Ninety Days: A Memoir of Recoveryby Bill Clegg
The goal is ninety. Just ninety clean and sober days to loosen the hold of the addiction that caused Bill Clegg to lose everything. With six weeks of his most recent rehab behind him he returns to New York and attends two or three meetings each day. It is in these refuges that he befriends essential allies including Polly, who struggles daily with her own cycle of recovery and relapse, and the seemingly unshakably sober Asa.
At first, the support is not enough: Clegg relapses with only three days left. Written with uncompromised immediacy, NINETY DAYS begins where Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man ends-and tells the wrenching story of Clegg's battle to reclaim his life. As any recovering addict knows, hitting rock bottom is just the beginning.
Clegg has rebuilt his career as an agent and become one of the best-known faces of addiction recovery."Salon.com"
Relationships, rather than high drama, are the real focus of Ninety Days, and as a result there is a tenderness at its heart."Vogue.com"
Clegg's need to connect saves him....What he has now - fewer secrets, gratitude, relief, an acknowledgement of his vulnerability, time out from his dance with death - adds up, like days."San Francisco Chronicle"
[Clegg] tells the story in plain, innocence-drenched sentences that bring to mind the wonderful Edmund White, as if to adorn the events would be dishonest."The Daily Beast"
Honest and earnest."Wall Street Journal
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Ninety DaysA Memoir of Recovery
By Clegg, Bill
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Clegg, Bill
All right reserved.
It looks like Oz. This is what I think as Manhattan comes into view through the windshield of Dave’s jeep. The crowded towers poke the sky with their metal and glass and in the midday haze look faraway, mythic, more idea than place. We’re driving in thick traffic that moves swiftly and in unison. A month ago I hadn’t noticed the city receding behind us as we drove from Lenox Hill Hospital to the rehab in White Plains. We didn’t talk much then and we’re not talking much now.
Dave is playing music I don’t recognize. A charcoal-voiced girl is crying with as much earnestness as irony alongside an acoustic guitar. He tells me her name and it sounds more like a department store than a person. He compares her to another singer I don’t know, and I feel as if I’ve lost fluency in a language that once was second nature. Between Lenox Hill and rehab I’ve been in treatment for six weeks, but it seems like years, and I imagine during that time new bands coming and going, movies capturing the attention of the masses and being forgotten, books sparking controversy or indifference, and the roar of it all fading to make way for new entries in the cultural lottery. Dave tells me about a play he and Susie have just seen and I feel myself shrinking in the seat, becoming kid-sized. Up ahead, Oz juts higher above the horizon.
It’s early April, a Monday. We’re driving to Dave’s writing studio on Charles Street in the West Village. He’s offered me the place for a few weeks while I find somewhere to live. I’ve just finished four weeks in a small drug and alcohol rehab on the grounds of an old mental asylum. Dave drove me there after I was released from the psych ward at Lenox Hill Hospital, where I wound up after a two-month bender that ended in a fistful of sleeping pills, a bottle of vodka, a crack pipe stuffed to bursting, and an ambulance. The small literary agency I co-owned and ran for four years is gone, all my clients have found new agents, our employees have scattered to new jobs or left New York, and whatever money I once had has been wiped out, leaving in its place a rising debt of legal, hospital, and rehab bills. The eight-year relationship with my boyfriend, Noah, is over, and the apartment at One Fifth Avenue his grandmother bought him, where we lived for six years, is no longer my home. I can sleep at Dave’s office, but I have to be out between ten and five so he can work.
The song changes—the girl is talking more than singing, the guitar is now a cello—and I wonder what I’ll do all day, how I’ll fill up the hours, where I’ll go.
Sure you want to do this? Dave asks cautiously. Sure you should be coming back here? He turns the music down and keeps his eyes on the road while he voices my own doubts. I’m not sure of anything. I’m thirty-four years old. Unemployed. Unemployable in a field I worked in for twelve years. I have a mountain of terrifying paper waiting for me: the settlement agreement with my ex–business partner, Kate, dismantling the agency; bills from my lawyers; hospital bills and insurance forms; e-mails and letters—angry, loving, and everything in between—from friends, former colleagues, and family. The balance of the rehab bill is at least forty thousand dollars and likely much more. My sister Kim, who lives in Maine, in the midst of picking up and dropping off her twin boys from school, play dates, and baseball practice, has taken over the bills, the accounts, the lawyer, and our plan is to go over every last difficult bit of it once I’m settled in at Dave’s.
