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The Comeback: Bill Clegg's Ninety Days

by Jennifer Matesa
Renew Magazine July/August 2012

I bought Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days the week it was released for my friend Bridget, who was then about two weeks short of 90 days sober. When I told Bridget I was meeting Clegg in New York at the beginning of April to talk about his book, she emailed me. “Ask him about judging people in the program,” she wrote, “and about the compulsion to use in order to escape.”

A sequel to his 2010 memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, Ninety Days dramatizes in prose Clegg’s encounter with the recovering addict’s feelings. This dramatization is momentarily melodramatic but consistently engaging, literary and true. It’s important to have books such as Ninety Days on the shelf. Addiction and recovery are still very much closeted in the culture, and Bridget and millions of others in recovery want to read real experiences of people trying and failing and trying and failing—and trying—to stay sober.

At the book’s start, Clegg, a 40-ish fresh-faced prepster, has 73 days clean from crack and booze when he’s discharged from rehab. He returns to New York City, where he’s lost everything to a deep bottom: boutique literary agency; business partner; primo client list; loving boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s posh flat at the top of Washington Square Park, the center of a “trigger zone” from which his new sponsor has banned him. Nights, he crashes in a friend’s office; days, he floats from place to place like Sister Carrie’s derelict Hurstwood. He finally lands a studio and establishes a daily routine: three meetings, gym workouts, calls to sponsor. Wealthy friends drop off bags of gourmet food.

Reading about this high-rent recovery lifestyle, I had doubts about being able to relate to Clegg’s chic struggles to get sober. I kicked fentanyl in my own sweat-soaked bed. But I couldn’t put the book down. I read it on a train from Leeds to London and back, and even in that admission, if I keep an open mind, I must admit Clegg has something to teach me about pride and humility when he talks with a new sober friend:

“I want to tell him I wasn’t always this pathetic, this broken, that it took time to get here and no one saw it happening. ... When I hear myself say I used to go to London a lot, I realize I am trying to impress him and shut up.”

I need reminders to get “right-sized,” too. Clegg and I are kissing cousins: children of the suburbs and “garden-variety junkies,” as his sponsor says, and it doesn’t matter what we used or drank, whether I bought Oxy at a Pittsburgh pharmacy or he copped crack at Sixth and Houston. We talk the same language.

He speaks the language of grief. In no other “addiction memoir” have I heard an author speak about the sheer grief of losing everything and the gnawing anxiety surrounding the attempt to get it all back. Clegg relapses (as I did) over this self-pity, and then (as I did) keeps it secret—to save other people from sadness, he tells himself. He begins (as I did, as so many do) to suspect he’s irredeemable, which is often the moment right before we Get It. If we Get It.

Clegg finally Gets It. Escaping the obsession is, as Clegg himself said during our conversation (see “Conversations”), a matter of “becoming useful to other alcoholics and addicts.” There is a moment when Clegg decides to pray, not for himself but for his friend Polly, a dog-walker who affectionately nicknames Clegg “Crackhead.” Polly is using again, and Clegg fears for her life. Days later, he follows his own compulsion to use; he visits his trigger zone, then remembers Polly and stops and comes out clean. As with many of us in recovery, when Clegg gets out of his own head and his own way—the play on words is intentional here—he’s saved.

It’s virtually impossible to talk about this book without talking about its ending. After five-and-a-half years sober, Clegg relapses. I’ll leave it to you to read the details of this exotic and desperate setback and how he manages to end it. But, notably, Clegg lies about it—to his publisher, agent (also his boss), family, sober community and himself. He describes the psychological and physical effects of feeding this lie and how it jeopardizes not just his “serenity” but also his health and safety.

Some people in Twelve Step circles will criticize Clegg for writing so unabashedly under his own name. Clegg’s reasoning: He never names what kind of “program” he attends and leaves it to the reader to make those assumptions—or not. This book is shorter than his first but in many ways more important because most addiction narratives focus on the extravagant drinking or drug use, but Ninety Days delves into the muck to which most other addiction memoirs (Sacha Scoblic’s smart and humorous Unwasted is a striking exception) pay short shrift: the excruciating process of getting and staying clean and sober. At the very end, the tone shifts entirely to beg the reader to look for help by seek- ing out places where other addicts and alcoholics meet. We need more people in recovery who are willing to write about this part of addiction and recovery.

Jennifer Matesa is freelance writer, essayist and author of two nonfiction books, in- cluding Navel-Gazing: The Days and Nights of a Mother in the Making, an award- winning memoir of her pregnancy. She runs the popular blog Guinevere Gets Sober, which covers addiction and recovery issues in the culture.

In Ninety Days, author Bill Clegg takes readers through his gut-wrench- ing quest for sobriety. The cycle of use, sober up, relapse is one he can’t seem to escape. Renew spoke with Clegg about his new memoir, a sequel to his 2010 memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. You can read the full conversation online at RenewEveryDay.com/Clegg.

Renew: I gave your book to my friend Bridget, who’s com- ing up on 90 days. She wants to know how you managed to get past the place where you kept relapsing. Bill Clegg: It’s really simple: by becoming useful to other alcohol- ics and addicts.

Renew: Bridget says the moment she began to relate to you was the night you went out with a group of guys from a meeting, people you didn’t even really like. Your new friend Asa was the guy who helped you let go of your judgments. BC: I didn’t think I would like them. There was just one person whom I identified with enough to be open to. I followed his sug-gestion to meet him at a meeting the next day. It’s the same meeting I just came from right now, over seven years later. But I didn’t even know those people enough to like them or not like them. I was just completely not open to them. I just looked at the differences.

Renew: So getting sober is really about those clichés and slogans? “Look at the similarities and not the differences.” “Attitude of gratitude.” I’m thinking about how David Fos- ter Wallace once said he was repulsed by the “banal and reductive” slogans when he first started going to AA. Don’t they offend your literary sensibility?
BC: I don’t get to have a literary sensibility if I’m not alive. If those kinds of suggestions keep me alive to have a literary sensibility, I have no problem with them at all. Those clichés and slogans were so corny and so childish and patronizing to me when I came in. And every single one of them is true.

Recovery is a matter of life or death. Every time I’ve relapsed— in the beginning, and then over a year ago—very swiftly it goes to the thought of death. When I last relapsed, I had four drinks and had the intention of getting drugs and then killing myself in Bang- kok. And the only thing that kept me from picking up drugs and then either trying to kill myself or killing myself was my sponsee’s persistent texts. This is a guy who had been struggling in and out of the rooms, who couldn’t get sober and who suddenly was will- ing. He realized he couldn’t do it alone. And his willingness was so clear in those texts. It stopped me dead in my tracks.

Renew: He was just like you. BC: Exactly. And just like most of us. And then he reached out, and I was halfway around the world and he thought that I was going to be helping him, when in fact he saved my life

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