Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: Bill Clegg (page 1 of 2)

Lunch With Bill Clegg: Part 2.

[Continued from Part 1]

Someone wrote in a couple weeks ago asking whether Bill Clegg is “for real.” “Is he sober?” they asked. They were thinking of ordering his book 90 Days for their adult child, who is a recovering crack and heroin addict.

Interesting question. Are we the judges of some kind of reality show?—Detoxing With The Stars.

Well anyway, if we’re given a “daily reprieve,” he seemed like he hadn’t drunk or used the day we met up. Bill Clegg walked into the restaurant clear-eyed. He ordered a chicken salad and wolfed it down. He often eats at this particular place in the West Village. They knew his name. He was wearing a button-down shirt with a blue V-neck sweater and brown corduroys. Altogether he looked to me like a Northeastern preppy college student chowing down between classes. In other words, he was healthy.

All the press around Bill Clegg talks about how “handsome” he is, and, in fact, he is—the Cosmos loaned him a finely hewn bone structure, a high forehead and straight teeth and cleft chin, clear skin and a mellow voice, and good for him. But also, he’s ordinary. He’s got a Gucci suit and god knows what other awesome clothes hanging in his closet and he goes to black-tie parties in midtown, but he’s not exempt from smearing mayo on his lips when he eats his chicken salad, and I could imagine him trying to hide the scorch-marks on his fingers from the crack stems. I could imagine him freaking out when the Bic lighter exploded. He’s a plain old for-real sweet guy but if he managed to fall for crack he has some kind of dark side, and he writes about it in 90 Days.

He’s also “a real program guy,” in the words of one of my editors at The Fix. Clegg showed up late for lunch because he takes time out of his weekdays to go to meetings and take care of his sobriety, and part of going to meetings is arriving early and staying late to talk to your posse afterward. We talked about the people he’s come to know over the past seven years who have helped him stay sober—such as Polly, a woman who makes her living walking dogs and who relapsed over and over. We talked about how, when he got offered his job as a literary agent at William Morris Endeavor, he told his boss that he’d do the work, but he’d have to have time during workdays to take care of his sobriety.

We talked about a lot of stuff that never made it into his books. He describes the moment in early sobriety when he discovered the work he was put here to do. The story makes me realize (once again) that not all we accomplish while we’re in active addiction is for naught. I spent 10 years raising a kid while in active addiction—and he’s a good kid.

Also, I enjoyed Clegg’s insights about self-acceptance. My ultimate long-term project.

Continued from Part 1.

Bill doesn’t like looking into the camera. “Say Polly,” I said, and he laughed and finally looked into the lens.

Guinevere: How did they know it was crack, for chrissake?

Bill Clegg: I was missing for two months. It’s a very small community, the publishing community. This friend of mine at the time said it was like the Space Shuttle had blown up—like everybody saw, and there was nothing left.

G: Tell me how you started representing people again.

BC: So I said I’d read these manuscripts that these three writers I used to represent had sent me, and at one point, I had a manuscript in my lap, I forget which one it was, and I was typing up notes on my computer, on this little table in my kitchen in my studio at 15th and Seventh. And I was typing up the notes and I had this really powerful feeling. It was like, This is what you do. It was the first time in like eight months I had been sitting with double-spaced typed-up pages, which—I’m ALWAYS sitting with double-spaced typed pages in my lap and taking notes. And suddenly there I was, doing what I always did. And I had, literally, this physical, spiritual acceptance of, This is what you do. This is it. And it didn’t matter if I did it out of a garage upstate, or if I did it at a big shiny agency. It didn’t matter.

Six or eight weeks passed after that. I told the people closest to me after a few days, and I had decided I was going to start my own agency. Somebody I knew was going to offer me office space, and I would owe the rent until the money came in. That was a great gift. I was absolutely going to give it my best shot, but I didn’t know if it would work.

