JOHN DONVAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington Neal Conan is away. How easy is it to roll your eyes when you hear again that some celebrity has checked into rehab and then come out again clean and turning over a new leaf and not looking back but in fact has just been rearrested for possession or driving under the influence and now is headed, guess where, back to rehab?
So what was it the first time, a total farce? The claims of being clean, were those hogwash from the start? Well, maybe in some cases. But what these stories never really get into is how close to impossibly difficult it can be to kick a drug habit, how the people who do stop using for any meaningful length of time are, in a way, walking improbabilities, because addiction really truly does not like to let go, ever.
And that is something perhaps that most civilians, so to speak, don't really get about the process of recovery, but that is spelled out in stunning honest and revealing detail in a new book call "Ninety Days." It's a firsthand account of Bill Clegg's fight for recovery. It is still a work in progress - the recovery, not the book - and Bill Clegg joins us in just a moment.
Later on in the program, Guy Davis, the ambassador of the blues. But first, if you are an addict or a recovering addict, what is it that the rest of the world doesn't understand about the process and the difficulty of getting clean and staying clean? Tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
So Bill Clegg first wrote about his battle with drugs in a book called "Portrait Of An Addict As A Young Man." It was published two years ago to enormously positive acclaim, in part because it so shocked people with the honesty, the details of his decline. And now in his second book, he's telling, in a sense, part two of the rough and painful road to getting clean and sober.
The book is called "Ninety Days: A Memoir of Recovery," and he joins us now from NPR West in Culver City, California. Bill, welcome to the program.
BILL CLEGG: Thanks for having me, hello.
DONVAN: Hello. So tell our audience what the term 90 days refers to. What happens during those days?
CLEGG: You know, 90 days is the sort of the goal in early recovery for a lot of people. In certain programs of recovery, the suggestion is that you go to 90 meetings in 90 days. And in those meetings there's usually a juncture at which the question is asked: Is anybody counting days? At which point people will raise their hand and say: I have four days, I have 10 days, I have 22 days.
And it immediately identifies them as people in early recovery, and then particularly after that, if somebody who's had, you know, say, 50 or 60 days and then comes in with one day, you know, it's very clear that that's somebody who needs help.
DONVAN: That's a very big confession of what just happened in the day before or the days before.
CLEGG: Exactly, exactly, and so - and getting connected in the landscape of recovery is, you know, sort of key to getting sober. So for people who, you know, are reluctant or very shy to come in, just raising your hand and saying a day count is often easier than, you know, approaching somebody after a meeting or raising a hand and sharing in detail about what's going on.
So just that day says a lot to the people in the room and allows them to be approached, and oftentimes people will give you their numbers with the hope that they'll call.
DONVAN: Is there a big difference between saying I'm clean for 90 days and I'm clean for 91 days?
CLEGG: Well, I think, you know, by the time 90 days occurs, usually, you know, you've become connected to whatever the room of recovery you've chosen to get sober in. You know, there are lots of programs of recovery, some that are paid, some that are free, some that are anonymous, some that aren't. But the key is getting connected to other people who are in recovery.
And you know, so by the time you've gotten to 90 days, you're three months in. If you've been going to meetings regularly, you're hopefully part of a community that doesn't require you to raise your hand to say a day count to be seen. You already are.
DONVAN: I want to talk about what your second book really talks about, which is the enormous, enormous obstacles to recovery that are just in us. But for those people who don't know the story that you tell in your first book, which is of the time your life was wrecked, take a minute or two to tell us who you were, what happened, what you lost.
CLEGG: Well, I was, you know, I was in my mid-30s. I had been living in New York for, you know, well over a decade and had been working in book publishing as a literary agent. I had a literary agency that I co-owned with a business partner for a little over four years. And we had been successful.
And, you know, from the outside, everything looked very good, and - but on the inside, you know, I was somebody who had started drinking alone in my bedroom at age 12 and had been thrown out of college for, you know, drinking-related issues and, you know, had been basically drinking alcoholically since 12, since my very, very early years.
So by the time I hit my mid-30s, you know, alcohol had graduated to drugs. Drugs had graduated to hard drugs. And I had, from the age of, you know, 26 on been a crack addict that had hidden an addiction very successfully and tried to manage it eventually very unsuccessfully.
