‘At night I would go to my room to quietly drink.’ Irish women and addiction

Illustration: Digital Vision/iStock/Getty
With calls to some addiction treatment centres up by 80 per cent since lockdown, one businesswoman shares her story of managing to start a new life after reaching rock bottom

Lolly Strahan has come to a realisation. The founder of the Lolly & Cooks chain of cafes, bakery and commercial caterers knows now that in life, you really can have it all. Just not all at the same time.

Her business may have been in hibernation over the past few months, but the 46-year-old single mother to nine-year-old Jazmin says she is in the best form of her life. Over lockdown she worked out, bonded with her daughter (“we had a holistic type of home-schooling, I slapped a map of the world on the fridge”), got a puppy (Mr Pickles, a cute, floppy Shih-tzu) planned her future, and honed the Lolly & Cooks business model.

Most importantly, on June 11th, Strahan celebrated one year clean from alcohol and various other addictive substances that had quietly, and then perniciously, plagued her over the previous three years.

Anger is a form of depression; some people get really unreasonable or intolerant. I had all these feelings and I just couldn’t get rid of them

The last decade has been a busy one: “I found myself with a juggernaut of a business which I never anticipated. When all this began, I had just returned from working in London and thought I’d open a café, which in reality was a stall in George’s Street Arcade. It was just after the recession, and I made cupcakes, ‘savage’ sausage rolls and served great coffee.”

Strahan combined the birth of her business with the birth of her daughter, and then experienced the first hiccup in her newly repatriated life nine months later, when she split from Jazmin’s father.

“I certainly didn’t properly acknowledge the effect this might have on me, and just ploughed on. I’m the fixer in my family, and that wasn’t about to change.”

Lolly (born Laragh) is the oldest of three Strahan girls. Brought up in Paris, due to their father’s work, the girls are also the result of a free-range, bohemian mother, who currently lives on a farm in Co Tipperary, rearing animals and growing produce for the Lolly & Cooks empire. Lolly’s sister Churpy joined the business on the operations side, while sister Vauney is an artist.

The years growing the business were hectic but fun as the sisters added five cafes around Dublin to their portfolio. The menu grew, so a kitchen and bakery was opened to cater for the cafes and corporate clients, followed by delivery vans and a growing team of 72 employees.

Lolly Strahan: ‘It took me a while to go and seek help for depression.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Lolly Strahan: ‘It took me a while to go and seek help for depression.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

As a successful, extroverted, 30-something, Strahan says there were parties and nights out aplenty, even though she was beginning to feel the nudge of depression. She found partying helped her to ignore the empty feelings, but was only able to use this as a coping mechanism for so long.

“It took me a while to go and seek help for depression. I think I was struggling with the break up of a long-term relationship, and the fact that he had moved abroad. I wasn’t still in love with him, but I was upset with him for leaving Jaz.

“Anger is a form of depression; some people get really unreasonable or intolerant. I had all these feelings and I just couldn’t get rid of them. I had also had two miscarriages before I had Jaz; one of them was really late as well.

“I never grieved all these things. I was always the really strong one in the family, I look after my little sisters... So when you feel a bit vulnerable and helpless, it’s really hard to admit it. You don’t want to say ‘Well, actually, I’m not really that person.’ So I pushed away the feelings thinking they’d pass until, eventually I just wasn’t good. So I went to the GP and got put on antidepressants.” Did they work?

“Well, back then, I didn’t really give them a good chance, I was too busy ‘cocktailing’ them [with other substances], which of course I shouldn’t have done.”

As time went by, Strahan saw her circle shrink. Her sisters had babies at the same time and segued into a maternity bubble. Gradually, Strahan’s party network started to reduce and before long, “I’d managed to isolate myself”, she remembers.

“Firstly, I’d a small child who went to bed at seven o’clock, so that was me in for the night while all my friends were out. Then there was the need to always be on top of the business and the endless work that brought; add in the depression which made me want to remove myself from people . . . At night I would go to my room to quietly drink and take whatever chemicals might keep me awake and alert enough to power through the night’s work. Or rather, those were the excuses I told myself.”

I was terrified, and I felt I couldn’t call an ambulance because I’d have to admit to what I’d been up to, and I was barely able to face that myself

For almost three years, Strahan operated on limited sleep, a tiny trust circle and a lot of hiding, ducking and diving. She covered her tracks well, she says, and nobody suspected anything. Her Come-to-Jesus moment – the realisation she needed to do something about her addictions – came before she hit rock bottom, she says, but she continued on until she finally crashed.

“I’ve never actually told anyone this but I missed the funeral of a close friend’s mother, because I’d completely overdone it and was in absolutely no fit state to move. I was terrified, and I felt I couldn’t call an ambulance because I’d have to admit to what I’d been up to, and I was barely able to face that myself. I was shocked and frightened, and I was extremely ashamed of myself at the time, but I’m not ashamed that I reached out for assistance. I needed help.”

