Billy Clarke

Billy struggled with alcohol addiction and his own mental health challenges from a young age. Now years into his recovery, he uses his lived experience to educate and support others while always mindful that everyone has their own unique experience.

This is Billy’s story.

My own challenges began when I was very young, around seven or eight. I don’t remember those feelings coming before that age. I had an overwhelming feeling of anxiety and depression, of not being able to fit in, of feeling different and struggling within my family and school. I really didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t talk to anyone about it.

As I moved into pre-teenage years, then into teenage years I started to use alcohol. My family had a pub, so I had access to alcohol quite easily. Immediately, I found that alcohol numbed these feelings of fear, anxiety and separation and my first reaction to alcohol was like fireworks going off, an explosion of ‘wow this is amazing!’

This one memory really sticks out – my older brother was in the next room and after knocking back this drink and having such a feeling of wellness and connection, I went to my brother’s room and told him ‘I love you!’ That was the power of alcohol. It gave me such a connection with myself, with others. It was an illusion. Alcohol is a chemical solution.

So, from there I used alcohol quite heavily in my teenage years to the point that I left school early. It very quickly overtook my life. I managed to keep it quiet and private. Like, for example when I was doing the bottles out the back in the family pub, I’d sneak a few drinks. So, nobody really knew the extent of the problem till I came into Leaving Cert and I used to arrive in school on a Monday morning shaking. That was the first real negative effects of alcohol on me. I was in withdrawal in the mornings and was shaking so much that I couldn’t even hold a pen in school. I had started drinking most drinks by that stage, I couldn’t concentrate, I could barely function.

I knew I had a problem. I’ll always remember the exact day I knew for sure that alcohol had taken control of me, that I had no control over it any more. I always thought to myself – sure I’ll stop this at some stage and I could stop when I wanted. I remember going to a party on Halloween night. I went out, and drank loads. I woke up the next morning and had such a strong urge that I needed to get drink into me again. That was it, I knew I had lost control and that I would do anything to get drink and I did in the years to come. It was quite a serious addiction.

When I left school, everyone was quite surprised as I’d done pretty well up to that point. I fell out with my parents. They didn’t understand. The alcohol thing had become visible then – it was obvious I was in trouble. Whenever anyone confronted me, my reaction was, ‘Well if you had my life, you’d drink too. You don’t understand. This is the only thing that works for me.’

I later realised that I was just protecting my addiction.

When I left school, I left home and moved in with some mates and that’s when the drinking really took off and drugs became involved then too.

I remember the idea came to me – why suffer with shaking first thing in the morning? So, I started drinking from early morning. It’s a really insidious thing.

There was one moment when I was 21. I hadn’t been in contact with my family for a few years and things had gotten really bad. I was working in a factory at the time from 6am to 6pm, and I’d have to get up at 4am to start drinking. There was no enjoyment left in drinking any more. My whole life was planned around drinking to stave off withdrawal symptoms. I’d nearly have a bottle of vodka before work, really just to calm me down. I’d be sneaking drink into work. It completely overwhelmed my life. I was so sick. My stomach was in bits. That was the final days.

I picked up the phone and bawled my eyes out to my mother. I told her I needed help. My family rallied around me.

I ended up in a psychiatric unit in Castlebar, then I went to a treatment centre. That was the turning point for me, but it was the beginning of the journey. I thought I just had to stop drinking and everything would be fine but all the fear and anxiety I’d experienced my whole life came up like a volcano and I had no life skills to deal with it. I ended up relapsing a couple of times. Eventually, in 2005, I got sober and have managed to stay sober since then.

I was in such a bad way that I wasn’t afraid to die, but it was more like I was afraid to live. I was so sick and tired of being sick and tired and that thought has stayed with me throughout my sobriety as a constant reminder.

The recovery wasn’t easy. Alcohol was my life. It was everything I did. The friends that I had, my family, my work, music.

My father could have a couple of pints and come home. I’d go out for a couple of pints and not come home for five days. We used to argue – he’d say, would you not have pint and just stay off the ‘top shelf’. I did try all of those things and I finally had to accept that drugs and alcohol never worked for me.

Even though the awareness is better these days, I really do feel for those young people I meet just starting out their journey of recovery. It’s still really hard to negotiate sobriety.

When I was drinking, it was almost celebrated – ‘look how much he can drink!’ and all of a sudden when I sober, the people I hung around with disappeared. Nobody really wanted to be around. I was really hurt at the time but I understand it now – if I was still drinking heavily, would I really want to be around someone who was sober? I remember going to a gig, the band the Strokes were playing. I was chatting to this girl and she asked me what I was drinking. When I replied orange juice, there was this immediate suspicion or mistrust.

It still does come up a little bit. I used to say I was on medication or taking antibiotics to avoid the awkwardness but more so now, I’m more honest.

The stigma around addiction is funny – it’s when you’re in recovery that the stigma becomes apparent. It went from ‘Billy’s a great laugh, he enjoys the drink’ to ‘Billy the alcoholic’. It’s linked into every facet of your life. Even as a man, how many pints can you put away and I don’t put away any now! When you’re out with a bunch of lads, I can sense the awkwardness.

In saying that, there has been a lot of awareness over the years. Even some of the lads I used to drink with, there are a few who confided in me and said alcohol is having an impact on their lives. It’s a real privilege to me to be able to be there and share my own experiences with me.

I remember thinking, close to the time that I had my last drink that it could end really badly or I could use this experience to help other people. That was the thing I needed to give me a glimmer of hope, something to work towards. This was an important part of my recovery.

Human rights is a funny phrase and it’s used a lot. We know we have them and that we should have them but what are they? The first thing was to inform and educate myself on what my human rights are and equally, to zone in on my responsibilities are. For example, I have the right to free speech but I also have a responsibility that what I say should not cause pain to others.

How I champion my own human rights? I had to really sit and reflect on who I wanted to be as a human being, and how I wanted to be as a person. Once I was able to figure that out for myself, I was able to say I was going to stand up for myself but that I also had responsibilities to be mindful that others might think differently and I had to respect that.


Music: No Better Man by Billy Clarke