And so what happened in my mid-30s is I just - I walked out the door of my life, emailed my business partner and said that I wasn't coming back and dove into a bender that lasted two months on the other side of which I had, you know, lost the agency, lost my long-term relationship with my boyfriend, all my money, any respect that I had in the book publishing industry.
And so I had, you know, pretty much shucked myself of any material things and any, you know, financial security. So that period of time, that two months that I had basically disappeared into hotel rooms doing drugs on a suicide run, that's the period of time that's transcribed in "Portrait Of An Addict As A Young Man," and the period of time that led up to it, that led to that sort of walking out the door.
DONVAN: All right, and "Ninety Days" begins, the opening pages, literally, you've come out of rehab, several months in rehab. While there, there were people who had reached out to you from the community, and when I say the community, I mean the community of recovering addicts, to try to work with you.
You drive into New York City after being out in the suburbs, hospitalized for a while, or in a rehab program for a while. And what did New York look like to you at that point? The way you've just described yourself, you're all but naked. You've got only the shirt on your back, more or less. Everything else is gone except maybe a few friends. What did New York look like to you?
CLEGG: It didn't look that likely, is what it looked like. It looked like a city for other people and, you know, other people who, you know, had jobs and were successful and could afford to stay there. And so I went back because my only friends, you know, who were remaining and my only connection to recovery, I had a sponsor in the program of recovery that I'm in who had - I had met when I was in the hospital.
And he was in New York. So it was a pretty thin tether, but it was really where - it was the only place where I did have any support. My only other choice was to go to Maine to live with my sister. So I went back, but I went back with the expectation that I probably wouldn't be able to stay for very long because I had no money, and I had no prospects to be employed.
Everybody in the industry that I'd been in, in book publishing, knew what happened, knew that I was a crack addict. And so it just didn't look very likely. It looked like a pretty daunting place.
DONVAN: And in a sense, your career became recovering addict. That was your fulltime, let's say, occupation.
CLEGG: It's true. I - you know, I had had this life before where I had lots of phone dates and appointments and business trips and lunches and dinners, and it was just a very packed schedule, rushing from one thing to the next. And then when I arrived back in the city, you know, nobody was expecting me to be anywhere.
So I, you know, quickly kind of put together this schedule of meetings and even appointments with other addicts and alcoholics in recovery to sort of create the illusion that I had a life, that I had, you know, people and places that were expecting me to show up.
DONVAN: You also describe having to organize your life in New York ideally - and you didn't always live up to it, and that's where you're so honest in the book - but ideally to avoid triggers to launch cravings that would get you back using again. So to people who don't know how powerful those triggers are, take a minute just on the power of a trigger and how present they were and how hard it was to fight them off.
CLEGG: Well, you know, particularly in New York, where the footprint of the city is so small, I mean, in Manhattan, anyway, it's a vertical place. So if you're moving through the city, you're sort of moving through a museum of your life. You can see where you were, you know, dumped in this restaurant, where you, you know, a building that you had lived in, a place where you had done drugs.
And so when I came back to the city, my sponsor, Jack, had laid out a map, and you know, basically cordoned off certain areas of the city that I was just not allowed to go to. He called them the trigger zones. And so, for example, you know, there was, you know, like a two-block radius around the old agency that I'd had and lost that I couldn't go within, the house that I'd lived in before.
There was a certain apartment on Houston and Sixth that I'd done drugs in a lot that I couldn't go near. And so it was just, there was a sort of new map for the city for me to avoid those places.
DONVAN: But is that because the very, you know, very visual sight of something like that could get - could start this thing going in your brain that very quickly could lead you to using again?
CLEGG: Well, part of it is that, you know, as an addict and an alcoholic, you know, all extreme feelings and emotions were things that I, you know, often couldn't handle on my own without alcohol and drugs. And so if I was very, very happy, or if I was very, very sad or scared, like I often drank and used drugs at those feelings.
And so, you know, going - walking in front of the building where I had had an agency that I'd lost because of my drug and alcohol use was a pretty emotional experience. And without drugs and alcohol, you know, available to me anymore, I just - it was in that early period of raw recovery, you know, it's just that level of emotion triggers oftentimes the need to use.
Or if you see a place where you've done drugs a lot, it can trigger a craving and that memory of using. And so we basically just tried to steer clear of places that would provoke that kind of extreme emotion or provoke cravings.
