How singing has helped these addicts beat the bottle
Three recovering alcoholics tell Stephanie Bell how they found their voice and a new lease of life as part of a special Dromore-based singing group
A group of recovering alcoholics have hit the right note with the recording of a moving new ballad which is to be released on an album this summer. The Voice of Recovery, an award-winning singing group of 30 recovering addicts, has recorded The Farset River which celebrates the changes that peace and healing are bringing to the city.
"This song means so much because it describes how, just like all of us, Belfast is also in recovery. It may be shaky at times but it develops strength every day," explained Stephen Gibson, one of the singers who has been sober for more than two and a half years now.
Members of the group meet regularly at The Recovery Cafe in Dromore with the support of Sheila Smyth from The Right Key, a social enterprise which uses music and singing for health, healing and recovery of individuals, communities and nations.
The song, written by Sheila, focuses on the Farset flowing underground, while above it the city is ever-changing, as the gates begin to open and the peace walls are slowly coming down.
"This is a song about hope for the future and we wanted to add our voice to the new Belfast," explains Sheila, who is a musician and composer.
"We come at this from a different perspective; the group is made up of people who at one time in their lives had no hope for the future.
"Now, though, they are in recovery and their lives are changing, just like the city is changing," she adds.
"We recently did an inner city project with Radio Failte at the Farset Festival which resulted in a concert in Townsend Street.
"The concert included songs in English, Irish, Polish and Spanish. We performed a version of the Farset River song at the event.
"It was very moving, and the end of a great project. Voice of Recovery immediately wanted it on their album, which will be released at the end of July. They felt a real connection with the song, because of their own recovery process."
After meeting in various locations for two years, the group opened their permanent home, the Recovery Cafe, last year. It has been a nurturing centre for people to pop in to sing, play music, chat and support each other. They have performed in London and Greece, moving the audiences to tears with their honesty and openness in their struggles from addiction to recovery.
Just last week, members were thrilled to pick up The Healthy Lifestyle Award at Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council's first ever community awards.
"For a group facing alcoholism to win a healthy lifestyle award is nothing short of amazing and it was a brilliant night for everyone," says Sheila.
Three members of the group who never dreamt that singing could save them from addiction share their stories.
Darrah O’Neill (42) from Armagh is married to Brian (38) and they have two children, Ryan (20) and Tiarnan (16). Darragh endured a traumatic childhood and it was in her early-30s when she turned to alcohol to help her to cope. She says:
Before I would drink to block out feelings. Whenever I left the house, I had bottles hidden down my socks. It got to the stage when I couldn’t function without it. It lasted about four years and I was drinking as soon as I got up in the morning until I went to bed at night. I didn’t think I had a problem.
Social services were involved and sent me to lots of counsellors, which I didn’t think at the time was helping. I just wanted them to leave me alone but today I would say to anyone in a similar situation to take the help and that it is worthwhile.
I went to rehab seven years ago for the first time and it was good because everyone was in the same boat. Afterwards, I got a job which I loved, but I relapsed a couple of years later.
I still had a lot of family problems and I couldn’t cope. The second time I went into rehab I met Sheila and she was amazing. I have been sober three years and five months, now.
I would call Sheila my guardian angel. When I joined the singing group I felt that I fitted in for the first time in my life. I was also able to go into a crowd of people without needing a drink, which is something I had never ever done before.
I’ve loved singing ever since and try to go to the cafe once or twice a week. I also do a bit of volunteering with mental health groups in my area.
I realise I had built a wall around myself and, with the help of the singing group, I am slowly taking it down and letting people into my life. I am still full of fear but I am learning how to cope with it.
My husband and his family are very supportive and I am so lucky because I nearly lost everything. If I can do it, anybody can and my advice would be just lift the phone and ask for help, as there is plenty of help and groups out there who will support you.”
Barry Cooper (39), from Belfast, describes himself as having been a functioning alcoholic. He is married with two young children — a boy now aged four and a girl of six — and was working full-time as a technical officer with the Housing Executive as well as studying part-time for a degree in engineering when he turned to drink to cope with stress. He says:
I drank because I was frightened and I was unable to face my fears. I was functioning quite well on the outside and most people wouldn’t have known I had a problem.
