Portrait of Recovery: Bill Clegg's 90 Days
With his dazzling memoir, 90 Days, the literary wunderkind discovers that hitting rock bottom can be the easiest part of addiction. The tricky part is staying in recovery.
Writing a memoir about recovery can be dicey business. Once your public brand is being sober, the stakes of your recovery are raised. Just ask Bill Clegg, a literary agent wunderkind whose startling 2010 debut, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, depicted a nine-year battle with crack addiction so vividly it sent shock waves through the literary world. The book's darkest moments—a crack-fueled tryst with a New Jersey cab driver, a hallucinatory breakdown in the bathroom of the Newark airport—were excerpted in New York magazine, and Clegg's book rightfully earned its place beside David Carr's The Night of the Gun and Mary Karr's Lit as one of the best examples of the genre.
But destroying your life, Clegg discovers, isn't necessarily the hard part. His 2012 book, 90 Days, offers an intimate view of what happens after rehab, as the young addict returns to his old stomping grounds and struggles to let go of everything he lost—his thriving literary agency, his longtime boyfriend, his possessions, his reputation, his dignity—and press reset. He also has to carry the burden of being a publicly sober writer in a program of recovery, the weight of which became evident when he relapsed after finishing writing 90 Days. When published the then 43year-old had a year-and-a-half sober, a job at William Morris and a new apartment in his beloved Greenwich Village, and was discovering that it's not always easy keeping it simple.
The Fix: Does writing a memoir about recovery affect your sobriety?
Bill Clegg: Like most addicts and alcoholics, I suffer from excessive self-consciousness, so sure—absolutely. When I finished 90 Days, literally the next day, I relapsed. I had been sober for five years, and I decided that I wasn’t going to tell anybody about my relapse, and Portrait played a major role in that decision. My pride was probably the biggest thing in the way of me saying anything, but at the end of the book I’m sober. That made it tough to ‘fess up. And also, everybody in my life and even outside my life knew my story. The status of my sobriety was a known thing in my industry—my client list, my office, not to mention the clubs of recovery that I go to. Of course the truth of the matter is I’m just a drunk. I am not more interesting or susceptible than anybody else. But I also didn’t want to let people down.
Did you struggle at all with breaking your anonymity?
There are two different levels of anonymity. There's anonymity in terms of the program of recovery you choose to get sober in. And the programs of recovery have a tradition that suggests anonymity is the foundation of the program. I absolutely believe in that. But I’m very comfortable identifying as an addict and as somebody in recovery. However, I don’t talk about which program of recovery I’m in, mostly because I don’t want anything I do—like relapse, or say something off-putting in an interview, or maybe somebody sees me in a restaurant and just doesn’t like the look of me and knows which program I’m in—I don’t want that to be the thing that keeps them from going into the program. I don’t want that. If somebody asks me one-on-one, I’ll tell them where I got sober and how I did it and all that stuff. Just not publicly.
90 Days is a really intimate book. Was this more difficult to write than Portrait?
They're very different books. 90 Days really captures early recovery—that period right after I got out of rehab, came back to New York and relapsed. I was encountering the streets that I lived on in a different way, and I don’t think I had ever experienced that level of pain before. I didn’t think it was survivable. I just remember going to bed at night feeling like there was a dead rat in my chest and waking up and that rat was ten times heavier than it was when I went to bed. There was so much grief. Before my crash, I had this life that I never, ever imagined that I could have, and then all of it was gone. And by my own hand! When I first came back to the city I was just doubled over in pain for all of that time. I could only write on vacations and weekends, and I would do it for 14 hours at a stretch, and I’d be inside of that pain, sort of reliving it. And some of those times were really tough.
I imagine writing it might have been part of your recovery—sort of like therapy.
When I finished Portrait I just really genuinely didn’t feel like I finished. It took four years and I felt like I was tethered to this living thing. So I just kept writing. Part of it is this: I really didn’t know what to do with my free time. I was so used to having all of my free time being spoken for. A lot of addicts or alcoholics that I know who are in recovery, for them, filling up free time is a big issue. Because a lot of the time that we used and drank was just to sort of because we were bored. If I wasn’t at work, I was drinking or using.
Recovery is a vast, colorful, complicated landscape. And there are lots of paths to recovery now. Before Dr. Drew and Intervention and The Fix, it was a word of mouth kind of thing. While I was bottoming out, the people in my life didn’t have a lot of reference points. They were completely in the dark.
Addiction can be a very active pursuit.
Well my whole high school and college was spent in the pursuit of marijuana. I grew up in Connecticut, and we would drive over into New York State into God-knows-where, hours we would drive because we had a telephone number somebody had gotten a month ago. The whole day—everything was around geared getting drugs.
There’s some glamour in that, isn’t there?
In retrospect, sure. Those are fond high school memories.
That chase is a common high school memory. I remember storing as much as possible in case there was a marijuana drought. I grew up in Maine, where weed droughts were constant.
Yeah, it’s called “war-chesting”—you know, just in case the drought comes.
I actually buried a huge stash of weed, pills and cocaine next to a tree in the woods in 1991. It’s still there, probably, but I can’t quite remember which tree...
The addict in me is thinking, Well, somebody has got to get it. It’s not being used. There is buried treasure out there. And I’m sure it’s still fine, totally usable drugs.
Have you noticed that recovery has a higher media profile than it did, when you first got sober?
Put it this way: I think recovery has as high a profile now as addiction and alcoholism used to. I feel like the flame-out was the headline before, and now recovery is the headline, now that you have Intervention and Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab, which I think is discontinued.
It is, but he’s coming back with rehab for non-celebrities.
Thank God! [Laughs] Yes, either there is more of a recognition of recovery, or it was always there, but I certainly wasn’t interested in it. I was definitely not looking at any of the solutions to my problems that were outside of my own ability to solve them.
It begs the question, are TV shows about recovery—Dr. Drew and Intervention, etc—are a good thing or a bad thing? Should they be airing the dirty laundry of addiction in public?
Absolutely! Especially if the alternative is that there is no information at all, no narrative around recovery that people can reference. Recovery is a vast, colorful, complicated landscape. And there are lots of paths to recovery now. Before Dr. Drew and Intervention and The Fix, it was a word of mouth kind of thing. While I was bottoming out, the people in my life didn’t have a lot of reference points. They were completely in the dark. And that was seven years ago. In those seven years, a lot has changed.
A lot more young people are at least viewing sobriety as an option now.
I meet lots of young, sober people, and I’m like, You’re 20 years old!
Some of that has to do with addiction memoirs like A Million Little Pieces, Dry, and even Portrait of an Addict.
I hope so. I’m not so sure about that, but I love it that there are so many young people getting sober. I can’t relate to it in a way, but I’m I’m jealous of it. I can’t imagine being sober in my twenties. No way. Yesterday I was going to the gym, bright and early, like a good sober guy, and there were these kids, piling into a car. They were smoking and they had that film over them of people who’ve been up for a long time. They were so young and their eyes were so bloodshot, but there was also this kind of togetherness and collective self-importance of having just waged this important war and they had gotten through it. I looked at them and I saw myself. I remember those mornings in college, and I felt nostalgic for that, and then I also felt grateful that I didn’t have to go through the rest of the day they had to go through. Everybody has their path, but I can’t imagine my path without those sort of impressionable mornings.