DONVAN: We're talking with Bill Clegg, his book "Ninety Days: A Memoir of Recovery."And if you're a recovering addict, call us and tell us what we, the rest of us, don't understand about getting and staying clean. And I know that we do have a lot of people actually waiting to talk with you, Nick(ph), and we're going to have a lot right after the break. Our number is 800-989-8255. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. We are talking with Bill Clegg about addiction and recovery in his book "Ninety Days." He is a former crack addict who hit bottom after a two-month bender that left him with no apartment, no job, no relationship and he says nowhere to go, except to rehab, which ultimately led to recovery and meetings and new friends. And yes, it also led to relapse.
It happened to Bill Clegg, and today he says one of the things that helps keep him going and staying sober is Polly, who is a woman he met in a meeting after a relapse and developed a deep connection with. You can read about his first impression of Polly in an excerpt from the book "Ninety Days," which is up at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
So if you're an addict or a recovering addict, we're asking you to join this conversation, to tell us about the challenges of getting clean and staying clean. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And Bill, there's a lot more of your story that I want to unfold with you, but we have people who also want to share and get into this conversation. So let's mix it up and unfold your story perhaps as you hear some of the experiences of our listeners who are talking with us now. So let's bring in Nicki(ph) from Portland, Oregon. Nicki, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
DONVAN: Hi, you're on the air.
NICKI: Hi, thanks for having me.
NICKI: Yeah, so I have been clean since March of 1998 from my drug of choice, and for me in the beginning, for the first six months I did what they recommended in the hospital, and I went back to work, and I made 90 meetings in 90 days, and I got a sponsor. And then six months later I relapsed. So something wasn't working.
And then I tried again. And what I found through my struggle is that there are universalities in addiction that will help you stay clean and sober, but you also, with guides, have to kind of find your own way. It's not just one way. And I think for me, being given a prescription, you do A and then you do B and then you do C, and then you'll have a clean and sober life and be OK without drugs or alcohol, was not - it didn't work for me.
DONVAN: Bill, you've mentioned a few times, Bill, that there are different programs. I think you've actually said that three times in the course of our conversation. And are you saying that because of the issue that Nicki is raising in Portland, that there is sometimes a one-size-fits-all notion out there, and that's a needed reminder that it's not one size fits all?
CLEGG: Yeah, I think that there - everybody is different. I think there are, you know, as Nicki says, universalities in addiction and alcoholism. But, you know, it's - what works for one person may not work for another, and so my advance always is just keep going and keep trying, and then, you know, if there's a genuine willingness to get sober, which is a very hard state to arrive at if you're an alcoholic or an addict, that willingness to really give up the drinking and the drugs.
If that willingness is there, I think if you keep trying to find the group of people and the program of recovery that will help you, you'll get sober. And - but I don't presume that my way is the only way. But the thing that I've noticed, the through stitch for most people who I know who are sober and stay sober, is that they're very connected to the people in whatever program that they're in and that there's a feeling of their experience of being an addict or an alcoholic being useful to somebody else getting sober.
DONVAN: Let's - thank you for your call, Nicki. Let's bring in Steve from St. Louis. Hi, Steve, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
STEVE: Yeah, I am a recovering heroin addict. Right now I only have a few months clean. But what I wanted to comment on was quite recently I had a year clean, and I was working. I had a nice job at a hospital, and part of my job entailed me going into a laundry room that had - every day I'd walk past this box of syringes.
And I had just celebrated my year clean, and I had a great support system, and everything was going well, and I willingly - eventually I willingly relapsed like that. I couldn't fight it off. Just that image of that box of needles was enough to eventually make me willingly throw everything away. I knew exactly what I was doing. I knew the consequences, but I felt alone.
And we as addicts tend to alienate ourselves. Like, I didn't ask for help. I knew everything that I should do, but I chose not to do any of those things, not to ask my sponsor, not to talk to my family, because I felt that, you know, nobody will understand how I feel. And I know if I call my sponsor, he'll try to talk me out of it.
And it was almost as if I couldn't stop myself from relapsing, even though I knew everything that that would entail.
DONVAN: Bill, it sounds like - you know, he could have written some pages of your book, Steve right there.
CLEGG: Yeah, well that experience of having the craving that leads to the obsession that then leads to the using, even with the full knowledge of the consequences, that - I mean that follows, you know, the script, I think, of most people who relapse. And that was certainly my experience.
