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'Alcoholism cost me my marriage, home and career, and it took my brother's life. I was at rock bottom, but then I found a lifeline'

A music and craft project in Co Down has been central to this 57-year-old's recovery from the grip of alcohol addiction. Judith Cole hears about his journey

Peter making a rocking horse for his granddaughter
Peter making a rocking horse for his granddaughter
Peter with a guitar
Peter with Sheila Smyth at The Right Key project in Loughbrickland,Co Down

By Judith Cole

Co Down man Peter* admits his life spiralled out of control due to alcoholism - and doctors told him that if he didn't stop drinking he would die.

Now, after eight years of sobriety, the 57-year-old, whose brother died from alcoholism, says that The Right Key project near his home has been a lifeline and given him back his self worth.

The Right Key uses music, instrument making and crafts to help people in recovery, including those with addiction or mental health issues, to rebuild their lives. The project received a grant of £160,000 from The National Lottery Community Fund in 2016 and its work has been so successful that the project has recently been awarded another £200,000 to help even more people like Peter.

"Putting a cork in the bottle is just the start of recovery; living sober and getting sobriety into your life afterwards is a continuous journey," says Peter, who is from Tullylish.

"When I stopped drinking, all I had in my life was AA meetings. I had lost my life and I felt useless, but The Right Key has turned that around for me. The encouragement and kindness that I get here is brilliant. The music and singing is a great therapy and it's helped me keep my sobriety."

Peter worked for an engineering company, was married and has three sons, but his drinking spiralled out of control and he lost everything and reached breaking point.

"The alcoholism takes you to a place where everything has gone," says Peter. "I left my family and my house, I lived on my own and drank on my own. It caused lots of physical and mental health problems and I was hospitalised quite a few times.

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"For me it was years of insecurity and unfounded fears which led me to drink and it just got worse over time.

"I had my first drink at 14-years-old - it made me confident, which I enjoyed the feeling of, so I kept drinking, but I was still in control of it at that stage.

"When I got married I cut back, but it slowly came back into my life when I was in my late 30s and it led to the end of my marriage and made it hard to have a relationship with my kids.

"When I tried to control the drinking I couldn't enjoy it and when I tried to enjoy it, I couldn't control it.

"Living on my own opened up the gates to drinking being a daily habit, and I started waking up every day with the shakes and being sick. I couldn't hold down a job at that point.

"When I was in my late 40s I had hit rock bottom and I ended up in hospital, where the doctors told me there was so much damage to my liver that if I didn't stop drinking I would end up dead. So I went home that night and I got on my hands and knees and I prayed for help. I didn't drink that weekend and on the Monday morning I went to the addiction unit in Armagh for a week and when I came out I joined my local AA."

That was eight years ago and since then Peter has made amends with his sons and he now has a one-year-old granddaughter in his life.

But without a job Peter still lacked structure in his life, so when he heard about The Right Key a year ago he knew it was just what he needed.

"When I first walked into The Right Key I was welcomed with open arms. There are many people here with many different aspects of recovery, like drink and drugs, or mental health, but it all crosses over and we all understand each other, which is a real help." The Right Key is based in Loughbrickland in Co Down and the activities take place in its Recovery Cafe, which is all about reconnecting people to the community, providing support and friendship, and giving them back their confidence and self-esteem.

They run a singing circle, write music and stories, and build instruments including guitars in the workshop. The new funding from The National Lottery Community Fund will allow The Right Key to convert part of the group's building into residential accommodation, train members to be peer mentors and increase the outreach work. The project will also be able to pay for a staff member to run more activities for the growing number of people needing support.

Peter's confidence and mental health has improved thanks to the activities. He says: "I used to sing when I was drunk, but I'd never have had the confidence to do it sober. Now I sing here in front of others every week and the buzz I get is better than anything alcohol can give you, it's a natural high and it's fantastic.

"The woodwork activities have been really special for me. My younger brother died four years ago from alcoholism, which was very difficult for me to watch and not be able to help him. But I've been able to make him part of this project by putting a memorial message inside one of the guitars we crafted, so every time it's played his memory is living on.

"My sons are all grown up now and love the thought of me coming up here, they can see a big change in me. I've also carved a wooden rocking horse for my granddaughter from scratch. When I look at it I'm so proud of myself, I can't believe I made it," he adds.

"The confidence and structure this group has given me is second to none. There is a lot of love and support and friendship here - that's what you need when you are in recovery. It's been a lifeline for me and for lots of other people."

Sheila Smyth, who's the driving force behind The Right Key, says: "This funding has been amazing for us. The people who come here have found a renewed joy for life and they have been able to start working, to be creative, and give hope to others.

"We have been able to form a brand new recovery community of people who are moving forward with their lives, and there is no price you can put on that."

*Peter does not wish to use his surname

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