The Tide is Turning

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The Irish love of alcohol and drinking excessively is no secret. In fact, if you mention that you’re Irish, people automatically assume you’re a drinker – indeed, the vast majority of us are. As an Irish woman in recovery from multiple addictive behaviors, most notably alcohol, I’m abundantly aware of Ireland’s issues.

The one thing lacking is the sharing in public forums of our stories of strength, encouragement and recovery. Positive conversation about addiction and recovery inspires others and begins to dispel the stigma, shame and ignorance.

Pump House

Our problems are well documented by endless statistics from one national survey or another. It is not an exaggeration to say that most, if not all, families in Ireland are in some way touched by addiction. What the statistics don’t show are the numbers of people in recovery in Ireland. The best way to discover the health of our recovering community is to speak both to those in recovery and those who run recovery programs.

Mainstream media focuses on sensational and tragic stories that produce either an outcry of pity or of disgust. These stories often paint negative pictures of people struggling with addiction. There needs to be a balance; media should also report the many poignant and inspiring stories of people who do recover.

I chose to visit the Finglas Addiction Support Team (FAST) in Dublin because of the progressive aspect they employ in their recovery projects. FAST is one of hundreds of local government-funded projects throughout Ireland helping people leave behind their addictions and find new lives. They retrain individuals, enabling them to gain employment. They also provide support, counseling, group therapy and Twelve Step meetings for both addicts and families.

I asked Andy Robertson, addiction counselor and psychotherapist with FAST, what he thinks are the most popular drugs used in Ireland today. Alcohol and marijuana topped his list, but he noted a recent increase in prescription drug abuse. Heroin usage has declined, but is still a problem in inner city areas. Andy also mentioned the untold damage caused by a shift in Irish culture from drinking in pubs to drinking at home. Because of the availability of low-cost alcohol, there are more people drinking excessively than ever before.

FAST, in conjunction with Dublin City University, offers Sober Coach Training for people in long-term recovery. While this program is well established in America, it is only just beginning in Ireland. The primary recovery focus here is around the Twelve Step model, although a growing number of people are seeking solutions outside those parameters. I spoke with two incredible women participating in the FAST project who are now sober coaches.

Sharon, age 39, first began using heroin at age 15. She is now three years into a flourishing recovery. Sharon shared, “Because I was told methadone was the only treatment available, I remained in addiction for 23 years. It’s very difficult to find a doctor who supports non-maintenance. I was told I was a ‘lifer’ and would never be free of drugs.” Sharon persevered and eventually found a doctor who was willing to help her stop taking methadone. She is now drug free and has hopes and dreams for her future. She said, “I want to continue my education in the recovery field and help more people.”

At 45 years old and in her fourth year of recovery, Loraine strongly agreed with Sharon about the lack of support for total abstinence. “Methadone kept me sick,” she said. “I was barely functional on the methadone maintenance program and, like Sharon, I didn’t want to live that way anymore.” Eventually, Loraine found the same doctor and was able to get off methadone.

Both women facilitate groups helping others find new lives. “Having positive role models in the community is vital to overcoming drug and alcohol addiction,” Loraine explained. “Where I grew up, use of drugs and alcohol was considered normal and okay. It was everywhere.”

These women are examples of positive role models sowing the seeds of societal recovery in Ireland. They overcame huge losses during their active addiction and now are beaming with hope, confidence and a drive to give back.

“The media doesn’t help. Too often we hear the horrible stories of active addiction, but where are the stories about us?” Loraine exclaimed. She’s right. We don’t see the stories about parents raising the next generation in drug and alcohol-free homes – leading their children by example. Stories such as Loraine’s and Sharon’s give hope to those who feel there is no way out.

I also met with Paul O’Brien of the Cornmarket Project in my hometown of Wexford, Ireland. This project supports the psychosocial model of recovery rather than the Twelve Step model. Paul explained, “We view the client as the expert, and we are here to facilitate their goals and further learning.”

The Cornmarket Project encourages people to see themselves as more than a label. Self-esteem is promoted through learning new skills and active participation in the community. Participants see the service as a training program rather than as drug rehabilitation. The program caters to people in all stages of recovery with support to reintegrate into society. With their open-door policy, there is a counselor available for new clients whenever needed.

From Paul’s perspective, the country’s biggest substance abuse problems are with alcohol and prescription drugs. “There has been a big decline in heroin use, but the drug landscape has increased with newer types of drugs taking [heroin’s] place.”

Males, from all socioeconomic classes and between the ages of 18 and 34, make up the majority of the Cornmarket Project’s population. Paul explained, “We don’t see as many women participating, largely because of the lack of support around childcare.” Fortunately, there will be new funding coming that will supply 80 percent of the childcare costs for women accessing the project’s services.

The stigma surrounding women in addiction and recovery prevents many from seeking help. In my conversations with thousands of women over my six years in recovery, the biggest deterrent has been the fear of people finding out, and the rejection and abandonment that often follows.

Paul maintained that the biggest need in our society to prevent the spread of addictive behavior is societal education regarding mental and emotional health. The Irish are still quite blasé regarding the extent of the addiction issue, particularly with regard to alcohol abuse.

Messages from our government don’t cultivate feelings of security. Extreme austerity measures have left vital services like the FAST and Cornmarket Projects with less funding each year. People are losing their homes and struggling to find work, contributing to an upsurge in the abuse of alcohol and drugs.

Despite the challenges, the recovery community in Ireland is alive and well. Due to strong Twelve Step fellowships, rehab facilities, dedicated facilitators of drug projects and the inspiring stories of people such as Sharon and Loraine, there is hope for all who struggle with addiction.

Public forums often ignore our stories of strength, encouragement and recovery. Positive conversations about addiction and recovery inspire others and begin to dispel the stigma, shame and ignorance.

The tide is finally turning; there is new life and enthusiasm surfacing in our recovery communities and around the world. Find others who will support you in telling your story. Together we can change the world.

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Nicola O’Hanlon is a writer who has been in recovery for over five years. She has written for InTheRooms.com and After Party Magazine. Her work has also been published in Psychology Today and psyweb.com. Based in Ireland, Nicola is currently working on her own recovery website-based e-magazine aimed at Irish readers to help break the stigma and shame surrounding addiction and mental health issues.

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