Relapse Blues


By Bill Clegg

An addict’s journey to recovery.

The custodian of the Meeting House has still not shown up to unlock the doors. I’ve left messages everywhere and still no one is picking up. The meeting begins in half an hour, and as my future prospects seem less and less appealing, I start to think again of going to Mark’s. It’s the end of the day, Mark is no doubt ready to get high, and the dealers are about to turn their cell phones on. Fuck it, I say and start walking down 16th Street, toward Sixth Avenue, toward Mark’s. I can feel the adrenaline spark through my veins and the doomy clouds of my futureless future begin to streak away. Just as I approach Sixth Avenue, I see someone on the north side of 16th Street waving. It’s Asa. Neat as a pin, fit as a fiddle, and heading right toward me. “You going to the meeting?” he chirps, and I can’t muster an answer. He looks especially crisp today in his usual uniform. “What’s going on?” he asks, and as I struggle to come up with something to say to get away from him, he puts his freckled hand on my upper arm and says, “OK, let’s go.”

By the time we get to the Meeting House, the door has been unlocked and someone is making coffee. The dusty schoolhouse smell mingled with the aroma of cheap, freshly brewed coffee acts as an antidote to the giddy, pre-high adrenaline of just minutes before. The obsession to use fades just as quickly as it had arrived, and while I watch Asa help the old guy who’s setting up the meeting move a bench to the far wall, it hits me how close I just came to relapsing and what a miracle it is that he materialized precisely when he did. Jesus, I’m sick, I think. Unlike the people who can get sober on willpower, I need cheap coffee, church basements, serendipitous sidewalk interventions, and relapsing cokehead dog walkers. But what is most discouraging is that all these things and more -- Jack, Polly, Madge, Asa, The Library, my family, my remaining friends, the staggering losses and humiliations of the past few months, the empire of people I’ve hurt -- are still not enough to keep me clean.

People come in from their day, mostly nine-to-five types who can’t make the midday meetings like the ones at The Library. They start filling the chairs and benches of the large room, which doubles, depending on the hour, as a Quaker meeting house, a dance studio, and a gathering space for other programs of recovery. Chic, chatty, confident -- these people seem a world away from the struggles that must have brought them here. How the hell did they do it? I wonder. If Asa hadn’t hauled me in from the street, I’d be right now pressing the buzzer at Mark’s apartment. Right now waiting for him to buzz me in and hand me a crack pipe. It was Asa and nothing else that kept me from using just minutes ago.

I look around from sober face to sober face and wonder again how these people found their way. How will I? I sense that just being here, and in places like it, will not be enough. I’m in the room but not of it. Present but not a part of. Saved, for a little while, but not sober. Not really. I come like a beggar to these meetings and I’m fed, yes, pulled in off the street even, as I was today. But it’s clear that something beyond my own need and ability to ask for help will keep me here, involve me in what is going on, connect me to something greater than my addiction, and give me a fighting chance of staying clean and getting on with my life. But what?

The meeting begins. As the basket is passed and people toss in their bills, I raise my hand and say that I have eight days, and as I do, I know that eventually, not today and probably not tonight, but at some point soon, I will pick up. I don’t know what I’ll do with my life, if I’ll ever have a full-time job again, another love, where I’ll live, or even if I will, but I will use again, this much I know.

Excerpted from Ninety Days ($24.99, Little, Brown and Company), which comes out April 10.