Frances Black: My battle with alcoholism
Across the face of the celebrated chanteuse, there spreads a look of sadness. Frances Black is remembering the bleakest of times: when she entered an addiction clinic at her doctor's request.
On the journey to Talbot Grove in Kerry from Dublin, Frances was, she recalls, “in and out of reality”. It was a wet and suitably stormy October night in 2002 as Brian (her second husband whom she married in 1995) drove her in their green Ford Mondeo. She remembers dozing off and “waking up in a nightmare”. Going into a treatment centre was scary because she didn't know what was ahead of her.
“It was this horrible thing of: ‘Am I mental? Am I a nutcase?' I didn't know whether I was going into a place where it was going to be all white coats and then locked in a room.”
What added to the mounting terror was that she had left behind her two beautiful children Aoife and Eoghan (by her first husband, from whom she separated in 1985), her dog, Sandy, and her mother, Patty, who was “sick and dying”.
The worst part of it was not the forced withdrawal from the sleeping tablets she had become addicted to. It was the guilt that was eating her up. “The shame of walking in there was terrible,” she says.
“‘How could you do this to your family? How could you let yourself go so bad again? Again? Here you go again ...”' the damning voice inside Frances's tortured head told her without respite.
Hopefully, what she learned from the four weeks of treatment will remain with her forever. “I learned that I am a serious addict, even though I had been in recovery, I felt, for a long long time,” she says.
“This disease can creep up on you at any time. You can be in a situation where you are in your recovery and — bam! — you could be back out there without realising it. It creeps up on you in a very insidious way. It can come in from any angle. It doesn't have to be your primary drug, which for me, was alcohol. It can come in through other avenues. That's another thing I learned. I needed to know all the other avenues it might come for me. I need to be vigilant all the time. I need to really work on recovery and be very conscious every single day that this is a disease that I have to challenge and I have to be aware of all the time.”
How Frances Black, a critically acclaimed singers, found herself in an addiction centre you could probably trace back to the low self-esteem she felt and the physical bullying she experienced at school.
A firmer argument, however, is perhaps that when her 85-year-old mother became very ill in 2002, Frances found it “especially difficult to cope with the fact that she knew she was going to die”. She went on a course of Prozac to help her through this tough time. Not long afterwards, a doctor asked her if she was sleeping well, and before she knew it in July 2002 Frances was on sleeping tablets and Prozac.
“I didn't mind the Prozac because there is no buzz off it — it is just a mood stabiliser, really, so there's no big deal — but sleeping tablets!” she recalls. “I thought, ‘The doctor has given me these, so there is nothing wrong with them'.”
By October, Frances was beginning to realise that she had a problem. She couldn't sleep at all. She'd be watching television in a very happy state. “It was great because you would be non-present.” She started taking the sleeping tablets earlier and earlier in the day. “I was taking them at six in the evening and functioning.” She knew, however, that she wasn't really functioning when one day “out of my box on the sleeping tablets”, Frances (who had a previous problem with drink) opened a bottle of wine from the fridge.
“I wasn't present,” she says. “And before I knew it, the bottle was gone. I went to bed and woke up, and knew I was in serious trouble.”
Her husband rang a counsellor who had been dealing with Frances down through the years who told him to get Frances into a treatment centre immediately because his wife had a serious problem that required urgent attention.
“I had lost complete control because of the sleeping tablets,” she remembers. “I wasn't taking one a night. I could take four or five a night. So I got big-time addicted to them and I had to come off them.”
After she had taken about two years off to recover, Frances decided she wanted to do something that would make a difference. Her mother had died on October 25, 2003 and left her a few bob. Rather than go on a holiday or buy a car, Frances decided to used the money to go back to college. “That was the scariest thing I have ever done because I have this in-built thing that: ‘You are thick, Frances.' It changed my life. It built up my confidence.”
Receiving her diploma in addiction counselling in 2006 was, she says, “better than any of the awards I got for my records”. Frances is now in the early stages of setting up the RISE Foundation — Recovery in a Safe Environment. As part of the work of the Rise Foundation, Frances will be launching a six-week pilot addiction education and awareness programme for families in Dublin in November. And in Northern Ireland, Frances is awaiting the outcome of a presentation she made to Health Minister Michael McGimpsey about her dream of turning the East Lighthouse on Rathlin Island into a dedicated addiction centre for families. Her father grew up on the island and she considers the place her spiritual home. The inspiration for RISE comes from a song Frances sings on stage. Performing is still her main thing — she starts a tour next Sunday at the Helix in Dublin. The lyrics go: ‘Look at my life, look at my heart/I have seen them fall apart/Now I am ready to rise again.’
“For me,” she says, “when you come out of a dark place of addiction, to rise above it and get strong is amazing.”
I ask her what Frances Black the trained addiction counsellor would have said to Frances Black the addict, had she met her a few years ago. “It will be tough at times but you are not on your own.”
