‘Growing up in rural Ireland in the 1990s as a gay man utterly destroyed me’
I look back and wonder how the hell I even did any of those things.
Working in the music business can feel like being a piñata at times. My advice to others who may end up feeling like this is to be your own boss. Forge your own path. And avoid people who say things like the industry is ‘cut-throat’ because that’s just an excuse to normalise toxic behaviours. Call it out.
My GP referred me to a drug and alcohol counsellor and we immediately decided that in-patient treatment for 28 days was the best approach for me. There was already a huge sense of relief on my part. I had no idea just how life-changing those 28 days were going to be.
I went into the treatment centre absolutely terrified, but with a positive attitude and determination, desperate for change. I was willing to put everything I had into this recovery programme and I really did. The counsellors were just brilliant. They are literally saving lives day-to-day.
One of the biggest take-aways from that was the realisation that I am a true survivor and that I need to remind myself of that more. I had survived physical and psychological abuse as a child, sexual abuse and manipulation as a teenager at the hands of a predator and many bullies at school. I was broken. Realising that was the first step to fixing myself. There was also a lot of emotional work to be done in fully accepting myself as a gay man after years being in the closet.
Living a life constantly on edge and only really having the confidence to socialise openly and in my own skin after a few drinks. All the confidence I radiated was a lie. A mask. Growing up in rural Ireland in the 1990s as a gay man had utterly destroyed me. I started drinking at the age of 14. And in a way, I probably would have died from suicide long ago if I hadn’t found that lifestyle. Toxic as it was, it generated happiness, comfort and a false sense of security amongst other drinkers and drug users.
There’s power in speaking. I’ve never had a problem with speaking. I did however have problems with speaking the truth, my truth. The cathartic release of sharing my life story with others in a group therapy setting was heartbreaking, yet changed the course of my life forever. Shared experiences about addiction and where our individual stories had led us, really affected me in a positive way.
So do not fear going into treatment. It’s kind of like going to college – but you are the subject matter.You learn how to manage yourself and your addictions – and a healthier, better you is the reward you receive at the end. I embraced it because I had really neglected myself.
So how does it work? An average day in treatment consisted of a 7am start. Breakfast followed by meditation. We had our first lecture of the day then, which was usually a focus on the 12 steps or lessons about addiction. Following the lecture we would have a break and a snack followed by the first group therapy session. Group therapy usually consisted of one or two people reading out their life stories to the rest of us, or we would have to read out answers to questionnaires that had been sent out to our families about how our addictions had affected their lives.
It was tough but very eye-opening. We would also share our thoughts and feelings after hearing people’s stories. As the day went on, we would have lunch, dinner and, tea. Some yoga or drama therapy, a second group session, individual therapy and then on weekends we focused a lot on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), chores, exercise and visitors.
Every evening was wrapped up by readings from the Big Book [the basic text for all 12-step programs] and meditation to wind to things down. It was a good healthy routine. Gym facilities were available.
We were not allowed to have phones. This was way more difficult than I thought it would be. I found myself fighting another addiction. We had time allocated to call our families or loved ones via a landline. Most of all, I missed listening to music, but it was all for my wellbeing.
CBT also helped reinforce my journey toward recovery. Being able to sit with my thoughts, control my negative emotions and change the way I view the world and myself really opened me up to the idea of a sober future. This is my story but I am aware it doesn’t work like this for all addicts. Everyone’s circumstances are different. So everyone’s process and recovery stories will be unique.
It was suggested in treatment that I had ADHD. A few people had mentioned this to me over the years, but I was too busy feeding my addictions to care. I discussed it with a counsellor and so many lightbulbs went off. Since childhood, I have always known that I was different. I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. It’s been like that for most of my adult life too.
Fidgety, hyperactive, intense, emotional, impulsive, lacking concentration, selfish, not applying myself and so on – this kind of language used to isolate me and make me feel like a weirdo, but now it started to make sense. And there is nothing wrong with being weird. Of course.
