Catherine Barry was 31 in May 1993 as she stood in the enrapt audience of a Peter Gabriel concert (the European leg of his "Secret World Tour" at "The Point" in Dublin). There was something magical about the combination of the music and the visuals – both perfectly complimenting the thought-provoking lyrics. The sheer positivity of it all hit this young Irish woman’s blurred mind like a freight train of truth. She looked down at the drink she’d been clutching in her right hand all night and felt sudden disgust.
It was her breakthrough moment. It was her "Solsbury Hill".
"Hey!" he said. "Grab your things…I’ve come to take you home…"
Four days later (and without drink for the same amount of time) she entered her first AA meeting. Alienated, shaking with nerves and bowing to the disease’s sly thought-processes – she bolted for the door. But a man’s hand alighted on her shoulder and told her it would be alright – best stay love – best stick it out. It was 'Charlie' – the ramshackle lead character of her book. Sober for 26 of his 52 Dublin years, Charlie Gallagher would become her 'sponsor' – her 'Big Bang' as she describes him. This book (told in the first person) is effectively a homage to him – a thank you letter to an infinitely kind soul who would embolden her in the battle ahead - a thousand times and more.
On a confessional like this there are so many pitfalls the author could have fallen into – the long litany of hurt and humiliation very quickly becoming 'poor me' text – and worse – the more dirt and depravation you dish out, somehow the more commercial it becomes. Luckily this lady has had the smarts to ration the first and not feature the other at all. But to lighten the very real and disturbing blows you do get as the paragraphs and years pass by, the read is also very witty and self-deprecating. Every few pages there’s a 'bollox' here, a 'gobshite' there and a few 'FTW's' into the bargain (**cking Time Wasters). And the sentences come at you in that wonderful way that Irish Writers have – (witty about suffering for her art) "I would wear hand-knitted shawls made out of crude sack and write only with ancient quills…" - (truthful about losing her lover to the disease) "…every time he drank or did drugs, he left me…"
Her journey begins by attending meetings every single night for two years – the first twelve months of which are truly horrific. We learn of an abusive husband (himself an addict) who beat her and their two young children first with verbal terror – then fists and kicks. We get to know about Ireland’s woefully ineffective restraining orders, first name terms with the Police, asked by the program to pray for the monster that tortured them, being constantly broke, surviving through carboot sales. Then - despite at first feeling like a true soulmate - the newest love in her life Michael turns out to love 'the gear' more than he does her. There follows a failed suicide attempt by a cliff at night (stopped by Charlie who sensed her mood in advance)…
But then there are also the small mercies - the crew of the film "The Van" (based on Roddy Doyle’s book) turn up on her doorstep two weeks after a flood has wrecked her entire home and pay her £1000 to use it in their shoot. She rediscovers writing - poems, articles and books follow and pay the bills – and when that runs out – another lucky win alieviates the crippling mortgage and accrued debts… and all of this whilst 'handling' the addiction on a daily basis.
Speaking of which, one of the strengths of "Charlie & Me" is the insights it gives you into just how staggeringly insidious the disease really is. Like a jabbering trickster, the demon is constantly on their shoulder with a voice that is slyly soothing and clinically precise – always looking for an opening – a weak moment.
On a bad day it goes like this:
"My family hates me. My partner’s left me. I’ve lost my job. If I got another job, I wouldn’t be able to hold it down anyway. My looks are going too. People suffer me rather than love me. One won’t matter now. I’d be doing them all a favour. It's just one drink…"
On a good day it tries a different tack:
"I’m four months sober now. I’m doing well. The Christmas Party is here. Everyone drinks at Christmas. It’s fun. I was always much more fun when I’d had a few drinks. Besides, even if I have quick one now with my friends at the office, I’ll be able to get sober again after it. I’ve proved that. I can handle it this time…"
So as the pages pass, you begin to 'get' why a sponsor is so necessary and inexplicably caring – they're recovering addicts themselves. They've been there – heard all of the excuses – manufactured the same lies themselves – done all the dirty deeds to family, friends and even their own children – and all the while felt the same wrecked guilt. A good sponsor (like Charlie) understands implicitly what the addict 'needs' - which differs hugely from what the slippery disease makes the addict say they 'want'. You feel his wisdom and presence throughout the entire book and hurt at his own weakness when a persistent cough he won’t 'deal' with has consequences too…
When you think of the huge number of 'sponsors' planetwide who have given their endless patience and understanding to recovering addicts – it’s a lovely notion and a great idea for a book (it’s almost odd that someone hasn’t thought of it before). There is none of us free of addiction of one sort or another – it’s just that for some - taming the beast is a matter of life or death. "Charlie & Me" chronicles that journey. It’s funny, brutal and at times (like life itself) crushingly sad.
I liked this book. I liked what it’s trying to say – the heart behind it. And I think it’s courageous (in the truest sense of the word) that right now somewhere in the world a formerly lost soul is standing up at an AA meeting and uttering the extraordinary words of "The Serenity Prayer" - and meaning it with every fibre of their being. And every week after that - their 'Charlie' will be standing in the background watching over them - quietly spiritual - smiling as they summon up yet again the sheer will it takes to stay 'well' and reach out for that second chance at life.
It's very moving. And like this book, it's beautiful…
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and…the wisdom to know the difference..."