And I then got an email from Jennifer Rudolph Walsh at the William Morris Agency, which is now WME, and she invited me to lunch. I had met her once, many years before. A lot of people in and out of publishing had reached out to me. I thought she was approaching me because some sibling or child or colleague had a problem with addiction and needed some advice. A lot of people had reached out to me like that. And so I went to lunch and she said, “I think you should work with us.” And I was absolutely flabbergasted. At first I said, “I don’t think so.” I didn’t think that was for me. Because—the William Morris Agency? Midtown? I just felt like that was a sort of metaphor for a kind of life that was not sustainable, not healthy for me. Super-competitive; I had never worked for a big company so I had no idea what that agency was like. She said, “I understand why you would think that. Let me introduce you to some people in the department, and don’t make a decision right away.”

So I just took the next right action, and I met with people, and I really had a strong feeling from her that she somehow understood recovery.

G: She said in one press report that she believes everyone deserves a second chance.

BC: I think she does. And she certainly believed that of me. She gave me a job. But I didn’t want to start right away—I took three or four months.

G: I thought it was interesting that you made it a condition of your coming to work being given the leeway to go to a meeting in the middle of every day. If alcoholism and addiction are illnesses, shouldn’t we be able to use time during the workday to take care of ourselves?

BC: Absolutely. My boss didn’t blink. She was like, “You do whatever you have to do to stay sober.”

G: So getting sober wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about saving your reputation—

BC: —No. There was no way to save that reputation. It was destroyed. There was no way to clean it up because there was nothing to scrub.

G: New York is almost a character in itself in both your books. Some of your opening pages in 90 Days reminded me of Didion’s essay, “Goodbye to All That,” where she talks about the culture, the landscape, the feeling of New York. Was part of your recovery an effort to prove that you’re Really A New Yorker?

BC: No.

G: I don’t know if you still live in this section of town—

BC: —I do.

G: Then you live in “Old New York”—the New York of Edith Wharton.

BC: The church she went to is just a few blocks from here.

G: Grace Church.

BC: Yeah. I think my recovery is concerned with proving to myself that I’m not reconciling myself with a place, but rather reconciling myself with myself in any place. And so much of my problem before was looking to circumstance—whether that be professional or financial or geographic—and measuring myself against the outsides of whatever those circumstances were, and feeling like I came up short. And now I feel like I need to accept myself, whether I’m in a small town in the middle of nowhere, or at a black-tie party in the middle of Manhattan. And the exteriors of those, while they may be shiny and bright, or difficult and sorrowful, or whatever—they can’t be the thing that’s defining how I feel about myself.

It’s a daily struggle. I don’t think any of it is achievable in any kind of complete way. I think that our sober-tank empties every night, and when we wake up in the morning we have to do the same amount of things to keep ourselves sober—returning the phone calls of people who have reached out to me, showing up for the people in my life, staying healthy in all manner of ways: physically, emotionally, spiritually. I have to do the exact same things I did in early sobriety to stay sober now, and to stay sane. Because if I don’t, then I’m left to my own devices and I will go back to the place that leaves me vulnerable to picking up. And then all of it is out the window.

G: So your sobriety doesn’t depend on having a job at a high-powered agency or living in an upscale apartment, or even living in this city.

BC: Not at all. I had to come to the acceptance when I was getting sober that I may not live in New York, that I may live in Maine with my sister—that I may live anywhere. But I had a strong instinct that if I didn’t go back to New York right after rehab, that I never would.

G: Why did you want to?

BC: Because all the people who supported my recovery were here. Frankly, Jack, my first sponsor, was here, and he was my tether to sobriety and hope. And I felt like if I went to Maine, I didn’t have any support except my family. The only people I could get sober and healthy with were the other alcoholics and addicts, and Jack at that time was the only one that I knew. So I clung to him, like I clung to Asa, like I clung to everybody else. Anyone who was nearby, they had claw-marks on their shoulders because I was clinging so fucking hard.

G: Is 90 Days written for New Yorkers? The narrative is so deeply a New York narrative—you’re constantly mentioning street names and your sponsor draws a “Trigger Zone” circle around One Fifth Avenue [his old apartment] where you’re not allowed to go to avoid using, and nobody apart from New Yorkers is likely to understand those location names.

BC: It’s primarily written for people who are trying to get sober. I hope [the references to New York locations] don’t get in the way of people relating to what was unfolding for me.

