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Craig Ferguson On Recovery, Philosophy And A Lifetime Of 'Riding The Elephant'

Craig Ferguson is in his upper 50s, and it's a small — maybe not so small — kind of a miracle that between drinking, drugs, and hard general hard living, he's around, and a quarter-century sober, to write this book.

Riding the Elephant is a series of reflections on what he's learned along the road of being a comic and a drummer in Scotland, a bouncer in New York, stints on American TV shows, including The Late Late Show, meeting Princess Diana, and all 12 steps of recovery.

"I think part of the legend that reformed alkies such as myself tell is that we were wild and crazy, and kind of Johnny Cash in 'A Boy Named Sue,'" he says. "But the truth is, I think people felt sad for me. I think I was a rather desperate character — desperate to be liked, desperate to feel okay. I was a kind of troubled youngster, more than anything."

Interview Highlights

On what troubled him

I'm not entirely sure. I tried to mess around with what that might be in the writing of this particular book, because it is more meditative than anything I've done, and sort of — I don't know if it's genetic? I think it's certainly partly that. Is it upbringing? As you say, I'm in my upper 50s, so I don't really want to start blaming my parents, or Scotland. I think perhaps, I was very sensitive, I was a very sensitive little boy, and at the time, it wasn't particularly advantageous to be that way. I just know that I became sadder and more kind of desperate as time went on, and alcohol seemed to work for a long time, and then didn't.

On his suicide attempt

It was a dark time. I didn't like the way I was living, I couldn't stop drinking, I wanted to — I didn't really want to stop drinking, but I didn't want my life to continue the way it was. The thought that came into my head, that felt rational at the time, that I must kill myself — on the way to actually committing the act, I had a big glass of sherry with a friend of mine, and that took my mind off it, in that odd way that alcohol saves the life of alcoholics sometimes. The paradox and the conundrum of alcoholism is not that people drink because they're trying to destroy themselves, they're trying to save themselves.

On what it takes to stay sober

I've been sober since I was 29, and as you say, I'm 57 in about a week or two, so I've been sober a long time. Drinking isn't really the issue. It's more about thinking. It's more like, I have a think problem than a drink problem, but of course it could become a drink problem very quickly. Part of the philosophy, the way I live now, and I have done for a very long time, is to try to live in the moment. Not just — it began with a way of not drinking, like today, just today, just this hour, I'll make it through this hour without having a drink. It doesn't feel like that anymore, but there's a great advantage to trying to live in the day and experience life as it arrives and as it shows up. I think that feels, to me, like an authentic and desirable way to get through this thing called life.

This story was produced for radio by Ed McNulty and Ian Stewart, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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