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A moment that changed me: a stranger told me of his alcohol problem – and I realised I had one too | Alcoholism

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When I left Ireland in 1993, I followed a route already well-worn by other Irish immigrants, carrying two suitcases, $500 and a one-way ticket to New York City. I had been raised, one of nine children, on a housing estate just outside Dublin. The daily backdrop was one of rising unemployment and the escalating violence in Northern Ireland. I was 20 years old. I had a job in a clothes shop in town. On the bus to work, I jotted down poems and daydreamed about a different life. When the opportunity presented itself in the form of a visa lottery, I made a break and bolted.

Back then, family history and the history of Ireland were of little interest to me. Instead, there was kinship among the immigrant kids of the East Village. We worked in the cafes and bars, met up after our shifts and talked into the night over cigarettes and wine. With anonymity came an intoxicating sense of freedom – and other intoxicants, too.

I saw many young Irish people lose their way with alcohol and drugs. I felt sorry for them with their eyes full of fear and their palpable loneliness, stuck in a corner of life they could not leave. In an Irish bar, I asked one man why he didn’t just move back home. He looked at me, with my bright future and my green card, before telling me: “You don’t understand anything.” It was many years before I would understand.

Eventually, I lost my way, too. By the end of 2008, my life was in freefall. For a long time, I had tried to control my drinking, but then I was just trying not to drink every single day. With the sleepless nights and foggy mornings, my capacity to function slipped away. At my admin job, I bumbled through the day struggling with a banging head as booze oozed out of my pores. At home, I was no longer paying bills, or doing laundry, or answering the phone. A trip to the supermarket filled me with such dread that it was easier not to eat.

Catholic conservatism had shaped my psyche, so when I found myself in the desert of addiction, familiar feelings of guilt and shame rose in me. Maybe going to mass would help? I showed up late with a charity shop trenchcoat thrown over my pyjamas. Afterwards, they served tea and coffee. One Sunday, a tall, handsome man introduced himself. He was third generation with an Irish name and a square American face. I agreed to join him for a walk around the neighbourhood.

We sat on a bench in a basketball court on Spring Street and this man proceeded to tell me, out of nowhere, about his battle with alcohol and his recent sobriety. I was baffled as to why he was speaking to me of his drinking because I had told no one about my own struggles. Nevertheless, sitting there in stunned silence, I heard what this stranger was saying, and I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Walking back to my apartment, I was shaken. The wall of denial crumbled. I could see that, while my problems were largely of my own making, my arrival at this moment, in this place, in this life, was not entirely my own doing. I realised historical traumas such as British colonialism, the Great Famine, mass emigration and the abuses of Irish church and state had ramifications in the present.

Alcoholism had unfurled its fingers down and across generations of my family. Why wouldn’t I be touched? I saw the suffering of those family members whose lives were directly or indirectly disrupted, destroyed or cut short. Clarity and anger burned in me. The next morning, I emailed the guy and asked him to take me to a 12-step meeting.

Recovery is an ongoing process. In addition to following 12-step suggestions, I have found it helpful to forge a connection with my ancestral past. Finding my place on the timeline has anchored me, so I no longer feel so disconnected or alone. I study genealogy charts and old photographs. I explore stories of lives forgotten or dismissed. When I moved back to Ireland at the end of 2021 after nearly three decades away, I framed some of the old photos and placed them around my writing studio. They are daily reminders that my ancestors are present and with me when I sit down to work.

The haunting continues to show up in my family, but if any should get lost in the desert, I hope they will come to see that there are generations of us behind them, ready when they are, to turn around and begin the long journey home together.

In Ordinary Time: Fragments of a Family History by Carmel McMahon is published on 2 February (Duckworth, £16.99)


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