SITTING in The Clare Champion offices are Bríd, who has been sober since 1993, Ger, who has been sober since 1991 and Aodhán, who has been off drink since 1990, with one relapse since then.
Asked about what spurred her to give up alcohol, Bríd says, “I was sick of being sick, totally sick of being sick. I couldn’t see a way out; I wasn’t able to listen to anyone. I didn’t actually think I’d be able to get sober at all. I couldn’t cope, I didn’t have a life. My marriage was in bits, the lifestyle was in bits and I realised I had nothing else to blame for the way I was. I was just sick of being sick, sick of the misery. I think that’s the quickest way of explaining it.”
For Ger, sobriety didn’t come at the first attempt and he took himself away from Clare to achieve it.
“I was drinking from a young age. I was in serious trouble. I was in a relationship and had a couple of kids, a young boy and a young girl, and I still was drinking; I couldn’t stop. I ended up in three treatment facilities, trying AA, and not really listening, comparing myself to other people, rather than acknowledging I had an issue. I remember my first drink. I remember someone saying before that they didn’t remember their first Mars bar or can of coke but they remembered their first drink. In a Catholic country, you’ve taken a Probation Pledge at your Confirmation, so when I actually drank first, I was breaking a pledge to God. You had all that kind of guilt.
“I came out of the third treatment centre and I got an opportunity to go over to a mate of mine in New York. I went over to him. I started going to meetings and for some reason or another, I started listening. It wasn’t any different to what was said here, it was the same message but I was ready, I think.”
Aodhán only heard of Alcoholics Anonymous when he was coming out of treatment, treatment he had only gone for when a psychiatrist urged him to do so.
“I’m extremely grateful that yourself and The Clare Champion are doing this. I was 30 years of age by the time I got sobriety. I had all those years of chronic alcoholic drinking before I found out about AA; in actual fact until the day I found out about AA through a psychiatrist that I had been going to for years and telling her lies. She said to me one day ‘I want you to do something’. I said, ‘Mary I’ll do anything, what do you want me to do to straighten myself out?’
“She said, ‘I want you to go to a place called Aiseiri in Wexford’. I said, ‘I’ll go, what does Aiseiri do?’ She said it’s a treatment centre for drug addiction and alcoholism. I looked at her and I trusted her and I said ‘yes, I’ll do whatever you say.’ I ended up in the treatment centre and got sober.
“On Sundays in treatment centres they have an AA meeting and I met a man there in Wexford. He said ‘where do you live?’ I said ‘in Ennis’ and he said ‘I’ll pick you up on Wednesday’. He knew I was getting out and him and another guy met me at the Queen’s Hotel, brought me to the Friary group of Alcoholics Anonymous and that’s how I started.”
He relapsed after almost exactly a decade off the drink and he says that is not unusual among recovering alcoholics. “I stayed sober for 10 years, from January 1, 1990 to Christmas Day 1999, almost 10 years to the day. I drank on Christmas Day and stayed drinking for three years. Now, I’m 17 years sober again. Out of the last 29 years, I’ve only had 26 years of sobriety; that’s not uncommon.”
Beginning of addiction
Like most people, they all began drinking during their teens.
“Just typical, at 15 or 16 I’d drink; then student life, the same as any other student, I enjoyed drinking. As people started to get more sensible in their mid 20s and started getting cars and maybe holding back, I went onwards and didn’t see the danger signs,” Bríd says.
Ger was drinking at an earlier age and in a more intense way. “I was working in the hospitality sector, so I was drinking from a very young age. From about 14, there was access to drink. There was a crowd of us cronies hanging around together and there was a lot of that stuff and smoking blow as well. When I look back on it, I was drinking alcoholically from day one. I was blacking out from a very young age, not knowing when enough was enough.”
Aodhán had an initial bad experience with drink, which would foretell what would follow.
“My first drink was when I was 13. We were going back to school the following day after the summer. We decided ‘let’s do something crazy’. Somebody produced a bottle of brandy, poured a full tumbler. I drank the whole thing and I’m like, that did nothing. I ended up drinking a full bottle of brandy and I was unconscious for three days. At 13. I didn’t drink until I went into the FCA. I lied about my age and got in at 16, instead of 17. We used to go to Ballymullen Barracks and that’s when my drinking started.
