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Restoring hope

The Interview
Orla Feerick sits at a desk

Restoring hope

The Interview
Sean Rice


Reality dawned on Orla Feerick … only when death stalked her hospital bed. The game was up, and she knew it. Four weeks in intensive care, her life dangling on a thread, was the final, incontrovertible message: the demon had to be confronted; her drinking had to stop. The stark alternative was death.
Nothing recommended as a source of help in the months leading up to her crisis illness had been an acceptable option to Orla. She promised to sort out her life, to do as her friends and family had pleaded with her … but not just yet.
Hope House was too embarrassingly close to home to look for treatment, the stigma of alcoholism still too shameful to admit her problem. She blushed at the thought of people knowing she might be a resident of the House. She dodged every reference to it, every effort by her family to give it a chance. Hope House, anywhere but Hope House.
Orla would eventually come to know that how others saw her was less important than the lifeline which Hope House – founded by Sisters Attracta Canny and Dolores Duggan in 1993 – had thrown her. Having been too near to death to shrug off the persistent recommendations of her family and friends, she grasped the nettle … on St Patrick’s Day 2003.
The journey took her directly from hospital to Hope House in Foxford. Gingerly, confused a little, she approached the door having no idea of the warm welcome awaiting her. Inside, her fears vanished. Suffused by an instant sense of relief, she knew she had chosen correctly.
Orla was the only female resident that first day, among a cluster of males. All of them greeted her, put her at ease, and made her welcome. Thirty days later she had rediscovered the joy of living. Now she helps others with their addiction problems, and finds life without alcohol rewarding and fulfilling.
Orla grew up surrounded by drink. She worked in the family pub in Ballinrobe, and was witness to the ravages of alcohol abuse, the suffering it caused to so many… to the extent that she set herself against imbibing. She was 18 or 19 before sampling her first drink. She tried it again, and again, drinking socially at first, later drifting into more serious sessions.
“I was drinking because I liked it and I was getting a good effect from it. Then after a while I was drinking because I couldn’t not drink. It creeps up on you. You never intentionally set out to abuse it, but it had taken over my life completely.”
None of the usual causes explained her drinking behaviour. She had a happy childhood. She enjoyed life. Nothing occurred to change her ways other than the lift alcohol gave her. She was running the pub together with her sister, and was also working in the family auctioneering business.
“I was drinking all the time. I had my family’s heart broken. We sold the pub a year and a half ago. But I would not associate the pub with my progression. It facilitated my drinking, the fact that it was there. It made it easier because drink was on hand all the time.”
Although she would not recommend it, she worked in the pub for a while after returning from Hope House. It was not an issue for her then, because she was determined not to return to her old ways. “I had a change of attitude in there towards drink. I have no problem with anyone else having a drink. It just doesn’t suit me.”
Nor was it because of her drinking or her recovery that they decided to sell out. The whole pub scene had changed. Pub life was very difficult, she said. As well as that, her father died in October 2004 and Orla took over his thriving auctioneering business. On that she wanted to concentrate.
The welcome she received in Hope House settled her straight away. But you must have acceptance, she said, and you must want to do something about it. There is no miracle cure in there. You have to want to give it up. You have to work hard at it.
“You do a programme for 30 days. It was hard at times. But there is great old camaraderie between the residents and you make great friendships. Unfortunately, some of them don’t make it. But those who do will tell you it is the best thing they ever did in their lives.”
After the 30 days there is a two-year after-care plan, which involves a two-hour meeting once a week. Heed that plan and other suggestions and your chances of success are very high.
Your day is structured. You get up, have your breakfast, have your chores to do around the house. You have a lecture and group sessions, you are assigned a case manager and you have one to one counselling. The residents all help each other. The family is also involved.
Wednesday is family day. You are invited to get people to come to visit to share their experience about your drinking, things you did under the influence that were out of character. Those who come are made feel comfortable and are present for the session with your counsellor. “It is very good for them because they can talk about things they might have otherwise been afraid to talk about or confront you about. You talk it out and it is dealt with there and a lot of the stuff is behind you when you come out. It helps to build bridges.”
