Grouping Up To Defeat Addiction

January 3, 2011

Dennis Stefan started the first Irish LifeRing meeting in his Dublin home with just five people. Positive social reinforcement can help addicts deal with their problems by empowering the 'sober self' Dennis Stefan started the first Irish LifeRing meeting in his Dublin home with just five people. Positive social reinforcement can help addicts deal with their problems by empowering the 'sober self'

A new approach to addiction recovery in Ireland is spreading, writes MICHELLE McDONAGH

IMAGINE THAT inside every person struggling with drug or alcohol issues there is a conflict between a voice that wants to keep drinking or using and another that wants to be free of the drug and lead a better life. That is not just an imaginary situation, it is a common experience for people with addiction.

LifeRing, a new concept in addiction recovery which has recently started up in Ireland, claims to help people to empower their “sober self” and reduce their “addict self” through fellowship.

When 63-year-old criminal defence lawyer, Dennis Stefan, retired from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Dublin five years ago, he was struck by the lack of alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step programme.

“I felt there was a real need for choice in Ireland. In the US, the addiction recovery community is a broad community which encompasses organisations like Smart Recovery, Addiction Recovery and Alcoholics Victorious, as well as AA, but choice is something that has not been available in Ireland,” he says.

Stefan, who describes himself as “31 years without a drink”, moved to Ireland because he wanted a change of scene. As a lawyer, the majority of his clients had been addicts and/or alcoholics and he had gone through the process of rehab in prison with them. He has also spent some time working with prisoners in Mountjoy jail in Dublin.

In 2009, Stefan started the first Irish LifeRing meeting in his Dublin home with just five people – today, five LifeRing meetings take place every week in Dublin and two in Belfast, and new meetings will be starting around the country in 2011. LifeRing is a network of support groups for people who want to live free of alcohol, drugs and other addictions, such as gambling and food, working through positive social reinforcement. The meetings empower the sober self within participants.

Stefan explains: “It’s up to each individual to create their own personal recovery plan and the meetings are used as an opportunity to modify that plan, talk to others, and to get and give advice. We believe that the power is within ourselves to control our use of drink, drugs or whatever we are addicted to and it’s our choice whether to use or not to use today.”

LifeRing groups use a workbook called Recovery by Choice as a tool for building members’ personal recovery plans. Formats vary, but at most meetings the topic is: how was your week? Each person reports on the highlights and heartaches of their past week and plans ahead for the decisions of the coming week. Conversation among participants is encouraged although personal drinking and drugging histories are discouraged.

While acknowledging that organisations such as the AA do “wonderful work”, Stefan says that “one of the main differences between the 12-step programmes and LifeRing is that Life- Ring is a process whereby you develop your plan from the bottom up. You are the owner of your sobriety. You’re responsible for the good and bad things that happen in your sobriety. We all make bad choices along the way. Life-Ring is trying to help us make good choices and find out how other people did it.”

The three principles underlying Life-Ring are sobriety, secularity and self- help. Sobriety, for members, means abstinence from all drugs and alcohol, except where medically prescribed.

While Stefan stresses that they are not all atheists or agnostics, he explains that members believe it is unnecessary to involve or invoke a God or higher power to gain sobriety. Instead, it is up to each individual to harness their self-power to achieve recovery. He says the LifeRing programme works well with other therapies, and complements other recovery programmes, including the AA’s 12-steps.

LifeRing, a non-profit organisation with charitable status, was founded in 2001. Each meeting is largely autonomous, as long as it follows LifeRing’s philosophy. Meetings are led by facilitators who are in recovery from addiction problems for at least six months.

Consultant psychiatrist at St Patrick’s University Hospital, Dr Conor Farren, says LifeRing is a non-directive addiction support organisation that focuses on allowing people with addictive disorders to attend meetings, share experiences and offer support and advice to each other. “I support their endeavours as they are clearly focused on the welfare of the struggling substance user, and they offer their support in a non-religious, non-directive manner that appears to match the needs of some addicts. They are nice and sincere people,” he says.

For meetings in Dublin, e-mail [email protected] or tel: 085-1837444. For information on Belfast meetings, e-mail [email protected] or tel: 00-44-7908-489522.

Offering a lifeline Lifering helps you to believe in yourself

Michael*, a 41-year-old married alcoholic

I had always been a heavy drinker throughout my younger years. I enjoyed nights out with friends, mainly on weekends and special occasions. Thankfully, drinking did not change my personality. After I got married, things stayed much the same, but over the last two years I began questioning my drinking habits, and what effect it was having on me, my wife and my kids.

I was drinking eight to 10 cans of beer each night and drinking heavier at weekends. I knew that it was starting to take control of my life. Each morning I thought to myself that I wouldn’t drink today, but each night I would get beer and couldn’t wait to get it into me. It became more important than anything else.

I would go missing for two or three days. This destroyed my wife and kids. They did not know where I was. Sometimes, they might find me in bed asleep in the afternoon, but then I would wake up and go out again. They were very concerned and my wife was scared of what was going to happen and worried for our family’s future.

I ended up in St Patrick’s Hospital after another three-day binge. I knew giving up alcohol for just a couple of months was not the answer. I had a major problem and needed professional help to stop the disaster that was not far away.

In St Patrick’s, my counsellor advised me on a range of different support groups that would help me in recovery. I went to my first LifeRing meeting while in treatment and I enjoyed the experience. I left feeling good and positive. I felt that LifeRing was about the people in the room, their strengths and their weaknesses. People are there to help each other and I enjoyed that type of interaction with each member. LifeRing helps you to believe in yourself, it gives you confidence that you are in control of your fight against your addiction.

I have been attending regular meetings for the past nine months. Without LifeRing, I don’t think that I would have found things as smooth as I have so far. I have said many times in meetings that LifeRing is so important for people in recovery. When people leave St Patrick’s, it is frightening to try and deal with a life without alcohol or any other addictive substance, but the group is there to help each other.

Unfortunately, LifeRing is only at the beginning, but I see people passing through the meetings and I know that when they are leaving St Patrick’s, they wish that LifeRing was countrywide because they would be less frightened about their own future.

* Not his real name

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