GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
By the time Bill Clegg reached his mid-30s, he'd ticked all the boxes that would allow him to be defined as a success. He was running his own literary agency with some top-flight talent; he'd come to terms with his sexuality and he was in a steady relationship with another man and he was earning a pretty good salary.
But there was something else. Bill Clegg was a crack addict, and all those outward trappings of success collapsed over a period of two months in 2005 when his addiction took over his life. He tells the story in a powerful new memoir called "Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man."
And just a quick warning: this conversation with Bill Clegg may not be appropriate for children.
Bill Clegg, welcome to the program.
Mr. BILL CLEGG (Author, "Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man"): Thank you. Thank you for having me on.
RAZ: This book is in parts shocking and very lucid in its details. Random encounters with escorts, irrational paranoia, self-destruction really on an unparalleled scale. Why did you decide to share that story with the public?
Mr. CLEGG: The first writings came actually in rehab when I was writing down memories of that period of two months when I was doing drugs 24 hours a day. That period of time resulted in a suicide attempt. So, after it, it was sort of like surfacing from a nightmare. And in that same way that one surfaces from a dream or a nightmare and you're aware of certain details, I sort of had this sense that they were going to disappear and I would no longer have access to them.
And since so much of that time was fraught with paranoia, I couldn't at that point distinguish between truth and delusion. So I felt like if I wrote down as much as I could remember, then later I would be able to distinguish between sort of delusion and reality.
RAZ: You were exposed to crack cocaine in your mid-20s...
Mr. CLEGG: Yes.
RAZ: ...by someone you knew from childhood, a lawyer from your hometown. What happened?
Mr. CLEGG: Yes. I was working as an assistant at an agency. Actually, I had just started actively working as an agent. I had taken on my first few clients at that point and sold a few books. And I was in a bookstore near the office and I ran into him and he invited me back to his apartment for a drink. One thing led to another after a few drinks and the talk of drugs kind of surfaced.
And he asked me at one point if I'd ever freebased cocaine and I lied and said yes, because it was something I had always wanted to do, always something that sort of captured my imagination. And I had certainly done cocaine and I had smoked a lot of pot and drank, but I had never freebased cocaine, which is the same thing as crack.
Within moments, he produced a crack pipe and that was the first time I ever did the drug.
RAZ: Now, this was in your 20s. A lot of what you describe happens almost 10 years later. You started a literary agency; you entered into a stable relationship. Did people start to notice it when you were doing it once a week or once every other week?
Mr. CLEGG: Not that they ever expressed to me. I mean, the year before I disappeared for those two months, I had gone on a bender that exceeded one day. It actually was three days - two nights and three days - and that sufficiently frightened my boyfriend at the time and he contacted my business partner and a close friend. They described at the time being completely surprised.
So I wasn't that guy that you looked across the room at and said, oh God. I hope he gets help. I had mastered this sort of facade that hid what was actually going on.
RAZ: A big part of this memoir takes place at the Newark Airport and a nearby Marriott Hotel. You're supposed to meet your boyfriend, Noah, in Berlin - he's already there - and you keep deliberately missing your flight so you can return to the hotel and get high. And you describe the paranoia that you felt at the hotel at the airport about supposed DEA agents following you around.
Mr. CLEGG: Yeah.
RAZ: At one point, this paranoia was so intense you were asked to get off the plane before it took off. You never made it. I mean, were you aware of it? Were you aware that it was not real?
Mr. CLEGG: I was absolutely convinced that there was this complicated system of surveillance around me and that it was even much bigger than just like a DEA agent, because there's also a grandiosity that comes with heavy drug use. There are people in recovery who I know and who use this expression, which is that, you know, addicts often feel like the piece of (beep) at the center of the universe.
So you feel like sort of terribly important in some kind of way and terribly unimportant at the same time. You sort of feel like this dastardly monster that somehow, you know, an entire airport security system and probably, you know, federal agents are also pursuing and have a big agenda for. And so I said to the stewardess: Isn't this a complicated piece of theater for just one person? She politely excused herself and moments later the captain returned with her and they asked me off the flight.
RAZ: You eventually came close to dying. You wake up in a hospital. You had previously rejected attempts by friends to get you into rehab. What made you change your mind?
Mr. CLEGG: Well, when I first woke up in the hospital, I was furious to be alive because I, at the end, in the last hotel room that I had been in, I actively tried to end my life with an overwhelming amount of crack cocaine and five bottles of sleeping pills and a bottle of vodka.
I had, you know, run out of money. I didn't have access to more. I thought for sure that somewhere in that two months period I would die of an overdose. There was a very conscious expectation of not making it. I didn't think that I could live in the world anymore. I felt like the whole struggle was too much. I had failed to stay sober. I couldn't imagine being able to stay sober. I didn't want to - I couldn't imagine a life without the drugs and I couldn't - and I knew that there was no manageable life with drugs.
So the only solution at that point to me seemed like death. So when I woke up in the hospital after the failed suicide attempt, I was furious. And I actually - when I finally was put in my own room, somebody had sent an orchid and there was a sort of wooden stake holding up the orchid. The moment I saw it, I snapped it in half and started jamming it into my wrists. And at that point, as I was doing that, I could sort of see myself doing that. It was almost like an out of body experience and I recognized at that moment that I actually didn't want to die.
And I stopped and I wrapped up the wound in my wrist, and from that point forward, I wanted to live and wanted to get sober. And that's why I agreed to go to rehab. I also had nowhere else to go, by the way. I mean, I had effectively lost everything. So, I didn't have a home, my relationship was over, I didn't have a company, I was not employable. Most of my friends wouldn't speak to me, I had no clients, and so I wanted to live and there was no place for me to go but rehab.
RAZ: Do you recognize this person, this Bill Clegg that you're writing about or when you sat down to write it, did you feel you were writing about someone else?
Mr. CLEGG: No. I definitely recognize that person. And I stay acquainted with that person as much as I can. And in that way I'm perpetually reexamining, reoccupying that time and the harm that I caused. When I wrote this, I mean, obviously, many of the memories and the specifics of them were very painful. It's very difficult for me to remember the pleasure in the drug because it was so despairing and paranoid and frightened and panicked and horrible, which is a gift that that is my only memory of it now.
RAZ: That's Bill Clegg. He's the author of "Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man." He joined me from our studios in New York.
Bill Clegg, thank you so much.
Mr. CLEGG: Thanks.