BOOK EXCERPT

From NINETY DAYS

When I look at people like Asa and Madge, it amazes me that these 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 before 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 is 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 even manage that, and eventually went to none. I had a sponsor, but that guy wanted to meet every week and for me to call every day — just as Jack does now. I got busy and believed that the people who needed all these meetings and phone calls were either lonely or underemployed. I never shared or raised my hand in meetings then, never met one other person besides that sponsor my rehab had arranged for me to meet when I returned to the city. When I tell Jack about trying to get sober a year ago, he says, It sounds like ME vs. THEM and never WE, and the only way to get and stay sober is when it becomes WE. He also tells me that getting and staying sober — even after ninety days — needs to forever remain my first priority; that whatever I put in front of it, I will eventually lose. Career, family, boyfriend — all of it — you'll lose it. Lose again, in your case. He tells me these things for the first time when he visits me in White Plains, and though the words he is saying are as simple and childish as crayola crayons, I have no idea what he is talking about.

As I pace and fret in front of the Meeting House and watch crisp-suited, shiny-watched Chelsea residents scurry home from their day, it strikes me again, as it has more than once over the last few weeks, 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 on the job for lack of focus and dropping too many dishes. I think of all the pot I smoked back then — from morning until sleep — and I wonder how I was able to ever crawl out of that haze into any job, go or get anywhere.

I have no retail experience, no bankable talents. I remember how a colleague at my first job in New York took copywriting courses at The Learning Annex and left publishing to become a successful advertising executive. But this guy was brilliant, exceptionally brilliant, and that world would require, I imagine, schmoozing potential clients, wooing new business over dinners and drinks, and without booze to get me through it does not seem possible. Graduate school of any kind would be a decent way to delay the oncoming future, but with what money? How can I incur student loans on top of the already formidable and growing debt I've amassed from rehab, legal bills, and credit cards? Never mind that my college transcript is a speckled mess of mediocre grades and summer courses at the University of Connecticut to make up for the semester I lost when I was expelled. What graduate school would have me?

The custodian of the Meeting House has still not showed up to unlock the doors. I've left messages everywhere and, still, no one is picking up their phones. 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 all about to turn their cell phones on. Fuck it, I say and start walking down 16th Street, away from The Meeting House, toward Sixth Avenue, toward Mark's. I can feel the adrenalin 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 shiny 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 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 inside making coffee. The dusty schoolhouse smell mingling with the aroma of cheap, freshly brewed coffee acts as an antidote to the giddy, pre-high adrenalin from just minutes before. The obsession to use fades just as quickly as it came, and as 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, what a miracle it is that he materialized precisely when he did. Jesus, I'm a sick fuck, I think, and unlike people who can get sober on willpower, I need cheap coffee, church basements, serendipitous sidewalk interventions, and relapsing cokehead dog walkers. But what is discouraging is that all these things, and more — Jack, Madge, The Library, my family, my remaining friends, the staggering losses and humiliations of the last few months, the empire of people I've hurt — are still, it seems, 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 up the chairs and benches of the large room that doubles, depending on when, 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, as I remember how close I just came to picking up. 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 is 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. I sense that just being here and in places like it is not 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 am 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, make me a part of 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?

 

Photo of Bill Clegg


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