G: By the way, how far away are we from the Trigger Zone?

BC: [laughs] Two blocks north. I know it as much as I know anything in my life. Like when I go to the Angelica Theater in New York, which was like a total no-no, because it’s on Houston between Sixth and Varick, and because I used to get high at Sixth and Houston.

G: So you had to avoid these places because they were triggers. I know some people who say, “I don’t believe in triggers, triggers are bullshit, I drank and used over everything in my life and you can’t avoid life.”

BC: Look, I went to sell my mother’s silver to get rent money, but I went into a trigger zone without telling Jack, and I relapsed. Like, I TOTALLY believe in triggers.

I think at a certain point, once the obsession is lifted, and once somebody’s connected—that’s the answer. Our whole problem is trying to solve this on our own. And I think sobriety is somehow making that journey from the first-person singular to the first-person plural. And that’s a very hard journey, it was the hardest journey for me to make. I didn’t tell anybody about what was really going on in my life for all my life, until I got sober. Nobody knew what was going on, even Noah [his ex-boyfriend].

To dismantle a whole lifetime of trying to figure things out on your own, hiding the problems because they’re shameful, because nobody will understand them you think—to suddenly go from that way of life to one where, something goes wrong, and you don’t see a solution, and you’re admitting you don’t have a solution. You’re telling the people closest to you, especially in sobriety, that you need help. And that becomes a way of life.

G: Are you able to sponsor people like Polly and Annie?

BC: In my sober community, nobody cares that I’m a literary agent. You know, like, Polly’s still a dog-walker. And Polly’s my first phone call, usually, when things are going to hell.

G: Does she still call you “crackhead”? And Annie, calling you “lamb chop.”

BC: Every day. I mean, every day. I got an email from Annie today calling me “lamby.” These are the people who saved my life.

Lunch With Bill Clegg: Part 1.

Yesterday I filed my review of Bill Clegg’s new book, 90 Days: A Memoir of Recovery, with my editors at Renew magazine, for which I review books and media. Clegg is a New York-based literary agent–turned crackhead–turned redemptive recovering addict, and 90 Days is a sequel to his 2010 memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. In the new book Clegg writes about his struggle to overcome the compulsion to keep using crack, how he reclaimed his life, and how he relapsed after five-and-a-half years sober.

If you want to hear this guy who beat crack talk about why he obsessed over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces while he was in rehab (Clegg never mentions Frey’s name in his book, but it’s pretty clear he’s talking about Frey), how he stopped relapsing over and over, what makes his memoir different from the Million Little Addiction Memoirs out there, and lots of other stuff, go to Renew’s site and subscribe. It’s an awesome magazine.

Meanwhile here’s some more from our long conversation over salad and coffee in the Village. In two parts.

Bill Clegg being shy, as always, in front of the camera.

Guinevere: When you wrote how you were qualified for absolutely nothing when you got sober, not even restaurant work, I thought to myself, “This is the first book that has articulated my experience.” When I detoxed I was out of work. Mary Karr’s Lit articulated some of that desperation, but she was always teaching and working. She always had a job. On the other hand, your narrative sets it up as if, when we recover, everything will be restored to us. Do you really think that happens? For somebody like my friend Bridget, who’s coming up on 90 days—I’m thinking in concrete terms, here, actual people out there who are reading your books—she’s hoping that something good will happen for her.

Bill: I think the advice I would give anybody is the advice that was given me. That was just to let go of an expectation of what that future is or what “right” is. To let go of an expectation of what success is.

I had spent months and months and months complaining to everybody, “What am I going to do? How am I going to live? I’m not qualified to do anything.” And Jack [his sponsor] and others said, “Just get sober, and the rest of it will sort itself out. If you’re meant to be an agent, if you’re meant to be a teacher or book editor or whatever”—a psychiatrist, I thought I might go back to school for that—“whatever it is, just get sober and that will reveal itself, but let go of the worrying and trying to figure it out.” And I did, I finally did.

G: You were completely obsessed with your grief. Just sheer grief over what you’d lost. I hadn’t read early sobriety expressed in terms of “grief” before.

