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Relapse Blues


An addict’s journey to recovery.

Illustration by Nick Lu

Eight days sober and finishing my fourth bowl of granola as Oprah ends, my willpower isn't feeling so formidable. I think about skipping the six o'clock at the Meeting House and begin to think about going to Mark's to get high. It's less than a moment between fleeting thought and full-blown fantasy, barely a second before becoming a fully articulated obsessive vision of getting to Mark's, calling a dealer, loading a pipe, and inhaling that first hit. My phone starts ringing -- it's my father -- and as I let the call go to voicemail, the spell is broken long enough for me to bolt out the door toward the Meeting House a few blocks away. The meeting doesn't start for an hour, so I make phone calls to my sister, Polly, and my sponsor, Jack. I cannot understand why I still want to use. Cannot understand why I have so little defense against picking up once the idea pops into my head. I know the consequences, know it will devolve into paranoid desperation almost as soon as it begins, but smoking crack still seems like a good idea. It's insane, I think, and not for the first time. I'm insane. Am I one of those people in the rooms whom I hear others talk about, who quite literally cannot get sober -- one of those cases who are incapable of being honest with themselves? And what does honesty with oneself have to do with anything?

The doors are still locked, and I cross the street so I don't seem as desperate as I am. What am I doing wrong? I think. I'm getting sober the way Jack has told me to: I go to as many meetings as I can, call him every day, do what he says, and when I can't reach him, I call other addicts and alcoholics in recovery. Which is what I'm doing right now. BUT NOBODY IS PICKING UP THEIR FUCKING PHONE! I lean against a building, try to calm down, and think back over the last few weeks. In a short time, my days have become predictable: wake up, feed Benny, gym, 12:30 Library meeting, a short break to get a coffee and rush back to the same seat for the two o'clock meeting. The 12:30 meeting -- filled with well-dressed nine-to-five types wedging a lunch-hour meeting into their workday -- has a much higher wattage than the two o'clock, which is smaller and attended by a mix of out-of-work and newly sober day counters, artists, actors, writers, evening-shift waiters, and others with flexible schedules. Some of the most articulate, charismatic, persuasive people I have ever encountered are in the 12:30 meeting. The only speaking I do there is to share my day count. The same people tend to be encouraging afterward: Rafe, one of the super speakers, is one. He's super-sober, super-visible, and super-gay.

"Good to see you, Bill, keep coming back," he'll say in his particular intonation, with a knowing emphasis on the word Bill. There is also Madge, an ex-Max's Kansas City intellectual rock chick with an eye patch, a Jane-Fonda-in-Klute shag haircut, and a sandpaper and gravel voice shaped as much by Upper East Side-Martha's Vineyard privilege as it is by drugs and thousands of hours logged in the smoky urban underground of New York. Madge is the unofficial matriarch of The Library, and when she raises her hand -- like a rebel leader about to brief her loyal fighters on the blueprint of their next attack -- she always gets called on. She has a dozen sponsees, a lightning-strike clarity, and an aura of cool that is as welcoming as it is daunting. Pam worked in fashion in the '70s and spent as much time at Studio 54 as Madge did at Max's. Though her era was the '70s and '80s, Pam has a gentle '60s vibe to her. Many of her sentences begin with "Oh, honey." Her addictions were booze and pills, and what got her sober were her two kids, who were one or two benders away from being removed by Social Services. I think of them as the Big Kids of the meeting and I'm both intimidated and comforted by them. I usually see Asa at the 12:30 and make sure we sit together. His class schedule allows him to go to meetings in the middle of the day, and sometimes he'll meet me here or at the Meeting House in the evening, after which we'll usually hang out at a coffeehouse on Greenwich Avenue or the diner on Seventh Avenue near my apartment.

When I look at Asa and Madge, it amazes me that such successful, happy, long-sober people still bother going to so many meetings. They seem as if they have it licked. I think back on my life when I was working and can't fathom how I'd have been able to fit as much recovery into my schedule as they do. Were there any sober people in book publishing? I can't remember any. That world seems forever closed to me now, but even if it wasn't, I think perhaps it's not a business one can stay sober in. I couldn't. When I came back from rehab in Oregon the year before, I went to one meeting a week, somehow couldn't manage that, and eventually went to none.

As I pace and fret in front of the Meeting House and watch crisp-suited Chelsea residents scurry home from their day, it strikes me again that I'm qualified to do absolutely nothing. I don't even have restaurant experience, save for the four days I waited tables in Connecticut after I was thrown out of school for spraying fire extinguishers in a drunken rampage with my housemates. I was fired on the fourth day of the job for lack of focus and dropping too many dishes. I think of all the pot I smoked back then -- from morning until night -- and I wonder how I was ever able to crawl out of that haze into any job, to go or get anywhere.

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

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Bill Clegg