Frances Black grew up in Charlemont Street in Dublin's inner city. The youngest in the family — she had three brothers and a famous sister named Mary ahead of her — Frances was shy and wasn't a great mixer throughout her childhood, she says. (You could add throughout most of adulthood to that, too.) Asked how she got to where she is today, she says she did so by facing her fears “all the time. So when I heard that negative voice in my head saying; ‘You can't do that and you're not worth it'. I just challenged that negative voice all the time.”
When was the first time she heard that negative voice? “It was always there. It started off with telling me I was useless at maths.” She started school at the age of three and she can remember being bullied by two boys.
Like all bullied children, Frances had a thoroughly bad image of herself. “I always thought I was really ugly. I still struggle with parts of that. But I don't know if that is part of my addictive personality. I always have this thing that I'm just not very attractive.”
The first time Frances sang herself, she was so embarrassed she hid behind the couch because she didn't want people looking at her. Even when she was 16 and she sang at sing-songs, her family would have to turn off the lights because she was too shy to sing in anything other than the dark. Her first gig at the
age of 17 in a Dublin pub with a local band was in every sense a disaster.
“I was sh***ing meself,” she recalls in her true Dublin accent. “When I got up on stage, the intro started for the song and I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I had stage fright. I had to get off. It was probably one of my scariest experiences. It was like the negative voice said, ‘You'll never be a singer'.”
It was more than two years before she sang in public again, with her family in America. She only had two verses on her own before Mary and her brothers would come in for the choruses. “They gave me a net,” she says. In 1989, Johnny McDonagh, who had left De Dannan, asked her to sing in his new band, Arcady. Frances told him that she didn't think she would be capable because she was too scared. Her sister Mary's advice was: “Just try it and see how it goes.”
She joined the band for almost four years. That didn't cure her lack of self-belief, however. When she was asked to do a solo gig, she immediately rang Newry musician Kieran Goss to play with her. “I leaned on Kieran a lot. I depended on him a lot to do all the talking between the songs.”
Despite having won a number of awards, it is only recently that Frances started to say to herself, “‘For God's sake, there is something I must have that people like. So why can't you believe it?’”
Why Frances didn't believe it was because she actually thought she was “a fake”, whose success was a fraud played upon the hundreds of thousands of people who went to her concerts and bought her records.
“That was a big thing for me,” she says. “I never thought I was good enough. I thought to be a good singer you had to be like Celine Dion or someone amazing. I didn't realise that it was OK to just be me.” Frances realises now that it is “all right to be me”.
“I know I put my heart and soul into my music,” she says now. “People see that. I think that's what I've realised: it is not about being technically a brilliant singer, like Celine Dion. It is about soul, and about passion, and about how much you put into each and I put my heart and soul into each song.”
She used them, she says, as “a form of therapy”. She adds that she would have “let go a lot of stuff” through her songs ... All The Lies That You Told Me was recorded for her friend who was going through a break-up — “but I was feeling her stuff; I did that for her but I really put myself into her shoes and felt her pain”. Wall Of Tears was, she says, “about her own grief and my loss around me; and not being the person I wanted to be. I was letting go of the old Frances.”
Frances's drinking pattern in 1988 was to start drinking at six o'clock in the evening on her own. “I was happy as a pig in s***e,” she says, before adding that, “I just knew that something wasn't right”. She recalls: “I remember sitting at home watching television and I had four or five cans. I was thinking, ‘Why am I drinking these cans when I don't want to drink them?'”
The powerlessness she felt frightened, she says, “the living daylights out of me”. She wondered long and hard that night why “it” had control over her — as opposed to her having control over “it”. In hindsight, she says the answer was “addiction”.
“The penny dropped,” she says. She knew she had to do something to stop her drinking. She tried, stopping for two weeks. Then, one night she came home and saw wine in the fridge and drank the whole bottle. “I was so disgusted with myself,” she says.
With the hangovers the following morning, Frances would be depressed but not be aware why she was depressed. She just thought that was part of her and who she was.
She read an article by a woman about alcoholism and noticed with mounting horror that her own drinking pattern was the same as the woman's.
There was a phone number for Stanhope Clinic in Dublin at the end of the article. She thought at first it would be “like going to WeightWatchers”. When she first arrived she said she didn't have a drink problem — nor was she, Frances was keen, to stress, “an alcoholic”.
She filled out the questionnaire and was told by the counsellor that there was “no doubt that you are an alcoholic”. Frances was floored by this statement as she had always assumed an alcoholic was the wino on the street or someone drinking from first thing in the morning. The course, which she went on for 13 months, stopped her drinking until the relapse brought on by becoming hooked on sleeping tablets.
“I don't think you have to have any rhyme or reason for addiction. I just think it is just in you. I had the same life as everybody else in my family. And none of the rest of them are addicts,” she says.
“It's like, for me, as if the disease is always sitting on your shoulder. It is like a little man sitting here talking on my head all the time.”
And when you drank?
“He wins. He has me then. He is all powerful. So I constantly have to challenge him because he is always there for me. You can call it low self-esteem. I call it addiction.”
The Essential Frances Black is out now. For tour dates, see www.frances-black.net“I had stage fright. The negative voice said ‘You’ll never be|a singer’. But my |sister Mary’s advice was ‘Just try it and see how it goes’”