Turney Duff: Wall Street Cokehead to Recovery Writer

By Turney Duff 06/04/13

The author of the Wall Street and addiction memoir The Buy Side, which is published today, recounts his journey from desperation to a $250,000 book advance.

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Sell, sell! Photo: Random House

Hey Mom, remember when I told you that the reason I limped—rather than walked—into my first rehab was that I’d slipped and fell into a puddle? Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I actually told the people at work that I’d been mugged, but that’s not the truth either. I was just out of excuses. I’d lied and called in sick so many times owing to my love affair with cocaine that, to hide one more relapse, I actually faked my own mugging. I repeatedly slammed myself onto the wet pavement outside of my office building until I was cut, bruised and bleeding. It had to look authentic. I just wanted you to know before you read it in my book.

For most of my recovery, I revealed the more graphic aspects of my addiction only to those who shared similar experiences and struggles. Sometimes, as I was reliving the gory details, it helped to look across and see an “Oh, I get it” nodding head. And sometimes it was useful to just listen and relate to others’ horror stories. There was a cocoon-like safety in the gatherings I attended. I didn’t have to worry at all about the outside world judging me. Anonymity had worked for me and I didn’t see any reason for change.

Then I decided to write a memoir.

In my past life, I worked as a hedge fund trader on Wall Street. By most people’s financial yardstick, I was very successful. I owned a beautiful apartment in SoHo, then a 100-year-old home on the North Shore of Long Island. In those fat, pre-crash days on Wall Street, money flowed to me as if through an open spigot and I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars with abandon. In short, I was everything that people dislike about so-called “players” in the finance business—at least on the outside. Then, in 2001, I tried cocaine for the first time. Over the next few years coke took control of my life. Of course, from the narrow perspective of having great material for a book, this was lucky. (From all other perspective, it was disastrous.) As it would turn out, my career as a buy side trader and drug addict crashed at the same time.

What I didn’t yet realize is that sobriety has a way of making the unexpected possible.

I’d done some writing back in college and had shown some aptitude for it most of my adult life. But I also knew that the odds of getting published were long. Perversely, that could be a comforting thought at times. Failure to secure a book contract would leave my anonymity intact. I figured I could be as brutally honest as I wanted on the page without having to worry what people might think. It was almost like writing an elaborate Fourth Step.

What I didn’t yet realize is that sobriety has a way of making the unexpected possible.

When my pages attracted some attention from publishers, things became interesting. My two guardians, guilt and shame, who’d chaperoned me through most of my active addiction and early sobriety, reappeared. Suddenly, there was the prospect of being naked for everyone to see. There’d be no common bond or mutual understanding to rely on as a safety net. All of my mistakes and bad decisions were going to be underlined and highlighted. Is this worth it? Brooding on it, I began feeling that morning-after queasiness—an awareness of my impending doom. It’s one thing for people to know you don’t drink anymore; it’s something else to share the evidence.

As I began to write, my past became my present. They say that time travel isn’t possible, but as I struggled to locate the beginning of my story I was reintroduced to the younger me. I admired the mixture of naiveté and invincibility. The boy who arrived in New York City reminded me to never stop dreaming. So I kept writing.

And as I continued writing, once again I was saying goodbye to my one-year-old daughter before my first rehab stint and trying to find the courage to explain to her and her mother why I was going to be missing for the next 30 days, undergoing a “getting clean” ritual that was the culmination of a year-long bottom. Recollecting those events brought back the emptiness of not being able to cry when all I wanted to do was cry.

In the present day, I realized that the only thing worse than being that drugged-out, hung-over version of me was recognizing that person in the words I wrote on the page. It was astonishing to set down in words how I, a father, could choose to pick up using again with so much to lose. But it was far less shocking to see—in the mind’s eye—the depths to which I could plummet by staging a planned relapse. As the final chapters started taking shape in my head, my former and present self harmonized. Setting down the truth may have not redeemed me, but internally it evoked a sense of pride. I’d learned something about myself: I can be honest.

A year before I began writing the memoir, I experienced my first holy shit moment. I was six months clean in the summer of 2010 after my second rehab. A friend suggested I meet with an achievement expert named Julie Flanders, a creative artist life coach. I resisted even as my friend offered to pay for the session. I still said no, but eventually gave in. In my first session Julie challenged me to write for 30 minutes at least three days the coming week. That night I wrote for over an hour and every other day after than until my next appointment. That deep hole in my soul that I’d spent countless futile nights trying to fill—with cocaine, sex, money, power and relevance—was quickly starting to fill. I loved the way writing made me feel.

I was struck with the same intense pursuit of success that I’d experienced in my Wall Street days, but this time the intensity had a different character to it. I’d found passion. Over my 15-year career on the Street I was always driven by discontent. If I made one million dollars, I wanted two. If three hundred people came to my birthday party, I wanted four hundred. And on and on.