I’ve arranged to see my sponsor, Jack, at an evening meeting in the West Village—a beginner’s meeting is how he describes it. I first met Jack on the third or fourth day in the hospital. After a rough, shame-shocked start there when I refused to see or speak to anyone, I eventually agreed to meet him—a friend of a friend, my age, curly haired, boyish, gay—and he offered to be my sponsor, a sort of coach/big brother/guide, in a fellowship for people with alcoholism and drug addiction. I learned later, in rehab, that there are many fellowships—some free, some not, most with organized meetings—where people go for help with addictions like mine. The one Jack belongs to is the one I join.
Dave pulls up in front of an old ivy-covered apartment building on Charles Street between Bleecker and West 4th. I step onto the sidewalk and wait while he makes a phone call from the front seat. It’s quiet. The air is humid and the streets are speckled with afternoon light. A young, high-cheekboned couple walk by, speaking what sounds like Russian into their cell phones. A fire engine wails. A trim young man with a Great Dane on a leash bends with a plastic bag in hand to scoop up a pile of the elegant dog’s poop. New York, I think. I’m back in New York. I see a middle-aged man walking alone with an earpiece connected to a wire that disappears into his tan windbreaker. He looks at me a beat too long and a little too seriously and an old familiar panic flashes in my chest. Dave comes around to the side of the jeep and grabs two bags from the back and barks, C’mon, I have to meet Susie. I rush to help, and when I turn to look for the tan-jacketed man, he’s gone.
I follow Dave up three flights of exceedingly creaky stairs as he tells me how the old woman on the second floor, just below his studio, is highly sensitive, extremely cranky, and will call him day or night if she feels anything is awry. I wonder if this is his way of discouraging any funny business. A little barricade against what he and everyone else in my life fear will happen now that I’ve returned to New York: relapse.
The apartment is a bright studio with a fireplace, high ceilings, and a small, dangling crystal chandelier. It looks like the study in a much larger, very nice old house. Dave’s books line the mantel and shelves, and there are old rugs scattered about. The small brown couch unfolds into a bed that I’ll sleep on for the next few weeks. Dave rat-a-tat-tats a tour of the basics—towels, locks, a pile of blankets, tricky windows, cutlery, cups, coffee machine, keys—and then he’s gone. I had imagined having coffee with him at a nearby café and a brotherly speech about how it’s all going to work out—that I have to be brave, that I can count on him, et cetera—but what he offers instead is help with the bags, another warning about the downstairs neighbor, a worried look, and a hurried good-bye.
The apartment looks onto a garden behind a town house. It’s a minimalist oasis: boxwood, teak, reflecting pool. The town house has large clear panes of glass that frame exquisite mid-century modern furniture on the second floor, and a clean geometry of stainless steel, marble, and what looks like suede in the kitchen below. Order and wealth hum from the place and I can barely look. I close my eyes and only then do I hear the bright racket of songbirds. They sound exactly like the birds that covered the trees near the field where I walked on the grounds in rehab. I imagine a flock flying just above Dave’s jeep the whole way down from White Plains, descending now upon the branches outside to chirp and coo their encouragement.
Hi guys, I say and am startled by the sound of my voice. Thanks for the welcome home party, I whisper, and though I’m embarrassed by the fantasy of the birds escorting me back to New York, I’m still glad for any kindness—made up, even—coming from the greenery outside. I lie down on the couch and listen.
The birds carry on. Voices drift in from outside. The refrigerator hums in the little kitchen. And all at once it hits me: I’m alone. No one besides Dave knows exactly where I am. I could be doing anything. I’ve been in-patient for weeks, under the thumb of nurses and doctors and counselors the entire time. No more morning gatherings, group meals, and in-bed-by-ten room checks. I’m alone and unaccountable. And then, like a dead ember blown to life, I think about my old dealers, Rico and Happy. I remember how I owe each of them a thousand dollars and wonder—despite all that’s been lost, everyone hurt, despite everything—how I’m going to get two grand to pay these guys off so I can buy more. I start to puzzle through credit cards and PIN codes for cash advances. Suddenly a few thousand dollars seems within reach and I can feel that old burn, that hibernating want, come awake. I imagine the relief that first hit will deliver and I’m suddenly up off the couch and pacing. No no no, I chant. No fucking way. That craving, once it begins, is almost impossible to reverse. What my addict mind imagines, my addict body chases. It’s like Bruce Banner as he’s turning into the Incredible Hulk. Once his muscles begin to strain against his clothes and his skin goes green, he has no choice but to let the monster spring from him and unleash its inevitable damage.
I step on a creaky floorboard and remember the old lady below. I think of Dave and how he’s spent most of his day driving to White Plains and back; how he’s trusting me with his place, and how worried he looked when he left. I look at my watch. It’s 3:50 and I remember Jack had suggested I go to a four o’clock meeting around the corner if I returned to the city in time. I can make it, I think desperately, meaning both the meeting and in general. I grab the set of keys from the mantel and, as gently as I can, descend the three flights of noisy stairs and hurry out to the street.