I think going into my 30s life became frightening and serious to me. I was back studying part-time at university, the kids had come along and I was working; I had stresses from all different angles.
I had lost my coping mechanisms. When things got tough I didn’t know what to do and I turned to drink. When I went to rehab in October 2014 it was important for me to find out why I was drinking.
I learned I was using alcohol to cope with the stresses of daily life and it had got to the point that I couldn’t cope with even small stresses.
When things went wrong, I was completely defenceless and my only way of coping was to have a few beers.
I only had three or four to relax me at nights but I had trained myself to turn to drink and it was behaviour which I had to unlearn.
I met Sheila when I went into rehab and, to be honest, I didn’t want to sing.
Here she was with her guitar early on a Tuesday morning and I’m stone cold sober and expected to sing with a bunch of strangers.
I’d never sung before but learned that it wasn’t about how well I could sing, but about facing my fears and I took a chance.
It took me six weeks to get up the nerve to do it and I got up, sang a short solo piece and rushed back to my seat, shaking.
But it was a victory for me and I felt stronger. Also, to my complete surprise I discovered I love singing. Now I’ve sung before 1,200 people at our concert in Greece.
After 10 years of worry, I’ve finally stopped taking life so seriously. I am more relaxed and more confident.
When people think of alcoholism they think of the damage being done physically but it can also damage you psychologically. I was functioning while drinking and managed to get a First Class Honours degree — but the alcohol problem was still there.
I genuinely hope my story will help. There are a lot of people who are in a lot of pain and they don’t know how to get out of it.
You don’t have to live like that and life after alcohol is not a life of misery it is a life of joy.”
Martin Hogan (55) from Lurgan lost everything — his wife, children and home — when he succumbed to alcoholism for around 10 years. He says the drinking crept up on him until he was drinking seven days a week. Now sober for just over three years, he has built up a good relationship with his two daughters, who are 28 and 26, and now spends every day volunteering with The Recovery Cafe. He says:
Previously I always drank, but it just got heavier and heavier until I started drinking alcoholically. When you get to that stage, you can’t do without it and you are drinking morning and night.
I lost everything; my marriage broke up and I lost my home and my children. People don’t understand and at the time you just want a drink more than life itself.
I have been in rehab in Cuan Mhuire in Newry twice. The first time I came out thinking I was cured, but I went back on the drink again a few months later. Then before I went the second time, I promised myself I was really going to try and do my best and I have been sober ever since.
Today my battle against addiction comes first in my life; if I don’t have my sobriety I have nothing.
On a typical day I would have started drinking at 6am and had a half bottle of whiskey and a couple of ciders and then, when the pubs opened at 9am, I would go there, then get a carry out that night.
I remember sitting on my own one Christmas Day when all I had was a packet of crisps for my Christmas dinner.
Then in January I went on my biggest ever binge and spent £350 on drink, mostly whiskey, in four days.
My sister came in and found me and probably saved my life. I decided then to go to the doctor — it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
When you are drinking as much as I was, most of the time you don’t want to take that next drink but you feel you have to because the anxiety and cravings are so bad that nothing else matters — only that you get that drink. It takes over your life and it can take your life.
I know 12 people who I met in rehab that have died of alcoholism in the past three years.
Rehab did help me and when you go through those gates you have to be willing to tell the truth; who you are and what you are, what you’ve become and you must ask for help.
I haven’t drunk now for over three years and life is wonderful.
I take every day as it comes and wake up every morning and thank God that I am alive.
The Recovery Cafe is brilliant. When Sheila first came to the rehab centre to sing, it was so foreign to me.
At the start I didn’t even want to go, but it turned out to be the best thing ever happened to me. The cafe was my lifeline and I don’t know where I would be without it. It is fantastic.
The confidence it has given me is amazing and I still go there nearly every day. I also volunteer now and I get so much from it.
I would just say to anyone who really needs help, come to us and we will help you through it.”