For the first time in twelve years, I am sober now for the last five months. I am happier and more productive than I have ever been. My mind feels crystal clear every morning – excited to write, bursting with ideas and thoughts. And when I’m out with friends and the bars close and they’re all loaded and stumbling through the streets – I realize I am the only person who is really seeing everything, feeling everything, experiencing a memory that won’t slip from my mind by morning.
I have just finished reading Bill Clegg’s memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. Clegg is a successful Literary Agent in Manhattan who struggled with an addiction to crack. The very drug, crack, is symbolic of his state of being at the time. Though outwardly he is a success – amazing job, parties, beautiful home, loving and supportive partner, friends that care about him – on the inside he feels an absolute disconnect. He does not love himself, does not even seem to know himself, and he would rather be dead. Eventually, he loses everything he had.
“It feels as if each week, there is some lunch or some dinner or some phone call that is going to blow my cover, reveal that I am not nearly as bright or well read or business savvy or connected as I think people imagine me to be. My bank account is always empty, and when I look at the ledgers at the agency, I wonder how we will pay our employees, the rent, the phone bill… I often wish it all felt the way it looked, that I could actually be living the life everyone thinks they see. But it feels like a rigged show, one loose cable away from collapse (Clegg, 128).”
I relate to this so completely. I too worked as a Literary Agent in New York and never stopped thinking that someone would blow my cover. My boss was a bit of a rogue, and I liked that about him. We clicked - I was his first employee, and in the beginning it was pure joy. He trained me intensively. I read books on law, and editing, and publishing. I read manuscripts to report back with critiques. He helped me refine my style and challenged me. Then I began taking on clients and lunching with editors, which is when the shit hit the fan.
Being an agent is like being a gambler – and I’ve never had good luck. You put your time and energy into a book in hopes that the editors will buy it – but you don’t get paid until they do. My boss wanted me to quit my restaurant job, so I did. He gave me $1,000 a month – but my dad always ended up having to give me $300 more. After paying the bills, there was barely anything left. Lunch with the editors was the only time I wasn’t eating hot dogs and lentils or some other cheap fare.
My boss gave me money to go out and buy a decent pair of shoes, but the ones I finally found didn’t even seem right. I certainly couldn’t walk miles in them, and I realized they were too trendy. I felt like I was wasting all of his money. He believed in me so much. Outwardly, I looked and seemed ready to be a success. But on the inside I was a raging artist, becoming more and more lost in the role I was playing.
There was this voice that wouldn’t shut-up inside my head – I believed in my own writing more than anyone else’s. It felt selfish. But I was putting all of my energy into the others – and nothing was left for me. My boss grew upset that I couldn’t keep up with the two new hires. I wasn’t reading fast enough. There was no time for a life outside of work.
But I was leading a parallel life. I lived in Hoboken. My tribe was a crowd of never do well musicians. The bartenders only charged me six bucks to drink all night. And when the bars closed we’d head to someone’s apartment and drink till the sun came up. On weekdays, I’d wake up with some passed out rocker in my bed and then go into the process of switching lives - from braids to sleek ponytail, from combat boots to heels, from gypsy skirt to pressed slacks. I’d rush to the train in a crowd I didn’t belong in – the yuppies that we’d just been taunting the night before. And then I would reach the perfectly sleek office with the glass doors and the blonde hardwood floors and the giant view of the Empire State Building and the insanely bright lights. Suddenly I would realize that I looked like shit – that my eyes were bloodshot and my skin dull and dry. At lunch I’d buy something greasy like a patty melt from the corner deli. My boss would cross over from his office to my cubicle and stare down at my desk at the mess of a sandwich and say, “Hangover food.” And then I’d make some lame denial, “Not really, it just looked good.”
My first potential sale was a client he’d pawned off on me – a chick lit thing that I didn’t really like. I failed to sell it and felt humiliated. The pressure was unbearable. None of my clients seemed exactly right. I’d grown attached to them and was driven more by the emotion of making their dreams come true than by their talent. Their work was good, but not great.
It all came to a head. I lost my footing completely and anxiety took over. And then came the talk. My boss took me to the conference room, and said, “Lauren, you are the artist, not the agent. This is a waste of my money.” I called all of my clients to tell them they would need to find new representation. I’d lived vicariously through their hopes and dreams, and it felt terrible letting them down. My hands were shaking. But there was a huge sense of relief as I walked out the glass doors, rode the elevator down and was at last out on the street where I could breathe. Where I didn’t have to be something for anyone.
Drinking was only part of my failure as an agent. I was young, introverted, uncertain, and completely inept at sales. My boss always told me, “If people are drinking, you drink. If they are smoking, then smoke. If they’re talking about church, then you’re a church-goer too.” But I didn’t want to live my life to please others. I’d escaped from that already. All I wanted was truth.
I didn’t stop drinking of my own accord. For years it was normal to have six drinks a day. I’d try to take two days off a week, but rarely managed that. Then for the past five years, after particularly heavy nights, my liver started to hurt. By last summer the pain became constant. Even one sip caused sharp pangs to shoot through my side. Physical activity grew difficult from the swollen discomfort.
I’m not sure if or when I’ll ever get to go back to that feeling I always loved. Not much beats that charge of excitement, that interconnectedness with other human beings; on the other hand - the monotony of going in circles, the hangover, the lagging energy, the boredom. It used to be a social crutch, but now I don’t need it, and don’t need to go out as much. The worst of it was, alcohol was always good for taking a romantic night and turning it into a knock-out fight. Eventually, it may have ended my marriage.
I enjoy the experience of being around others who are drinking. I like to ride the wave of their energy and partake in the free flowing conversation. I’ve learned to not try and make sense of what they say beyond a certain point. And the only time I feel depressed is when there is a ridiculously nice bottle of wine on the table, and I can smell all of those complexities and the journey it could take me on -complexities that I was known as an expert for describing.
“But it’s more than just a conversation, it’s the best sex, the most delicious meal, the most engrossing book – it’s like returning to all of these at once, coming home, and the primary feeling I have as I collapse back into my desk chair and watch the smoke roll through my office is: Why on earth did I ever leave (Clegg, 187)?
For years I looked down on people who were numbing out the pain and not working through their issues. Their drug of choice kept them stagnant. But when I quit drinking, I realized that I was this person. Everything came up from before the time that I had my first drink. I had recurring dreams of being trapped in college. It began to purge out of me, painfully, as I remembered the person I left behind a long time ago. I began to make peace with her. And I am still making peace with the fact that addiction can steal your life away.
Bill Clegg was a man who lacked self-acceptance. But I think he found it through his writing and through sobriety. He purged his secrets, and freed himself from the power they had over him. Having a perfect life is a façade that doesn’t really exist. Accepting the truth makes for a much better story.