By the time I get to the meeting it’s packed and I have to wedge myself through the crowd to grab what looks like the last seat. I sit down against a wall painted robin’s egg blue and as I do, I see Jack. He’s sitting in the seat directly across from mine with a big glad-you-could-make-it smile. We’re not supposed to meet until later, but he’s surprised me by showing up at my first meeting back in the city. Welcome home, he whispers seriously as the lights go down and the meeting begins.
I have met Jack only three times—twice at Lenox Hill and once during the last week at rehab when we went for a long walk and sat in a white gazebo and listened to the head counselor say he believed I was someone who would make it, someone he didn’t see relapsing. Jack is a music critic and lives in the city with his boyfriend. He wasn’t a crack addict, but his history with drugs and alcohol reminds me of my own, and every time I think I’ve told him something too embarrassing or too shameful, he’s quick with a story that reminds me we’ve sunk to the same depths. I keep needing to remind myself that Jack is a drug addict. He’s so put together, so clear-eyed and wholesome. It surprises me when he describes doing things when he was high that I’m convinced no one else but me has done. Like hitting on taxicab drivers. He tells me this the first time we meet at Lenox Hill, when I’m still paranoid about being followed by undercover DEA agents. My first response is How did you know? To which he responds, What do you mean? I was there! And after a beat I understand that he was there when he had done it, not when I had.
The meeting ends and we go for coffee. I tell him about the craving I had an hour ago in Dave’s apartment. He tells me if it happens again—and it will—I need to immediately call him or someone else who is sober. If I get his voice mail I should leave messages describing what’s going on, even if it’s to say I plan on getting drugs or that I’m about to drink. Just speak it through and then once I’ve done that, if I can, try to imagine every beat of what will follow. Paying the dealer. Scoring the drugs. Getting high until the drugs are gone and then calling the dealer for more. And more. Running out of money. Getting paranoid. Not picking up the phone when worried friends call. The next day. The horror of morning. The empty bank account. The need to get more. Do more. And on and on.
Back at Dave’s a few hours ago, I hadn’t imagined anything beyond getting high. Just the high. As we now sit in a crowded coffee shop on Jane Street and talk through where it would lead, I can feel the once-hot little ember of craving cool down. As we talk I wish I could go home with Jack. Move in with him and his boyfriend, at least until I have ninety days clean, which is just a month away. Ninety days is a milestone that many fellowships and organizations dealing with alcohol and substance abuse use to mark a strong foothold in sobriety. Many suggest what I’ve heard Jack refer to a few times as a ninety-in-ninety, which means going to ninety meetings in ninety days. Jack has recommended, since I’m not working and have little else to do, that I go to two meetings a day. At least. The meetings are excruciating sometimes. I have a hard time keeping focused, keeping my mind off how I’m going to figure out and fix my living situation, my finances, and nearly every relationship I have. I can’t imagine how I’ll make it through two meetings a day for ninety days. One meeting at a time, one day at a time, Jack chants when I tell him my worry and it shuts me up. Reaching ninety days has become an important focus of our talks, and though I can’t imagine sitting through all those meetings, listening to all those drunks and addicts, can’t imagine a future or how I’ll sort out the huge mess that is my life, I can sometimes see ahead to ninety days. Jack has even suggested that until I have ninety days I should resist reconnecting with too many people in the city, avoid engaging too much in sorting through the business and financial wreckage. The simplicity of reaching ninety days is calming, and when my head swarms with everything that’s happened and everything that might, I think, Ninety days, ninety days. Eventually it’s all I can see, the only thing before me that needs to be done.
When I’m speaking with Jack I often don’t feel the now-usual panic about not having money, a job, or any idea about what I will do with my life. He metabolizes what I imagine are insurmountable obstacles into simple phrases like One day at a time and Take it easy, which I find at once baffling, patronizing, and comforting. He tells me to have faith that everything has happened just as it’s supposed to and that if I just stay sober it will all turn out OK, that before I know it I’ll be helping someone else get and stay sober. Help someone else? Not likely, I tell him. How can I? I have absolutely nothing to offer. And faith? I don’t have any. Certainly not in myself or in any grand design that makes what has happened and what I’ve done over the last few months and the years leading up to them acceptable. When I tell him I don’t have much faith, he says simply, Borrow mine.
