Portrait of Recovery: Bill Clegg's 90 Days - Page 2

By Mike Guy 04/08/12

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.

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Bill Clegg's new day

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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.

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