In his 2010 book, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, Bill Clegg described his addiction to crack cocaine and the dramatic spiral of self-destruction that left him nearly broke, homeless, out of work and suicidal. His latest book, Ninety Days: A Memoir of Recovery, picks up where that story left off.
Clegg talks with NPR's John Donvan about his harrowing journey through recovery, and the friends, family and fellow addicts who gave him second chances.
After spending several months in rehab, Clegg returns to New York City to embark on his "90 days," considered a critical period for recovering addicts.
"In certain programs of recovery," explains Clegg, "the suggestion is that you go to 90 meetings in 90 days."
In the meetings, attendees are often asked, "Is anybody counting days?" Their answers reveal a lot about where they're coming from. "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." But it can also reveal addicts who are slipping. "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."
When Clegg first leaves his rehab facility in the suburbs and drives into New York, "it didn't look that likely," he says. "It looked like a city for other people ... other people who had jobs and were successful and could afford to stay there." And it didn't look friendly, either. "Everybody in the industry that I'd been in, in book publishing, knew what happened, knew that I was a crack addict. ... It looked like a pretty daunting place."
So he reached out to his one connection to recovery, his sponsor, Jack, who was living in the city. Together they fashioned a new life for Clegg. Jack laid out a map for Clegg, and cordoned off areas of the city that he forbade Clegg to visit. "He called them the trigger zones," says Clegg — a two-block radius around the publishing agency he had lost, the house he had lived in before, a certain apartment he had visited to get high.
"As an addict and an alcoholic," says Clegg, "all extreme feelings and emotions were things that I ... often couldn't handle on my own without alcohol and drugs." For example, walking by the agency could provoke strong emotions that, early in recovery, would trigger the need to use.
Though he has had setbacks and relapsed, Clegg is deeply involved in his sober community and his recovery. He is employed as a literary agent again, and has picked up many of the clients he worked with before he lost his agency. "All of the things that I learned in early recovery about being honest, staying connected, not trying to do it on my own," he says, "these are the things that keep me sober today.