Lately I’ve been reading some long historical books — I reread Wolf Hall right before Bring up the Bodies, and I have two long biographies on the go right now — and breaking them up with some short, punchy memoirs. The first was Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days, the sequel to his Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. It was actually an excerpt from Ninety Days that drew my attention to Bill Clegg’s writing and made me want to read more, although I sensibly read the first book first.
Ninety Days picks up shortly after Portrait leaves off, with Bill returning from rehab and trying to get through ninety clean days. He’s back in New York City but instead of being an up-and-coming literary agent with a beautiful Manhattan apartment and a loving boyfriend, he’s alone, unemployed, and, at first, homeless: depending on a friend’s loaned studio for a place to sleep.
Regaining any element of his old life seems impossible: all that matters is staying clean and sober. Except for the times when he relapses, or thinks about relapsing, and then all that matters is getting money and getting drugs again.
He does relapse. Several times. There’s nothing easy or triumphant about this recovery tale: in some ways it’s harder to read than the prequel, describing the depths of addiction. It’s sobering (pun intended?) to realize that someone can experience those depths, know how bad they are, get through withdrawal and get clean, and then want to run right back to the same substance that created all that damage and devastation. Ninety Days is a testament to how weak the human will can be, and how necessary are those staples of Twelve-Step recovery: a community of other recovering addicts, and yes, even a Higher Power. Even for those, like Bill Clegg, who aren’t conventionally religious.
Along the way, as Clegg is fighting for those ninety days (having to start the count over at one every time he relapses), he sees James Frey on Oprah, hears about (maybe reads? I can’t remember) Frey’s book. He doesn’t actually name James Frey or A Million Little Pieces, but the references to the most famous addiction memoir of the twenty-first century (so far) are unmistakeable. He’s nakedly envious — if a bit cynical — about Frey’s simple conclusion: after enduring the hell of withdrawal and rehab, Frey decided he didn’t need a twelve-step program, didn’t need a recovery community, didn’t need a Higher Power. He just needed himself and his own simple, moment by moment decision not to drink or use drugs again. Comparing his own fractured journey to sobriety with Frey’s makes Bill Clegg feel like a failure: why, he wonders, can’t he just decide not to drink and use, and be done with it?
It’s a fascinating glimpse into the psychology of addition, told in simple, clear language with few frills but great lucidity. Along the way the author shares not just his own story but, inevitably, those of other addicts he got to know in recovery — and there are, of course, some triumphs and some heartbreaks. If anyone, anywhere, still thinks that breaking an addition is as simple as just saying No, they really need to read this book.