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.
In 90 Days you get really close with a woman named Polly, and you both really struggle to fight off relapse day by day. You had that same sort of combat closeness as those kids piling into that car.
Exactly, the act of getting sober had me and Polly completely in awe. We really were fighting for our lives. We were the two people in our home group who were relapsing and it was just so grim for both of us, like death was in the air. When she chose not to come back into recovery, it terrified me. I cared more about what was going on with her than I have ever cared about anybody else in my entire life. Which was really probably the introduction of unselfishness to me. I probably had my first unselfish thought in regard to her.
Why do you think it is that you got it and Polly didn’t? How is it that some people are saved, while others just seems to fall off the face of the earth? I know people who just absolutely will not get sober. I mean, why did you figure it out? Why did I?
We puzzle through it and think that if we just do it this way or that we’ll find the key to a very difficult lock. But I think the truth is, it’s not about figuring it out. I think on one level it’s luck that I am sitting here alive, talking to you, and there is really no reason I should be. And some people object to the higher power and all that stuff, but I never had a problem with that. I always felt the world was so complicated, so fucking miraculous, how could it just have been an accident? I don’t think about it too much, but I never had a problem with it.
Was there one thing that helped you stop relapsing? How did you break the cycle?
I don't know. I got a toehold. And then another. It wasn’t a fixed state, it wasn’t all peaches and cream. Somehow I got the toehold and a miracle hit. I think the program of recovery is like witchcraft. I really do. It's inexplicable. Suddenly, I was seeing all these connections. Like, what if I had never met the person who brought me to that meeting, where I met that person, who introduced me to that person who saved my life. After a little while, the world was aching with wonder and magic—this good magic that guides you toward the light. You know what I mean?
I always feel if I'm in sync with the program, I'm protected somehow. In 90 Days, a guy who wants to be your sponsee in New York sends you a text you while you’re relapsing in Bangkok. You think he saved your life?
If that’s not an example of a balls out motherfucking miracle, I don’t know what is. And I wasn’t in sync with the program. I wasn’t in sync with anything. I was on the other side of the world, a month without meetings of any kind. But the reason why he asked me to be his sponsor was because I had been showing up in the same room of recovery without fail. And that gave this guy enough confidence that I might be able to help him. He thought I had something to offer for him, but in fact, he saved my life and has no idea he did it. It gives me goose bumps every time I think about it. There is nothing particularly spectacular about my story. The thing is, if you are in active recovery you hear these stories all the time. And before I got sober I never would have believed any of them. They are just, you know, they’re loony. But you have to get sober to have access to them.
You bring up an Oprah Book Club memoir about addiction as something you were obsessed with because the writer just willed himself sober. I assume that was James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces....
I don’t remember naming a book. But yeah, there was an Oprah Book Club book, and you know the author had said he smoked crack and he also said that he didn’t need a program of recovery.
He just made the decision to stop.
Yeah. He said that he didn’t want to die anymore and so he effectively drew the line in the sand and said, No more. And he’s been happy and hunky dory and wildly successful ever since. And that is the narrative that every alcoholic and addict I know in recovery wanted to live. They wanted to just say, “Okay, this is the day that I’m going to stop, and now I get to have the happy life.” I was 20 when I first started thinking I needed to get a handle on this shit. Then I was 28 when I started to try and impose some control, and I couldn’t. And then I said, I’m just going to have two drinks, or I’m just going to smoke crack once a month. And I’ll be home by 11:30, and 11:30 at night becomes 11:30 in the morning—you know the story. But I didn’t want to be in any program, I didn’t want to know other alcoholics and addicts in recovery. I wanted to just decide that I wasn’t going to drink or use drugs anymore, like the author of that book. I absolutely couldn’t, and the only reason I ever sought help was because I had no other choice. All I had was desperation. So this guy’s story in that book became a holy grail for a lot of people.
For better or worse...
I remember being in rehab in Oregon and meeting a lot of people who didn’t want to be there, and they cited that book as an example of someone who didn’t need this shit. He didn’t need rehabs or programs—he just decided. That delusion is wildly dangerous. I think people have lost their lives with that delusion.
The treatment world is full of people who make promises about curing addiction.
I went to a harm reduction counselor.
How did that work out for you?
It was, well, it was a beautiful office. [Laughs.] And he had a chart and we literally put on a chart when I smoked crack, when I could smoke crack. It was like managed crack use. Anybody who has ever smoked crack would say that is the craziest notion in the world. There is nothing manageable about it. But I have never been happier in my life than when a doctor said, “Well you can smoke crack on Tuesday and Saturday, but not Wednesday." It was like sanctioned crack smoking.
Do you think that's ever effective?
I can’t imagine.
To me, the shocking thing about harm reduction—the view that addiction can be managed—is that it's not a small industry.
It is the first stop for people on the way down. I doubt there is anybody who has gone to a harm reduction counselor who has stayed sober for all that long. It’s like, you do it for a little while and then it fails and you are driven into a more serious program and probably just keep on going down the stairs until you get to the basement with the rest of us.
Near the end of 90 Days, you relapse. What happened?
I finished the book the day before I relapsed. I literally hit send and then flew to Bangkok, where I drank.
In a perverse way, the relapse actually adds a sort of dramatic ending to the book.
I suppose that’s true. But the real problem was that I was away from the rooms of recovery for too long. I was away for a month. I hadn’t been away from other alcoholics and addicts in recovery for longer than maybe five days before that. And the place I went to in Thailand is a tiny island, and there are no meetings there. It is actually a dry island because it’s largely Muslim, but there is a resort, I mean you can find alcohol there.
They say that meeting makers make it...
I’ve heard a thousand stories in recovery that have told me just that very thing: I wasn’t near the people in my usual support group. I was given the playbook to get sober a long time ago, and I didn’t take it. I couldn’t see it, hear it, read it, I couldn’t take it in until I had to. I heard once that we learn at the speed of pain. I learn at the speed of pain.
How long were you a crack smoker?
Around 25 or 26 is when I took my first hit and I was 34 years old when I took my last. So, it was a long time.
Usually the life span of a crack user is pretty short.
It is usually the end of the story. And the end usually arrives in death or sobriety.
You’ve mentioned before that you have an obsession with death. Do you still feel that?
I was in Paris promoting the French edition of Portrait and a woman on French TV asked me about the undertow of death in the book—as a kid, a young adult, and then certainly in the deepest years of using. But she asked me, do I still think about death? And the answer was yes. It will always be in me. I do not desire to be dead right now, no. But I can brush up against it. It’s a leaning, and if I’m too far away from recovery, I’ll lean too far and fall over. That will always be the case. And I think that is a scary thing to hear if you’re not an active alcoholic in recovery.
Even if you are, it’s a little bit scary.
All I have to do is think about drinking in Bangkok, and how easy it was being away for a month to pick up a drink, and that scares me. It scares me that I wanted to use drugs. But as scary as it is for somebody from the outside, it’s just the truth about being sober. Recovery is an ongoing, constant lifetime thing. I think the biggest myth about recovery for people who aren’t in it is that you come back from rehab and you’re fixed. Like you have a tumor removed and you go through radiation and then you’re in remission. This isn’t recovery. We got this forever, and it always needs its medicine, which is that simple program of being connected to other alcoholics and addicts and being of service to them.
Bill Clegg's 90 Days is on stands this week. Mike Guy is the Editorial Director of The Fix.