B: Oh yeah—I’d walk around these streets with so much self-pity and so much grief. Self-pity and grief—they hold hands. There was genuine grief; there was also a lot of self-pity. And the truth is that the only way I was ever going to move past it into a healthy, useful life was to let go of my attachment to those things I had lost and embrace what was right in front of me. And embrace the gift of life.

I had six months, and I started to feel physically healthy, and I was really connected to other people, and so much of that woe and worry had lifted, and I was just so present. Something happened that was kind of amazing: three of the writers I had represented before—individually, and not in concert with each other—within a three-week period each of them contacted me to say they had written something new, and that I had always been their first reader. And even though I wasn’t an agent anymore and I wasn’t in their lives, they wanted to know, Did I want to read their material? And in each case I said yes without even thinking about it. I was like, Sure—I have nothing else to do—

G: Except go to the gym and your home group.

B: Exactly!

G: Did they know what had happened to you?

B: Everybody knew what happened to me.

G: Your writers?

B: Everybody knew. Because they had an agent, and then they suddenly didn’t have an agent.

G: All the press around that time said, “He has personal problems.”

B: They all knew it was crack. Everybody in the publishing community—that got around very swiftly.

G: That must have been demoralizing for you.

B: [A gasping laugh] You think? I’d spent my whole entire life hiding the truth of what was going on, like scheming and putting on such a polished front—my worst nightmare was of that coming out.

G: How did they know it was crack, for chrissake?

[For the answer, and to hear what Bill Clegg is like in person, click here for Part 2.]

Step 11 in New York.

Just back from New York, where I talked with Bill Clegg about his new memoir, 90 DAYS: A MEMOIR OF RECOVERY.

Bill Clegg in the West Village, April 3, 2012.

Getting messages from readers who may have seen the Newsweek excerpt, asking what I think about the book, and whether Clegg is “for real.” “Is he sober?” one reader asked.

Check back to find out. I’m splitting the goods between this site and Renew Magazine, for which I review books. Check your bookstore or better yet subscribe—May’s issue will have a review of Kaylie Jones’s LIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME and a Q&A with the author.

I like going to New York. I’ve decided to go as often as I can. I used to think I had to have a special reason for going anywhere: a meeting, a conference, a bunch of appointments with important people, Something To Do. My new special reason for going to New York:

Because I want to.

This time, when I wasn’t working, I went to a couple of Al-Anon meetings. One was a Step 11 meeting at Blessed Sacrament church on the Upper West Side. I got there half an hour late because of subway delays; when I opened the door to the meeting place in the rectory at 11:30, there were about 20 people sitting in chairs around the edge of the room. The blinds were drawn, the lights of the huge crystal chandelier were off, and they were meditating. I sat down and joined them.

Afterward I sat in the church to be quiet and look at the candles. It was Wednesday of Holy Week; a homeless guy was lying in a back pew, sleeping; I expected half an hour of quiet time, but suddenly everyone else in the nave stood up and I saw that the priest had walked in and was getting ready to say Mass. So I stayed. I hadn’t been to Mass in—gosh, 25 years? but just like the good Catholic girl I was (and somehow, somewhere inside of me, still am), I knew all the responses; I listened to myself saying them as though it were another person standing inside my skin, talking through my mouth.

Later that day I went to another meeting at Caron in midtown. The weekly topic of this meeting is “intimacy.” It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever been to in my life. They talked frankly about all kinds of ways of being intimate, including sex. I wrote a piece about this experience for another publication and will let you know if and when it’s out… I’m thinking of starting a similar group in my town.

In New York, I stay way downtown. This is my subway stop:

It’s a challenge to maintain my patience in New York because the subway system drives me crazy. Most of the stations are invisible above ground. In London, where I learned to ride subways, the Underground stops are all marked by the ubiquitous and brilliantly designed Tube logo:

In New York you have to morph into a rat to know where the subway stops are. You have to have a nose for holes in the ground. You have to sniff out which stops are uptown-only and which are downtown, and you have to memorize the information in order not to waste time. But once you get inside the stations, you’re likely to see some good art while you’re waiting for the trains.