“Normal people have a few drinks and they go home but when we swallow some alcohol, it turns into a mental obsession, a physical craving and a compulsion to continue.”
While they began drinking at a relatively young age, Aodhán insists that alcoholism can be latent in a person and still strike, even if people abstain in their early life.
“We have one man who goes to our Friary group, he is in his 80s. He only started drinking at the age of 75. His first drink and he turned into an alcoholic automatically. Alcoholism is like a dormant gene inside in your body and when you give it the alcohol, the addiction comes on.”
It was quite apparent to everyone around them that they had a problem with drink.
“Everyone says it to you but you’re the last person to believe them,” says Bríd. “The dogs on the road knew that we were drunks,” Aodhán adds.
The situations Ger was ending up in would have made it clear to most people that drink didn’t agree with him. “I was waking up in hospitals, as well as treatment centres, with wires coming out of me after being pumped out the night before for OD-ing and stuff or trying to take my own life.”
Self-delusion or an inability to see the obvious impact of alcohol on them is often a hallmark of the alcoholic, Aodhán says.
“It’s seen as very strange by people who don’t have an alcohol problem; you get caught drink driving and you still don’t get it. Alcoholics don’t get it until they reach what we call in AA a rock bottom. You absolutely have to be floored before you’ll actually admit you’re incapable of controlling your alcoholism.”
None of the three of them became addicted to other drugs, preferring to focus on alcohol.
“When I was drinking, drugs weren’t as freely available. I have no doubt that if I was starting just now, I would definitely be addicted to street drugs,” Bríd says.
Ger dabbled with other substances but his focus was on drink.v“I’ve taken every drug known to man but alcohol was my drug of choice. Some of the lads, the hippie guys in the group, would be buying their bit of draw on a Monday but if you had to spend €25 or whatever it was for an 1/8 of hash. I’d be saying ‘I couldn’t afford that’ because I needed my drink.”
After giving up drink, he didn’t take a painkiller for around four years, lest any kind of problem develop, while he didn’t drink Cidona for well over 10 years because of the similarity to the taste of cider.
Aodhán also used various drugs but drink was always his first choice.
“In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, there’s a chapter called How It Works and it says that there are those of us who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders but many do recover if they have the capacity to be honest. I was one of those mentally-challenged people. I was going to psychiatrists before I was diagnosed as an alcoholic. I ended up taking heroin, cocaine, adderall (for ADHD). I was diagnosed with ADHD and I was prescribed with it. It’s known on the street as poor man’s cocaine and I ended up getting addicted to it. Cocaine I didn’t do too much of; my primary drug of choice was alcohol.”
First impressions of AA
Bríd wasn’t very impressed with her first AA meeting and didn’t have any kind of epiphany there.
“I only went to please my husband. He dropped me at the door. I thought ‘Jesus Christ, what a crowd of oddbods!’ I thought they were all off their heads. I thought I was the only person with any brain in the room. I could not take the concept of people sitting there being honest. I said ‘what planet are this crowd from?”’
For a long time she wasn’t engaging properly.
“First of all, I wouldn’t say anything, then I was trying to say something to impress everyone with how clever I was. When I finally got fed up and said ‘I can’t stand this, I’m not coming back’, someone came up to me at the end of the meeting and said ‘that’s the first normal thing you’ve said in here’. That really took me aback that someone had seen through me.”
She promised another member that she trusted that she would abstain from drink for three months and that if she didn’t see an improvement, he was to pay for a flight to London for her.
However, she did notice the improvement and hasn’t looked back. “There was a turnaround and I said ‘that’s it’; I haven’t drunk since.”
Likewise, Ger didn’t turn himself around after the first meeting but the seed was planted.
“I didn’t get sober straight away. I ended up in three treatment centres and in hospitals after my first meeting. The first meeting, I remember where I sat but I don’t remember a thing that was said. I was handed a copy of the Book at the meeting that I have to this day but I didn’t get sober then. I went crazy for a few years but, as Bríd said, you blame everything and anything for the way you are, apart from drink and the stuff around that. When I went to New York, I started going to meetings again and at that stage, I knew I couldn’t blame anybody. I just knew that the cause lay with me. I did realise very quickly. There was stuff said to me at meetings, things that you might have heard before but it sinks in.”