After coffee, Jack takes me to another meeting of the same organization, a few blocks away, in the basement of a beautiful old brick church. It’s the meeting, he says, where he got sober. The one he goes to still. As we head back through the courtyard toward the meeting, we bump into a few people who nod hello to Jack, sometimes giving him a gentle hug and moving on. He smiles and waves to several others and as he leads me toward the front row I feel proud to be with him. It strikes me then, as it has before, that I barely know him. I don’t know his boyfriend’s name, most of his friends, or where he lives in the city, but I imagine him a sober superhero, a kind of Clark Kent by day and Super Sponsor by night. I look around the room at the dozens and dozens of people sitting in folding chairs—sipping coffee, talking, waiting for the meeting to begin—and no one seems as attractive and confident and kind as Jack does. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude that he stepped into my life when he did. We’ve spoken on the phone at least once a day since Lenox Hill, and he’s talked me through a whole universe of panics. What a miracle this guy is, I think, and as I do he tells me I need to raise my hand during the meeting and let the whole room know that I just got out of rehab and that this is my first day back in town.
There are over fifty people in the room. There were only four other patients in rehab, so the group meetings were never this large or remotely this intimidating. I shake my head no and Jack leans in and says, You don’t have a choice. We had a deal: As long as you follow my suggestions, I’m your sponsor. If you don’t, I’m not. And so, a few minutes later, when the guy running the meeting asks if there is anyone in the room under ninety days, I raise my hand and do what I’m told.
The meeting ends and many people, mostly men and gay at that, linger in the courtyard afterwards. Within a minute, a group of guys—young, skinny, with exquisite hair and many, I notice, wearing white belts—come over to say hi. They welcome me and ask if I would like to join them for dinner. Thanks, I say graciously, but I’m having dinner with my sponsor. But when the last word is out of my mouth I hear Jack behind me saying, No you’re not. I turn to look at him and see the stern face of a parent ditching his kid at sleep-away camp. Before I can say another word he gives me a hug and tells me to leave him a message on his voice mail when I get home. As I watch him go I consider sneaking back to Charles Street, but too many people are introducing themselves, handing me their phone numbers scrawled on little scraps of paper, for me to be able to disappear unnoticed.
So I go to dinner. The group consists of fifteen guys at least. All gay. Most young. Some cute. Most not. All loud. As we walk toward Chelsea I try to lag behind so it doesn’t appear that I’m with them, but each time I do someone drops back to chat with me. How much time do you have? is the usual question and I answer, Fifty-nine days. I’m embarrassed to tell them my story so I just allude to a rough patch. They seem to get it and don’t press.
Eventually we end up at the New Venus diner in Chelsea, where the waiters shove a bunch of tables together to form one long one at the front of the restaurant. In the scuffle of who-sits-where, I wind up toward the end, near the door. As I take my seat, I see a tall, pale guy with red hair and a white Izod shirt sit down directly across from me. He looks Scottish, but too exotic to be Scottish. Maybe Scandinavian, I think, but then wonder if there are red-haired Scandinavians. He’s very fit, very pale, loaded with freckles, and his clothes seem to glow they are so clean. Hi, he says. I’m Asa.
Asa is a few years younger than I am, in graduate school for urban planning, and has been sober three years from a heroin addiction that wiped out his savings and forced him to drop out of school. When I ask him about the red hair he tells me it’s a mystery, no one in his family has it, just as no one in his family is an alcoholic or addict. He was raised in what he describes as an eccentric Presbyterian household in Baltimore, but unless there is a meeting being held in one, he no longer goes to church. He seems too well educated and serious for this gaggle of former club kids, but he couldn’t appear more comfortable in their company. I tell him my story and he listens and nods and asks the occasional question. I worry that he thinks I’m making up the parts about the agency, Noah, the life I once had, and the two months in hotel rooms that ended it. But at the same time I don’t want him to think that I’m trying to impress or shock him. I want to tell him I wasn’t always this pathetic, this broken, that it took a long time to get here and no one saw it happening. No one, that is, except Noah. When I hear myself say I used to go to London a lot, I realize I am trying to impress him and shut up.
Dinner ends and we talk on the corner of 22nd Street and Eighth Avenue as one by one the sweet, noisy boys I’m embarrassed to be seen with disappear into the night. Call me, most say, but I’ve already thrown out their numbers in the bathroom at the diner. Asa, I’ve decided, is the one I can relate to. He has the same cautious, easy-does-it tone that Jack has but he’s less distant, softer. He tells me about a meeting I should try. Everyone calls it The Library because it’s located in some kind of research library and, it turns out, it’s a few blocks from One Fifth, where I lived with Noah until two months ago. He describes the people there as a mix of gay and straight, educated and not, all very serious about sobriety. He gives me the address—which I write down on the slip of paper where I’ve written Dave’s Charles Street address—and tells me to meet him there tomorrow, ten minutes before the 12:30 meeting.
Excerpted from Ninety Days by Clegg, Bill Copyright © 2012 by Clegg, Bill. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Bill Clegg is a literary agent in New York. He is the author of Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.
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