I’m sure you get the point. I was chasing something that could never be attained. The carrot always dangled five feet in front of me. A 30-second high from a year-end bonus would dissipate in an instant. But the elusiveness made me more driven. And for me, never being satisfied also meant never being grateful.

In that first sober summer I started to learn about gratitude. In the midst of dealing with family court, a foreclosure, financial issues and staying drug and alcohol free, I wrote 90,000 words in 90 days. It felt magical. I was writing a paranormal addiction story. I was still slightly out of my mind, but I loved it. I would race home from a meeting, excited to begin writing and find out what would happen next. Writing became an integral part of my sobriety. I’d finally found that thing I’d been searching for my whole life. I was thankful.

I started to network with other writers—some who’d never had to fight to be clean, others who still waged a daily battle. They’re easy to find. The conversations I was having made me realize how far from my goal I really was: no agent, no book deal and no clue as to how to take the next step. Then I found a mentor, Brian, about 10 years sober and older. He read my work of fiction, gave me notes, a line edit and suggestions to make my writing stronger. I started calling him every day and continued to write.

By April of 2011 I knew I needed to do something, legitimize this thing I was doing. The idea to write a magazine article about my career on Wall Street as a drug addict came to me. My plan was to use the story to land an agent and then sell my paranormal addiction story. I sat down at my computer and started to type. Hours later, my eyes blurry, I was finished. I’d written 6,000 words in one sitting. I had no idea what I had, if anything. I didn’t even read it over. I just emailed it to 20 or so of my Wall Street friends assuming they’d just delete it. The next morning I received several complimentary responses telling me how much they enjoyed my story. It felt good.

Call it fortuitous, a blessing or the Universe working for me, two days later a literary agent contacted me and asked if I’d like to turn my 6,000-word commentary into a book proposal. A friend of mine let his wife read my article and she told the agent about it. A familiar feeling of "I have arrived" returned—a feeling I hadn’t had since beginning my career on Wall Street. In my mind this was dangerous. The “prize” looked like a pizza for someone on a no-carb diet. I had to find humility.

After another summer of writing it was time to solicit publishers. It was a very exciting and anxious time. Email dings and telephone rings would make me pause and wonder, 'Is my life about to change?' Then Random House made my agent a preemptive offer. I was ecstatic. In publishing dollars the deal was amazing, but compared to Wall Street dollars it paled. I didn’t care. Maybe money isn’t as important to me as I thought. I HAD A BOOK DEAL!

Now I had to finish the book. Eventually the high and excitement of the book contract dissipated. It was a head-scratching moment. I thought I’d learned what gratitude truly meant. Why wasn’t I skipping to meetings, singing show tunes while cooking dinner, and smiling and waving to everyone on the streets of New York? Then I thought about my goals. What I’d been striving for was happiness—what a terrible goal.

One day while sitting in front of my computer screen trying to finish a chapter I realized that there was a far better goal: serenity. And ironically, that made me happier. But I wasn’t entirely without worry. Now that the book’s publication was imminent I was going to expose myself and all of my character defects. Oh my.

And here’s the thing about having a book published: It’s forever. Even marriage has an escape clause. In publishing, there are no resets. I was a ball of anxiety. What happens when a future prospective girlfriend reads about my darkest secrets? Or a future mother or and father-in-law? And what happens if everyone thinks I’m a terrible writer? As these thoughts pinballed around my head, it mattered little that I wasn’t even dating anybody, let alone getting married and having in-laws. And anyway, the book I’d written could very well be ignored—not even rouse an opinion.

Perhaps that would be the unkindest cut. I’d spent so much of my life assembling a persona for the world to see, one that supported my undying need for everyone to like me. Long before my addiction acquired 51% of the voting rights, I strove to be the center of attention, the life of the party whose antics would earn unreserved affection. When I added drugs and alcohol to my act, I thought it would make me more fun to be with—and, to be candid, there were times that it did. But I was a diminutive Jay Gatsby, never able to show people the real me, trying to correct something in my past that I was never able to quite put my finger on. In sobriety, I worked at stripping that Gatsby-lite façade away. But all of that work would go for naught if I didn’t take some chances. Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath, draw on as much faith as you can, and jump.

I know it’s impossible to predict what the outcome of my book, The Buy Side, will be. But if my sober past is any indication, it’s likely to be better than anything I can imagine. It already is. So, sure, I want to sell as many books as I can. I’ve even dreamt of The Buy Side becoming a bestseller, or at least opening up new doors for me. But the chance to do what I love, the opportunity to be as honest as I can, and the gift of courage to change the things I can—well, they make the terror of publishing worth it (even if that terror includes the prospect of my mother reading about my lurid past).

So Mom, when you get to the parts about the escorts, the cocaine binges, the lying and other destructive behavior, try not to worry. I put all that in the book so it wouldn’t have the power to hurt me anymore.

Turney Duff's memoir, The Buy Side, is published today by Crown Books.

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Turney Duff is a network consultant, writer the author of the memoir, The Buy Side. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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