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'I couldn't stop, I had to have it' - John Joe O'Sullivan Jul 17, 2017

John Joe O'Sullivan was surprised to hear he was an alcoholic.

He knew he was drinking way too much, couldn't control his urge to and had even sought help to stop.

But he was functioning fully, doing his day's work off farm, tending to his drystock and providing for his family.

Now, well over a year after completing a residential programme at an addiction treatment centre and sticking firmly to his after-care programme, his one regret is that he didn't confront his alcoholism sooner.

"But I suppose I wouldn't have been ready for it then," said the 52-year-old married father-of-four from near Cahersiveen on the Ring of Kerry.

John Joe started drinking at 14, pints of Guinness, in the local pub.

"It was normal. There was no such thing as drink in the house then," he says.

"I got married to Eileen when I was 25, reared my family and worked away on the buildings and helped my father on the farm.

"I put my kids through college but still had pints of Guinness all the time, but it never effected me.

"I could take a day off work as well with the smallest excuse but that didn't matter.

"I never left the house short, moneywise, I was always good to work and make money."

He describes the three years before going into Talbot Grove treatment centre in Castleisland as "like a nightmare".

"When the kids were going to college, I couldn't afford to drink as much as I needed to so I started drinking cheaper. I'd drink anything, and it definitely got progressively worse and I could drink it like water and wouldn't get drunk," he recalls.

"I could go into a pub at 8am and still do my day's work. I could have another few drinks at dinnertime and go back to work.

retrievor Oré.Photo:Valerie OSullivan

"I was drinking enough in pubs to sink a ship and doing the same at home in the end.

"I could get up in the middle of the night and drink a few cans of cider.

"I couldn't stop it and I had to have it."

It wasn't until his health began to suffer and he developed liver problems, he started to take stock and even gave up drinking for a while.

"When I'd start again, it was getting worse every time but still working and driving away.

"I could drink paint I'd say in the end," he added.

Eventually he made an appointment to meet a counsellor, who was the first to tell John Joe he was an alcoholic.

"I thought he was mad. I said if I'm an alcoholic, what are all the other people around here because I was able to function and go to work.

"He kept mentioning Talbot Grove to me and kept telling me I was a bad alcoholic and that used to drive me madder," he said.

He attended his first AA meeting, but says he didn't understand at the time what AA was about and inevitably broke out again.

"I was drinking and telling myself I shouldn't be, and there were a pile of things going on inside in my head.

"I heard about people drinking and committing suicide and I said that will be the next thing that will happen me."

He turned up at A&E in University Hospital Kerry, vowing he wasn't going home until he was referred for treatment.

"I didn't care if I had to break a door or a window and be put into the mad house but I wasn't going home," he said.

A counsellor at the hospital contacted Talbot Grove and it was agreed he'd be admitted two days later.

On March 14, 2016 his wife, Eileen and teenage son, Cathal, came with him. John Joe insisted on driving himself. He thought if it didn't work out and his wife had driven him, he'd only blame her.

"So here I was in Talbot Grove for at least 30 days, and I didn't like it one bit. I'm an outdoor person and this was like jail for me.


"Your phone is taken off you, you have no contact with home," he said.

"They had meditation in the mornings and I couldn't stick that sort of stuff.

"I had the wrong idea of the place. I didn't know what I was facing."

Eventually, he was assigned a counsellor, who he says was the right woman for him. "She was the first woman who took no s**t from me and stood up to me, and she definitely suited me. If I was stubborn, she was twice as stubborn."

He admits it wasn't until the first 21 days had passed that a light finally switched on and it began to make sense.

He's always been open about his treatment.

"From day one, Eileen said to me, if anybody asks where you are, what will I say?

"I told her to tell them I was in Talbot Grove because I need to be there and I've nothing to hide because I'm trying to fix myself."

Family members are part of the treatment process at Talbot Grove. John Joe's youngest son was a huge part of his recovery.

"It (my drinking) never affected the older ones too badly. They just thought it was normal because it is around here.

"The youngest lad saw a good bit and was the best help because he knew I wasn't drinking normally, and he was able to tell them everything as it was.

"He's a very smart young fella. He held nothing back in fairness, but he was right. Some of it wasn't pretty but you need to hear it. When we were leaving Talbot Grove, he said, 'I suppose I'm in for it, Dad'.

"There's a poster at the door as you go out that says: 'What you saw here, what happened here, when you leave here, let it stay here.'

"I said, 'Cathal, read that'."

Over a year down the line, John Joe attends three AA meetings every week and an aftercare meeting in Talbot Grove on Tuesday nights.

Comparing his life now to when he was drinking, he says there's no comparison and he doesn't feel he's missing out.

But he's always on his guard.

"I'd fear nothing in this world but I would fear drinking again.

"But stubbornness is good in ways and it seems to have helped me," he says.

Three people a day die from alcohol abuse

Alcohol abuse is attributed to three deaths in Ireland each day and approximately 500 people die from alcohol-related cancers every year.

It is also a contributory factor in two out of every five fatal road traffic accidents, according to statistics compiled by Alcohol Action Ireland, a charity that campaigns for policy changes to reduce levels of alcohol harm in society.

The charity also highlights that alcohol is a factor in more than a half of suicides in this country.

Alcohol is still the most commonly abused drug that brings people to Talbot Grove to seek treatment.

But far from being the scourge of just the lonely bachelor farmer, alcoholism affects over two-thirds of the clients who seek help at the rural treatment centre including married men and an increasing number of women.

Last year, of the 137 people who attended the residential programme at the Castleisland facility in Co Kerry, 70pc sought treatment for alcohol addiction. More than 60pc of clients described themselves as being in full-time employment.

Director of Talbot Grove, Con Cremin, said this was a feature of the centre that deals with clients mainly from a rural hinterland in Kerry, Cork and Limerick.

"The issue very often for the bachelor farmer who lives alone is that the consequences of their drinking are very much personal to themselves. They can drink themselves to death, frequently, ­without it having a big impact on others. And very often society is willing to let that happen," he says.

"Another factor within the farming community is that farmers are self-employed, so there is no one to interfere with their drinking on that score. Living alone means they have no one else to consider, so it puts them in a very vulnerable position and it's harder to ­intervene in their drinking.

"But we have met plenty and very often, part of their recovery is re-engaging with family and community," he added.

Unfortunately in Ireland, because of our tolerance to drinking, he believes up to 90pc of alcohol abuse goes unnoticed and it's only the very chronic 10pc that is seen.