A time to lie low


Christmas and New Year are notoriously difficult times for recovering alcoholics. Surrounded by advertising images of happy festive celebrations, all they can often remember are binges, ruined Christmas dinners, rows between family members and broken promises - many, many broken promises. As one project manager of a drug and alcohol treatment centre puts it: "It is a time of maximum personal vulnerability coinciding with minimum professional support." This is why many of those working in the field recommend to clients that they lie low and avoid the hype of Christmas.

"I advise recovering alcoholics to keep their own structure and stay around people in recovery over Christmas," says Sister Cait O'Leary, administrator of Renewal, a halfway house for those recovering from alcoholism, drug addiction and eating disorders. "There are lots of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on over the Christmas period to go to. Those in recovery should stay away from their old haunts."

Renewal is the first halfway house in Ireland. A residential unit for 10 women situated just outside Cork city, it opened in August 1999. The residents, who can stay for up to three months, are referred to Renewal from the primary treatment centre, Tabor Lodge, in Belgooly, Co Cork. Other primary treatment centres such as the Rutland Centre in Dublin and the Aiseiri centres in Wexford and Clonmel, Co Tipperary, also refer people to Renewal after the 28-day, residential treatment programme. Tabor Lodge is currently applying for funding to establish a halfway house for men in Cork city. "The main thing about Renewal is that it gives those in recovery the opportunity to find their feet in sobriety. They have to leave behind their old way of life and develop a new structure. The first year is extremely difficult," says Sister Cait. "A lot of emotions surface and they need the time and space to work through them." The residents at Renewal work from 9 a.m 1 p.m. on FAS schemes. They have oneto-one counselling and group therapy in the afternoon. In the evenings, they go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and support group meetings linked to their primary treatment. Grainne, (23), spent three months in Renewal this year. She says she found last Christmas - her first in recovery - very difficult.

This year, she will just see it as "more days" and not build it up. "Hopefully, I will enjoy myself with my family and friends. In my family home, there is no drink at Christmas time. My father and sister are both also in recovery," she says. "I've lots of friends in the same boat as me and we will be able to have a good time without drink. In fact, a better time because there are no disasters and there will be no waking up in the morning feeling that my life is falling apart." For Grainne, having a place to stay following her treatment programme gave her time to deal with deep-rooted issues from her childhood. It also helped build up her self-esteem. "There are mixed groups (men and women) in primary treatment which means that there is a lot of stuff you can't deal with. I found it difficult to live with the other nine girls at Renewal but there were opportunities to share personal problems, both in one-to-one therapy and in group therapy," she says.

Sister Catherine Lillis is more aware than most of the seasonal fall-out from alcoholism. She has been working with alcoholics and the families of alcoholics for over 30 years. After she retired from her job as an addiction counsellor with the Eastern Health Board six years ago, she began working "fulltime" at her weekend job counselling alcoholics and their families in Dalgan Park, Navan, Co Meath. Now, she is campaigning furiously to set up a residential halfway house for recovering male alcoholics in Navan. The Tabor House Trust, the charity established to fundraise for this halfway house, has raised £120,000 towards the estimated setup costs of £500,000. The North Eastern Health Board has expressed an interest in the project, which still needs a site on which to build. "Most spouses of alcoholics dread Christmas because they don't know what horrors it will hold," says Sister Catherine. After worrying about getting clothes, presents and food for the children, there is often the sad inevitability that Christmas after Christmas, an alcoholic husband will be drunk, that is if he is still in the family home.

"The problem is that many of these men are barred from their homes. They are homeless as a result of their addiction. They have poor self-esteem and are often unemployed. It is very hard to recover from alcoholism in these circumstances," says Sister Catherine. The halfway house model has proved very successful in the US. "There is between 70 and 80 per cent recovery rate in halfway houses in the Boston region I have been in contact with," says Sister Catherine. Recovering male alcoholics in Ireland, once they have completed their one-month stint in a treatment centre, have to fend for themselves. "We're talking about men in their 40s and 50s - many of whom have been drinking alcohol since they were 15 or 16. Think of one month's treatment for someone like that. How crazy are we to think that this will be enough to help them after a lifestyle of alcoholism for years," says Sister Catherine. "The spouses and children of these men have little or no communication with these men when they go into treatment. The family are so traumatised and hurt and feel rejected by him for so many years. Yet, after a month in treatment, these men are very vulnerable themselves," she adds.

Research has found that up to 50 per cent of alcoholics who have been on a primary treatment programme need a follow-on care facility. If that is the case, there is probably a need for a halfway house in every county in Ireland.