau,” said County Executive Barry Glassman, who also spoke at the symposium. “We have seen some bright lights, but it’s not time to turn back.”

Glassman said the county’s newly opened Klein Family Harford Crisis Center, which offers around-the-clock behavioral health and addiction services, has already fielded more than 800 calls, and the county is also working to expand their network of peer recovery coaches for those suffering with addiction.

Debbie Yohn, a nurse whose company Positive Alternatives to Dangerous and Destructive Decisions, works with at-risk populations that struggle with substance abuse.

She comes to the conference every year to learn more for her foundation, which counsels families coping with addiction. She was inspired by her experience with one of her own children, she said.

“I can remember being the parent, and thinking ‘What did I do wrong?’” she said.

Sandy Gallion, who was also in attendance at Thursday’s symposium, recently began working for the county’s Office of Drug Control Policy, inspired by her 24-year-old son Nolan’s fatal overdose.

Gallion, a longtime EMT, watched her son, also an EMT and firefighter, struggle with an addiction to oxycodone after a bad car accident. Later on, he began to use heroin, she said.

This year, the symposium is offering continuing education credits for EMTs, in addition to other behavioral health professionals. Recently, Gallion said she did a presentation for emergency medical services providers about how they can help individuals with recovery, not just emergency care.

“The problem is, now that we have … Narcan, which is awesome at saving lives, but at the same time people are refusing care,” she said. “So the buck stops there, sort of. They’re not going to the hospital where they could possibly talk to someone.”

Sheff has visited the Baltimore area before, during his tour for “Beautiful Boy,” which is based on his father’s book by the same name.

“Like everyone, my view of Baltimore was shaped by ‘The Wire,’” he said. “So it was cool to see another side of Baltimore.”

Sheff said many young people came to the city’s screening of “Beautiful Boy” specifically to see “Call Me By Your Name” star Timothee Chalamet, who plays Sheff in the movie.

“We sort of joked about it, it’s like tricking them into eating their vegetables,” he said. “They come to see Timmy, but then they see this movie about a serious issue.”

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