Strahan’s story isn’t unique. According to data from the National Drug Treatment Reporting System in 2018, 54,263 people received treatment between 2012 and 2018, where alcohol was a main problem. In 2018, 35.5 per cent of those seeking treatment were women, with a median age of 43. Of those receiving treatment that year, 21.5 per cent reported problem use of more than one drug.

The Health Research Board’s most recent National Alcohol Diary Survey (in 2013) found there were between 1.3 and 1.4 million harmful drinkers in Ireland that year, and between 150,000 and 200,000 dependent drinkers aged 18-75 years.

A further HRB Study on alcohol consumption in 2016 reports that in 2013, alcohol-related discharges accounted for 160,211 bed days in public hospitals, with a cost to the tax-payer of €1.5 billion, the equivalent to €1 for every €10 spent on public health in 2012.

Alcohol misuse directly contributes to six different types of cancer, and between 2001 and 2010, one in 10 breast cancer cases were attributable to alcohol.

These days, in Dublin, you can get cocaine delivered to your door quicker than a pizza

“We have a huge problem in Ireland with alcohol disorder and substance misuse,” says Robert Gill, addictions therapist at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services. “Our access to substances is getting more and more instant. These days, in Dublin, you can get cocaine delivered to your door quicker than a pizza. But because this is an underground business, we don’t know the exact size of it or how much people are using, but when it comes to alcohol, we can see from the amount that is produced, imported and sold in Ireland every year, there are huge levels of misuse.

“The ‘cause’ of addiction really is multi-faceted, and that’s how we look at it from a medical point of view”, Gill continues. “There’s a lot of research currently going on into a genetic element, but there’s a big issue with people growing up in addiction, perhaps through learned behaviour or for psychological reasons. Stress levels have risen dramatically too, and anxiety has become a significant factor in society, even before Covid-19, although we saw a huge rise in those accessing our services in recent months. A few drinks or whatever can help emotional or physical distress, and in those initial stages it can be really effective. But then it can develop into a pattern.”

Covid-19, and the resulting lockdown and isolation, have played a significant role in substance misuse and addictive consumption, leading to a growth in demand for treatment services.

Cuan Mhuire is Ireland’s largest voluntary provider of addiction treatment services and residential rehabilitation, treating approximately 2,500 individuals per year, in five centres across Ireland. “We’ve noticed an 80 per cent rise in calls since mid-April,” says Michael Guerin, a senior addiction therapist with Cuan Mhuire. “That’s a growth from approximately 600 to more than 1,000 calls per month, and numbers are still at that level.

“Before lockdown, alcohol-only misuse was almost on the way out, and really only relevant to an older cohort of society,” says Guerin. “What was becoming more and more prevalent was poly-substance dependence – alcohol with other addictive substances and/or behaviours. Of late, cocaine has been a huge problem, it was actually getting out of control. But then, during lockdown, our belief is that traditional cocaine and MDMA dealers put a greater emphasis on bootleg anti-anxiety medication such as Valium and Xanax.

These drugs are highly dangerous and already over-used by patients with mild mental illness, but their addictive nature is greater or equal to heroin with a propensity to problematic withdrawals

“Since lockdown, we’ve seen a huge growth in three areas; the resurgence in alcohol-only dependence; an inordinate upsurge in online gambling – and remember, there were no sporting fixtures during that time, so people were getting hooked on games of chance created by online companies; and an overuse and addiction to Benzodiazepines, prescription drugs such as Valium and Xanax. These drugs are highly dangerous and already over-used by patients with mild mental illness, but their addictive nature is greater or equal to heroin with a propensity to problematic withdrawals, often with rebound effects, and a psychological element that kicks back. They really get a hook into the user.”

Strahan checked in to the residential substance misuse programme at St Patrick’s in Dublin in June 2019 in order to address her depression and her addictions. “I met with a friend who had completed the same programme; I got all the information I needed and booked in, knowing Jaz could go off to Portugal with my sisters for most of that time.

“I then wrote an email to my very good friends, telling them where I was going. Most of them are parents with kids, so I asked could they include Jaz in any family outings they had planned, which they so kindly did. Then I called a meeting at work and told them what was happening and that they’d just have to take the reins and ride it out. Everyone was shocked, they had no idea. I didn’t feel very brave doing it, but I had to get my ducks in a row. The hardest part, of course, was telling my dear Dad.”

Although there are supports from HSE community health organisations and financial assistance from health insurance , Strahan was so determined that she would succeed – and that she would only go through rehab one time – that she paid for her treatment herself.