DONVAN: Can you take us inside that experience a little bit? Because again, the term I'm using, the civilians would say, you know, you know what the downside is, you know how much it wrecked your life. Why don't you just, you know, just say no, as they used to say a few administrations back in the White House. Just say no.
The difficulty of saying no, and in fact there's a moment in your book where you confess that after finishing the book, basically, that you relapsed after more than five years clean, that you relapsed when you were on a trip overseas with what sounds like the most benign stimulus, which was somebody mentioning the perfect drink to you.
It's unbelievably powerful - explanation of how this works. So just take a minute. What happened with that drink, and how did it make you relapse after five years?
CLEGG: Well, I had - you know, I had gone away to an island in southern Thailand to finish this book, and, you know, it was the longest period of time that I'd been away from my sober community in New York. And it was four weeks, and the island had no rooms of recovery, to speak of. I was actually with a sober friend.
And we had sort of impromptu little meetings just between the two of us, and I thought that there wasn't - I mean, it didn't even occur to me that I would be vulnerable to relapse in a situation like this. And so at the end of that four weeks, just before I was supposed to fly back home through Bangkok, you know, my friend had asked me which hotel I was staying in, and I said the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
And he said, oh, well, when I was traveling as a teenager with my family, I had the best gin and tonic in the world in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. And my eyes became, you know, saucers, and I just - somehow being away from my sober community for that long and hearing that just triggered an obsession exactly as this man just described.
I didn't tell anybody about it. I sort of - I sort of nurtured that idea of the best drink, just because it's in this lobby of this great hotel. And, you know, I checked into that hotel and got into my room, and I poured a drink. And I went through those motions as if I was being, you know, controlled by a remote control, knowing full well what the consequences might be. And so...
DONVAN: And that was after five years plus.
CLEGG: Five and a half years, yeah, five and a half years. And so it was an incredibly humbling experience to me. And I wasn't honest about that relapse right away. I was so ashamed of it, and I hid it for the weeks when I came back to New York. And - but I was still going into the rooms of recovery, and I was deep in my sober community.
And the good news there is that once upon a time it was nothing for me to keep a secret like that, but you know, sort of deep in the community of recovery that I'm in, like that kind of dishonesty just doesn't work.
DONVAN: Why was silence dishonesty?
CLEGG: Because, I mean, just not being honest about a relapse in the rooms of recovery, that's - you know, for me, there's nothing more dishonest. And pretending to have more sober time than I did - no, that's just - that just doesn't work. Also because when you're talking to people who are trying to get sober, it's all about being honest about what your experience is and - if that experience can be useful.
And my experience was that I relapsed at five and a half years. You know, I was ashamed of it. And it only, you know, can be useful if I'm being honest. If I'm not being honest about it, it just becomes an engine probably to pick up again.
DONVAN: Julia in Knoxville, Tennessee has dropped an email to us, and she asks a very brief question: What if you don't do well in group settings? The fear of going to a group meeting is almost worse to me than my addiction.
CLEGG: I totally relate to that. Public speaking for me or speaking even in front of a handful of people is my greatest fear. And so the idea of going into a room of strangers and being honest about the things that I had been secretive about and ashamed about my whole life was just as she describes, you know, just worse than almost any other thing that I can imagine. And - but I think that that fear of being with people and in group settings and that instinct to isolate is very typical, at least in my experience with alcoholics and addicts. And I would say to her, you know, to just go. And even if you don't want to speak or even raise your hand, just keep going.
And I think once you begin to hear a version of your own story through the stories of other people, it breaks down that sense of disconnection and that sense of isolation. And at least in my experience - and I never was a joiner. I never thought that I would be part of any community, particularly one that, like, involves being honest about things that you're ashamed of...
DONVAN: Were you uncomfortable with kind of 12-step lingo in the beginning?
CLEGG: I was just - I was uncomfortable about, you know, walking into rooms of people who I didn't know and being honest about things that I had kept secret my whole life. And in terms of lingo or, you know, all the phrasing around recovery - you know, I worked as a literary agent and, you know, mostly with literature. So I was very dismissive of the phrases and very dismissive of things that I thought were just sort of one-size-fits-all, you know, prescriptions for life.