Just pausing to look at the mosaics is part of recovery for me. It requires me to slow down, be present in my body, be aware. I can appreciate the handiwork of a dedicated artist.

Then just before I left I went to St. Patrick’s and lit a candle for my parents.

The rose window and organ, St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York.

When do you pause to look around you at beauty you take for granted? How do you manage to do it during a busy day?

Bill Clegg Q&A Part 2: What I do to stay sober

Today, in Part 2 of a Q&A with Bill Clegg, author of Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, his recent memoir about his addiction, the author answers questions about what he does to stay sober five years after breaking free from crack and vodka.

Other links:

Part 1 of this Q&A

Review of Portrait of an Addict

Guinevere: Your prose captivates not only because of the desperation it makes me remember in my own life in active addiction, and because of the compassion it makes me feel for an addict who finds himself alone and sick in such dire straits, but also because the language becomes elegant and evocative while portraying an enormity from the inside: the deep selfishness of active addiction, the utter concern with superficiality and appearance. What happened to this concern with appearances once you committed to recovery?

Author Bill Clegg

Bill Clegg by Ozier Muhammad/New York Times.

Bill: For the first time in my life my insides and my outsides have aligned.  When you’re managing a double-life and worried at every step about being found out, your appearance, how you come across, how people perceive you becomes an obsession. I tried at every step to manage how people thought of and reacted to me because I was terrified they’d see through me and see the fraud, the drunk, the crack-head, the mess that I was. My life was a nightmare of secrets and lies and now, with the daily help of other alcoholics and addicts in recovery, it is not. What you see is what you get now and I worked every day to keep my life and my actions transparent to those around me. So the concern with how I look, and how people perceive me, while not entirely faded, it is far from the obsession it used to be.

G: You told Vogue, “What I do now to stay sober is one of the most joyful parts of my life. Some people can’t wait to get to their yoga class like I can’t wait to dive into my routine. It’s lucky that I love it as much as I do.” What is your routine?

B: My routine is to go to a meeting every day, work with my two sponsees in recovery, stay close to my sober friends, work with my sponsor and keep connected to him, maintain a regular spiritual practice of meditation and prayer, and stay available to other alcoholics and addicts. In addition to this I work out, try and eat right, stay on top of my bills, keep connected to my family. Of course I am human and some weeks I only get to four meetings, I return my sponsees phone call the next day and the not right away, and sometimes I wake up in the night and fill a huge cereal bowl with granola and get back in bed with it and eat it in the dark like a sneaky crack fiend. So I’m far from perfect. But in general I try and be of use each day.

G: Jay McInerney, in his review in Vanity Fair, mentioned that you “tastefully skimped on the particulars of [your] redemption.” Do you believe that recovery from addiction is a narrative or subject about which people don’t want to read?

B: I’m writing a book now called 90 Days about getting sober. Portrait of an Addict was to show the experience of active addiction and alcoholism, the unmanageability and the misery of it. Getting sober for me was excruciatingly difficult. I relapsed like crazy and it took a lot for me to finally lose the obsession with drugs and alcohol. I tried involving that part of the story in Portrait found that it required a lot more than a chapter and an epilogue.

G: Amends seemed to be a subtext written in invisible ink as the narrative progressed. You say in interviews: Staying sober, being responsible, not doing drugs are the only things that can be persuasive. … I’d like to hear you say more about this. I think your interviewers shortchange you on this subject.

B: In my program of recovery there is a time when amends are made and some of them are in person, some of them are not and some are living amends where I do not repeat the behavior of the past. The bedrock of my sobriety is to stay sober, live a sober life, be truthful where I once was not, kind where I had been unkind, giving where I had been selfish, responsible where I had been irresponsible, present where I had been absent. I had many people connected to my life when I was using and there were many people affected when I disappeared. The repair of those relationships is an active, alive, ongoing process. I will for the rest of my life be involved in some way with that repair. Some relationships have not recovered, many have and many are still repairing. People I never thought would be in my life again are now very close to me, people who I never imagined a day not talking to or seeing have never returned my phone call. I can’t presume to know how my actions have impacted each of these people but I can, with the people in my life, be present, honest, responsible and loving. The rest, as many of us say in recovery, is up to God.

