By Jennifer Matesa
In Ninety Days, author Bill Clegg takes readers through his gut-wrenching 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.
Renew: I gave your book to my friend Bridget, who’s coming 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 alcoholics 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. And your new friend, Asa, was the key guy who helped you let go of your judgments.
BC: I didn’t think I would like them. There was just one person who I identified with enough to be open to. I followed his suggestion 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 Foster 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 Bangkok. 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 willing. 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.
Renew: It was interesting how you talked about James Frey’s book. You talk about people who try to get sober by themselves.
BC: I never mentioned a name in the book. There was a writer during that time who wrote a book, which I read the beginning of but didn’t finish — but I was obsessed with all the press around him, because he said he smoked crack. At that point I didn’t think anybody had smoked crack, except for me and the people I smoked crack with — and they weren’t on the Oprah Winfrey Show, let me tell you. When I was in rehab, people brought this writer up. A lot. Because they didn’t want to be in rehab, and they were like, “This guy didn’t need rehab, nobody understands, I can just draw a line in the sand.” His line was something to the effect, “I decided I didn’t want to die, so I just stopped using drugs and alcohol.”
Renew: Just “hold on.”
BC: Yeah!—I made that decision a thousand times.
Renew: What is it about that other book that made it so successful, selling millions of copies? How is your memoir different from his?
BC: They’re directly the opposite. My book is in service of illuminating a very simple truth, which is that addiction is not a problem that can be solved on one’s own. And I think that the book that we’re talking about is saying that, if you’ve made the decision that you have strong enough willpower, you can get sober on your own. You don’t need rehabs, and programs, and steps. You don’t need other people. You just need the willpower to stick by that decision. And I think that’s a very dangerous delusion.
Renew: You must have fear of disapproval. So how do you feel about the readers who say you’re self-aggrandizing and focused only on yourself?
BC: It has nothing to do with me. When I’ve passed judgment in harsh ways about other people, I tend to find that there’s something going on with me that’s making me feel that way.
Renew: After writing Portrait, did that fear of criticism make it hard to write 90 Days?
BC: I didn’t stop writing after Portrait. It was six years of solid writing. I relapsed the day after I sent the finished manuscript of 90 Days to my editor. I had isolated myself on a tiny island in southernmost Thailand. I went away for a month without meetings, away from my sober community. I’m never away for that long. By the time I picked up, my alcoholic thinking had taken over. I was very concerned with what everyone would think of me, what I would lose, what I wouldn’t get, and I thought I was super-special. And for all these reasons I couldn’t be honest about my relapse. My disease is always trying to push me into some sort of perception where I feel like I’m utterly isolated, my experience is utterly singular and nobody could possibly relate to it.
Renew: This brings up a question about how to have a successful book versus how to have a successful recovery. To have a successful book, you have to have a unique story. You have to be unique. And there are so many addiction memoirs out there — what makes yours unique?
BC: I don’t think there’s anything different about my story. I started young; I drank to not feel my feelings; I graduated to drugs; I learned how to lie around my use; I then felt less-than at some times, I felt much greater-than at other times. It became progressive to the point of becoming unmanageable and then it inched me closer and closer to death. I tried to kill myself; I lost most things; and only when I lost those things would I accept that asking for help to get sober was the way that I could. That’s the whole story — that’s what those two books contain. And that’s the story of most alcoholics and addicts I know who are lucky enough to find recovery.
Jennifer Matesa is freelance writer, essayist and author of two nonfiction books, including 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.