In America, he went to 90 meetings in 90 days and the benefits started to become apparent.
“The first few meetings, I didn’t know what was going on. Then you start going and talking and you might try to impress people. But when you start getting well and start being honest, it does change.”
Before he left, his partner, with whom he had two children, wouldn’t let him in the door, nor would his parents allow him into their house but when he came home sober, he was able to mend a lot of fences.
Aodhán was brought to his first meeting by a contact he had made in the Wexford treatment centre. While he also spent years in America, he hadn’t heard much about AA living in Ireland in the ’80s and early 1990s.
“I was absolutely gobsmacked. I couldn’t believe there was such a thing. I had never heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, never heard those two words together in my life. Now here I am in The Clare Champion talking to you with my friends and I’m kinda getting goosebumps thinking this paper is going to go out and there is some kid out there, maybe 15, maybe 19, maybe 30, who isn’t familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous and they’ll say ‘oh it’s there and there’s a Clare area phone number for help’. If we had been gotten sooner, we would have saved ourselves so much grief and trauma and all of the people who surround us and love us as well.”
All three agree that being off the drink is a totally different and far better life.
Bríd has no doubt what the biggest benefit of sobriety is. “Freedom. Freedom. We learn in AA that we don’t have to please anyone. We learn in AA how to be honest. In addiction, and even in normal life, it’s so easy to tell lies to get out of a situation. When you’re in AA, you learn to be honest. You learn to mind yourself. You learn to have respect for everyone around you. You’ve got a freedom of life and a choice you’ve never had before.”
Ger’s life is far more stable than it once was.
“Getting up this morning, being able to have breakfast ready for the young lady, leaving a happy home. It’s such a difference. The lads will probably relate to this but the difference between that and not being able to get up, to have a breakfast without getting sick, not wondering what you did the night before. Now you get up, know what you did the night before, you’re living in a warm house, bills are paid, the family are relatively happy. It’s a good life, a great life. Content with life. The difference compared to the drinking days, unreal.”
All of them say they are secure enough to attend whatever social events they want to, even if there will be alcohol there.
“I really like traditional Irish music and where do you get the best traditional music? Pubs. Do I go to pubs? Yes, I do. I’m a long time away from drink. They tell us in the Big Book that if you are spiritually fit, you can go anywhere,” says Aodhán.
All three say that recovery has improved their relations with their loved ones, which were severely tested during the drinking days.
“No family life can survive alcoholism because it’s stronger than any family ties. Not every relationship might have survived. I’ve lost friends but I’ve kept the most important friends. My relationship with my husband survived and he went to the sister organisation of AA, Al Anon, and he got fantastic help. He ended up with a confidence he never had in his life before. In actual fact, he ended up better when I was still drinking,” says Bríd.
Ger’s former partner couldn’t allow him into the house before he got sober but now he is in a new relationship and he gets on very well with the mother of his first two children.
“I was laughing yesterday. I was at my ex-partner’s house yesterday, we get on like a house on fire now. My wife was with me, my ex-partner had some work done on the house and the two of them were going off looking at it. My ex-partner and my wife were there chatting away and you could hear them laughing. I said to my daughter, ‘isn’t this the life’. There’s no hassle, no animosity, none of that nonsense. That’s through a lot of learning as well.”
Aodhán has been divorced more than once and drink really caused a storm in his relationships but things are much better now. “I get on great with all my ex-wives and my kids, only because I keep doing this and keep on working on it.”
He feels that maintaining sobriety has to be the number one priority, always.
“Decent sobriety just changes your life completely for good. That’s why we’re so enthusiastic about coming to do something like this. It says in our Big Book that our primary purpose is to stay sober and help another alcoholic achieve sobriety. That’s our primary purpose in our life and it has to come before everything else, before wives, mothers, sons, lovers, daughters. It has to come first because if it doesn’t come first, we’re not loving ourselves and how can we love anybody else?”
* Some names have been changed.
Clare Area Alcoholics Anonymous can be contacted on 085 1841103. Information is also available on www.alcoholicsanonymous.ie.