Walking in that door, although I was terrified, was the best day of my life. The therapists are amazing

“It was around €28,000, and I couldn’t afford it. But I knew I had to do things this way if it was to work. The fee they quote is for a six-week stay, but if you complete the programme in 28 days, they give you back €10,000. I was absolutely determined to finish within the month, so much so that the first day when I arrived, they didn’t admit me until really late – 10pm. I was up and down to reception like a yoyo that evening, telling them they couldn’t charge me for that first night. Kindly, they didn’t.”

Strahan says another reason she paid for her stay, and to force herself to get clean the first time, was because any subsequent visits might not be covered by health insurance (due to having a 'pre-exisiting condition') and she couldn't afford to finance any repeat visits herself.

Treatment involved a busy timetable of lectures, meetings and psychotherapy, all of which Strahan embraced. “Walking in that door, although I was terrified, was the best day of my life. The therapists are amazing. They don’t really tell you anything you don’t already know, but they set you up so you feel like you’re walking out with a suitcase of solutions for every occasion.

“I was interested to see such a diverse mix of patients, many of whom had the same mindset or set-up as me, for whom things had just spiralled, and I made really good friends there. There were people from all walks of life, young and old, single mums and business people; lots of young guys and girls, and a good few empty-nesters, and older patients.”

Lolly Strahan: ‘I had my 45th birthday while I was in St Pat’s. And I can remember thinking, How rock’n’roll is this!’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Lolly Strahan: ‘I had my 45th birthday while I was in St Pat’s. And I can remember thinking, How rock’n’roll is this!’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The programme Strahan underwent “comprises three stages,” explains Gill, “detoxification, the in-patient programme and then the 12-week, out-patient step-down and subsequent aftercare programme.

“It’s hard to put a science on success rates, but generally about a third will have success the first time, a third may relapse but come through, and there would be the final third who don’t get recovery.”

At Cuan Mhuire, “people reach out to us in crisis and we monitor these calls so we can respond accordingly,” says Guerin. “Amongst the things I expect to see coming down the line as a result of lockdown is to see cocaine revert back to pre-Covid levels, a spike in gambling issues amongst women, which is new, and a new cohort of pure alcohol dependents, again with a distinct female group.

“Treating women in addiction is a specialised area, they have particular challenges and we need to do a lot of work with their families and children. At Cuan Mhuire, we were the first organisation to attempt to create gender-specific care with our centre in Cork in 2007; currently we have 300 women trying to access six beds. We are trying to complete the construction of a 40-bed residential unit for poly-substance dependent women before the end of 2020, but without Government subsidy, we’re in dire need of funds to finish it.”

“Identifying our reason for recovery was a key part to treatment, and how we have to do it for ourselves.” says Strahan. “It’s easy, in my case, to say ‘you have a child’, but you can’t do it for anyone else, so keeping up the outpatient treatment and meetings is important. As soon as Covid hit, that really threw everything up in the air, because we couldn’t go to any of our support meetings. We were all checking in on each other, on how we were managing because it’s a massive thing, especially when people are isolating.

Finally, I feel like me again. I’m still on anti-depressants, but I’m taking them without booze or anything to counteract them, so they’re working

“One of our outpatient meetings went online quite quickly, and I can remember asking the counsellor how everyone was getting on, and she said to me ‘not bad . . . don’t forget, you guys have all done chaos, we’re more concerned about the first-timers who up until now have had lovely lives’.

“I’ll always be aware of my condition. One of my favourite sayings is ‘when you are sitting at your meeting, your addiction is outside doing press-ups’. So I always think about that and never become complacent because it will be with me until I die, but I’m managing it. Finally, I feel like me again. I’m still on anti-depressants, but I’m taking them without booze or anything to counteract them, so they’re working.”

Post-lockdown, many people will be looking at their consumption habits over the past few months: “If you are drinking too much; if others are worried about you, or if your behaviour with a substance is causing you stress, talk to a professional,” says Gill. If you feel comfortable with your GP, start there and ask for a referral.

There are resources and tools on the new HSE website askaboutalcohol.ie, and a wide variety of services available with helplines and support groups to assist the work of in- and out-patient facilities. “You are never too old to start,” says Gill. “Equally, you’re never too young. Teens or 20-somethings who may be having problems at home, or with work or relationships and starting to misuse should know this can be nipped in the bud and doesn’t have to become a life sentence.”

“I had my 45th birthday while I was in St Pat’s,” says Strahan, “And I remember thinking, How rock’n’roll is this! But also, that’s half my life done, and I didn’t miss out on anything, I gave it socks, but now, let’s do the other half.”

The HSE has a free, confidential addiction helpline; call 1800-459459 (Monday-Friday, 9.30am-5.30pm) or email helpline@hse.ie. St Patrick’s Mental Health Services also has a confidential support and information service; call 01-2493333 (Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm, with answering/call-back facility out of hours) or email info@stpatsmail.com. Cuan Mhuire addiction-treatment services is at cuanmhuire.ie