Bill Clegg Q&A Part 1: Why I wrote PORTRAIT OF AN ADDICT

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed Bill Clegg’s popular new memoir about addiction and recovery, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, without the benefit of contacting the author. I’d had a few questions for him after reading the book, and his people at Little, Brown didn’t get back to me…

But the morning after I filed the review, Bill himself did.

Bill Clegg, author of Portrait of an Addict

Bill Clegg, from his book jacket

He contacted me on Facebook. And while he was on vacation in upstate New York last week, we corresponded about my questions.

He was generous enough with his answers that I’m running them in two parts.

Today in Part I he talks about how he chose the particular style for his memoir, and why he wrote the book.

In Part 2, he’ll talk about how he stays sober after five years off crack and vodka.

Q&A with Guinevere and Bill Clegg, Part 1

Guinevere: One reason I started Guinevere Gets Sober is to educate readers about addiction, a disease that’s not widely understood in the culture. Your memoir, strictly in the form of a literary narrative, shows a number of myths to be false… And yet you’re getting some critical response, from Amazon readers and elsewhere, for being the only white boy who ever smoked crack: a myth. (My sponsor is a white former crack user, now a doting grandma and successful employee for a major nonprofit. I mean, I know this could read like, “I have A LOT of friends who are white crack-heads!” I don’t mean it that way. I hope you know what I mean.)… How did you commit to the literary narrative form, and to excluding any contextualizing information about addiction and recovery that might have helped dispel more myths?

Bill: I’m not a sociologist or an expert on addiction or alcoholism.  And when I was trying to get sober there was no expert’s theory or finding, no statistic, and no context that could help me. The only things that could help me were other alcoholics and addicts and the stories they told me of how they used, what that was like, how they got sober and what that’s like now. I found myself in them and I discovered, finally, that I was not alone. And the stories I related to were from people of every race, every economic background, every gender. One does not have to look the same or come from the same place to identify.

G: Another myth is that alcoholics and addicts drink and use “for the fun of it”, to make life one big party; another is that we’re morally deranged or corrupt.  Is this why you drank and used, or did you find yourself using drugs for other reasons? I saw the narrator using to make himself smaller in his life, to thwart his own potential so he wouldn’t have to live up to it, to sabotage his blessings and achievements (a successful agency, a beautiful apartment, a reliable relationship, etc.) because the sabotage felt more familiar and safe; and to dull historical pain. Does any of this resonate?

B: My drinking and my using was, from the beginning, a lonely project.  I started drinking alone in my room at 12 years old and ended up drinking and drugging in a hotel room alone at 34. The in-between time with people and parties was lonely, too, because I knew I couldn’t drink and drug like everyone else. I would always be worried about getting more, not running out, the next day and the impact it would all have. Also, drinking for me was a way to escape the discomfort of interacting with other people. And the discomfort came because I wasn’t successful, because I was successful, because I was in love, because I wasn’t in love—the discomfort came from everything, and the need to drink and drug away that discomfort was always present.

G: How do you think this book speaks to, say, Rosie and Marcus, and “everyone still out there?” (Maybe they won’t read it, but how have you imagined it speaking to addicts—and those who care about them?)

B: My hope is that the book will illuminate how unmanageable alcoholism and drug addiction is. How horrible, lonely, destructive and deadly it is. I tried for years to just have a few drinks, not ten or twelve; to come home at midnight instead of nine in the morning; to tell the truth to the people I love. I failed at all these things and so much so that I wanted at the end only to die. If anyone recognizes themselves at any point in the story and sees the direction it went for me, sees where it will go for them and it frightens or educates or inspires them enough to step off and get help and not go where I went, then having the book in the world will have been worth it to me. I dearly hope Rosie and Marcus found their way out of the darkness of addiction and into sobriety. It is such a miserable life as an active addict and a dangerous one—and on the other side, sober, there is a life for them and all like them that is beyond their wildest dreams.

Go to Part 2

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