And, you know, now I cling to those very phrases. I love them. I use them. And I think because, you know, a lot of alcoholics and addicts that I know suffer from something called - that we call in recovery terminal uniqueness. And, you know, I think we resist any lingo or any phrasing or anything that, like, attempts to describe in any universal way the experience that we've gone through because we're very persuaded that it's singular and subjective and not translatable to anybody else.
And I think that's the big revelation. It was for me, going into the rooms of recovery, that my experience was so much like every other person's, and I had just been so convinced that nobody could possibly understand.
DONVAN: Just so we know what we're talking about, what are the kinds of phrases that you once scoffed at, that actually have meaning for you now?
CLEGG: Oh, you know, things like feelings aren't facts, keep it simple, one day at a time, things like that, and which, you know, when, you know, you're three weeks into getting sober and you're overwhelmed with the idea that you're not going to be able to live in New York, pay your rent, ever have a job again, that that feeling feels as firm and concrete as any fact that you've ever encountered, and yet it actually is just a feeling.
And when somebody said that to me for the first time, I mean, I just - scoffing is a light way to describe it. I was disgusted by that phrase. And then later, you know, I really started to see that so many of these feelings that I had sort of taken as fact, and that had dictated my actions, that I used drugs to deal with and to drink around, that - you know, it actually was incredibly useful.
And, you know, aphorisms and phrases like the ones that are used in recovery, they - it's like what they say about, you know, stereotypes. They - they're there sometimes because there's a fact at the center of them or there's a truth at the center of them.
So - but most of it is about, you know, sort of connecting your experience to other people's and that there would be language that would describe a common experience with something that initially I was very reluctant to accept.
DONVAN: OK. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Emily is joining us from Nashville. Hi, Emily. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
EMILY: Hi. I wanted to share that I have been in recovery for 22 years. I got clean and sober when I was 21 years old. But what strikes me now, almost 23 years later, is the vivid dream I still have about drinking and drugging. I wake up in the morning riddled with anxiety, that I've gone back out and ruined my record. And really the only solution for that, to me, is to return to the program, to return to the people.
DONVAN: And do you do that? Do you go back?
EMILY: I do, indeed. I go back sometimes just to the literature, which I also find very, very helpful.
DONVAN: Interesting, Bill. So there's somebody who's been at it more than twice as long as you have.
EMILY: I'm sorry?
DONVAN: I'm saying to Bill that you have more than twice as much experience as he has. And I'm curious, Bill, whether, in a sense, you see your future in Emily's episode of - you know, that it's kind of forever, is what she's saying.
CLEGG: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I don't - if you have one year sober or 25 years sober, you know, I think you still are an alcoholic and an addict. You know, you're in recovery, but it's a daily engagement in your recovery. And so I think I have alcoholic and addictive tendencies that I have to address through a program of recovery every day.
And, you know, that used to seem like a sentence to me, but you know, now I'm just - I'm so grateful because, you know, I often think people who aren't alcoholics and addicts, you know, it would be so great if they actually had the same community that we have, where - you know, alcoholics and addicts take problems that are related to drugs and alcohol into the rooms of recovery and into their sober community. But they take all the problems of life there too.
And so a lot of what we learn in recovery, you know, is about how to live life on life's terms. And I think that's particularly hard for alcoholics and addicts, but I think it's hard for people in general. So...
DONVAN: We have about a minute left. And just - your book really sits there as an inspiration. So tell us how your life is now in the last minute. Where do things stand in your life now?
CLEGG: I'm very lucky to be back in the book publishing world, working as a literary agent. I work with a lot of the clients who I worked with before, and I'm very grateful for that. I'm deeply involved in my sober community. And, you know, some of the people who I got sober with are still incredibly close to me, Polly not the least of whom. And all the things that I learned in early recovery about being honest, staying connected, not trying to do it on my own, these are the things that keep me sober today.
DONVAN: And I want to finish with an email we received from Todd. He says: I'm a recovering alcoholic, three years sober. What many people don't understand about substance abuse is that the guilt and shame of being an addict can actually feed, not counter, the addiction itself. Not all addicts are bad people. We recommend Bill Clegg's book "Ninety Days." Bill is the author of "Ninety Days: A Memoir of Recovery." You can read an excerpt of that at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thanks very much, Bill, for sharing your story and coming on today.
CLEGG: Thank you.
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