I just want people to know that they can beat whatever it is they’re addicted to
There was also a discussion in treatment about self-medicating undiagnosed mental health issues and how that can lead you down the path of quick fixes – which can in turn lead to addictions.
I actually cried at that moment, for the first time in a long time. Genuine tears of relief. I felt seen. I also felt for the first time that I was in control. What I had, had a name – and I can seek help and support for it and not have to live my life through constant apologies, masking, and of course self-medicating. It’s been exhausting.
Here I am back in lovely Leitrim. One year sober. I have travelled the world with my work, and don’t remember a lot of it. I wasn’t just running away from my demons, I was sprinting through life with no destination in sight.
I’m 41 now and living at home. But I’m sober. I’m creating memories worth remembering now and I’m starting over, again. I have arrived. Sobriety was the destination. As I prepare to step back into the real world and return to college and to give the music industry another try with a clear and focused mind, I just want people to know that you can beat it. Whatever it is you’re addicted to, you can regain the power you need to live a life without it – be that heroin, alcohol, internet addiction, food addiction and so on.
People and places from your past can be obstacles in sobriety. If it’s going to interrupt your recovery, don’t pursue it. Drop it, leave it, run from it and move on. Only give something or someone your energy if they support you and applaud you. If someone understands and embraces the new you, then keep them close. I don’t recommend going it alone. I was lucky to have the support of my amazing mother. Find someone safe to open up to, and allow them to be there for you.
Irish society has a long way to go in terms of combating addiction stigma and the classist attitudes that go with certain drugs. We need to be more compassionate. There is so much room there for learning how to deal with people living with addiction.
And anybody can recover from addiction, at any stage of their lives. Within the right environment, addicts can make a complete recovery and flourish at life. My friends and family often ask why I still work in the music industry. The answer is because I love it, and I’m very stubborn. I’ve wanted to work in music since I was a child. The industry can at times be toxic, but it’s not always that way, and it has provided a stability in my life that saved me from myself.
One thing I’ve learned about addiction is that there are many, many addicts out there who appear to have their shit together. Addiction has many faces. Lots of high-functioning folks are working and maintaining a life with hidden (or not so hidden) addictions. I think society’s view of what an addict looks like needs to change. I also think society’s view of addiction as a whole needs to be de-stigmatised and revisited. Especially in this country.
That’s my mission now. To help others and fight the stigma. To generate visibility. To educate.
I’ve completed a diploma in addiction studies and have attended mental health workshops and courses in the last 12 months. I hope to bring my experiences into the music industry too, in order to deal with the hypocrisy and lack of understanding around these issues.
I’m also working as a mentor with the amazing and essential service Minding Creative Minds. The mental health system in Ireland is not fit for purpose. I’ve waited a year for an ADHD screening and now have to wait “up to another year” to see a specialist. In saying that though, you might be surprised by the resources out there to support addicts. Starting recovery is relatively easy. For me it was as simple as confiding in my GP – and two weeks later I was in a treatment centre, one of the toughest yet most liberating experiences in my life.
The destruction that comes with addiction is hard to shake off. That’s the real test. You need to move on from the past. I know that’s a cliché, but it has weight. Sitting amongst the rubble of the mess you have created is not healthy. Don’t fear change.
Sober life in Ireland is difficult. People are actually really weird about folk who don’t drink. They never ask you why you drink, but when you don’t drink everyone wants to know what’s wrong with you. I have to laugh at that. I do think my life would be easier living in a country where alcohol wasn’t battered into the culture – but I’ve run from my problems before, and that got me nowhere.
I’ve found love and new friends and opportunities in sobriety. In recovery, they say you should look after a plant for a year before creating any new relationships. Well, this summer I cultivated a whole garden of flowers and herbs and I’m stepping back out into the world now.
On my terms. One Day at a Time.
This article was first published in the Sunday Independent newspaper, 17th September 2023, and has been kindly given permission for use by the author, Dwyane Woods.