The issues vary. A lot of people would have a lot worse issues than she had. Some might have family break-ups; others might have lost their house or their kids, or their job or whatever. Some couples would have separated before going in to treatment, and afterwards were back as a contented family unit again.
There were others for whom it had just gone too far and separation was final. It is all about helping them to deal with that, and the ongoing support was fantastic. The whole treatment programme, she said, was based on the 12 steps. You start at step one admitting that you are powerless and that your life is out of control, and you work your way up through them.
“I was very lucky. I had great support from my family. They were all delighted that I went in there and they are all very proud of me now. My father was alive and they all came down every Wednesday. Sunday is visiting day and they all trooped down again.”
Younger people are coming to Hope House for treatment, and Orla said it was good to see because it was difficult for younger people to admit it. “To accept that you can never take a drink again is hard, especially for young lads. In small towns in the west there is nothing else to do except hit the pub and it is great to see them giving it a try, working at it, and getting well from it, and getting on with their lives and holding their jobs.”
Orla said it was not all doom and gloom in the House. There are some great laughs too. It is all about sharing your experiences. You are building yourself up and changing, changing your whole attitude. “A lot of it is very spiritual, being able to accept there are things that are not in your control, that you have to let go of things, that people have a right to their own opinion. It is about the acceptance of not just your own problem but everyone else’s as well, taking people for what they are and not letting them get into your head.”
Near the end of the course she dreaded the thought of coming home. She had felt so safe in Hope House, away from drink and temptation. She had been out of circulation for two months, and the thought of facing people again made her anxious, what she was going to say to them, what they were going to say to her; or would they cross the street before meeting her. She found people couldn’t have been nicer. “You make fantastic friends in Hope House. I am in constant contact with people I met when I was there. The friends I had before going in are still there and very supportive.
“People ask me now how do I manage not drinking and that it must be so boring etc. I can do everything I did before, except drink. I do a lot more and I can go away on holidays.”
Having finished her after-care programme, Orla missed it so much that she returned as a facilitator to after-care groups. It keeps her in touch with the struggle. Those weekly meetings, she said, were all about living. There was very little talk about drink or drugs or whatever the addiction may be. It was about adjusting your life and the day-to-day problems everyone had.
“As facilitators, we go in and sit with the group. We keep the conversation flowing, encouraging them to interact and to challenge one another.
Orla’s co-facilitator, John O’Hara, died recently.
“He was a huge part of Hope House since it opened,” she said. “He had a massive recovery and was a great help to me in the after-care recovery. He was the one, it was said, took the anonymous out of Alcoholics Anonymous. He was in the first group of residents 14 years ago and he never really left it.”
Hope House, where every addiction is treated, is continuing to expand. A €2 million development programme will be completed shortly and includes a new family centre adjoining the House, the renovation of an old school nearby for after-care services and outpatient facilities, the provision of a meditation room overlooking the River Moy, and a new lift and bedroom to facilitate disabled residents.
An active fund-raising campaign is being organised in the shape of a weekend sponsored walk in April, based in Westport and taking in Achill Island, Clare Island and Leenane. Each participant is asked to raise €2,000, and former residents, their families and people in general, are welcome to take part in it.
Having already gathered her sponsorship, Orla has praised the kindness of the people of Ballinrobe. She got sponsorship from companies around the town and made a street collection, and the people were more than generous, she said.

Hope House facts
> Sister Attracta Canny and Sister Dolores Duggan opened Hope House in 1993 in a Convent in Foxford vacated by the Sisters of Charity.
> The House has catered for some 1,400 residents since it opened. They have come from all parts of Connacht and from Donegal, Longford and Clare.
> Hope House caters for 200 people in after-care treatment each week.
> Further Development work costing €2 million has been under way for the past two years.
> The new facilities include a new Family Centre
Aftercare services and outpatient facilities will be provided in a renovated school nearby.
> A new meditation room is being provided overlooking the River Moy.
> New facilities for the disabled include a lift and a bedroom.
> The extensions are nearing completion and will be officially opened on March 30 next.