"LifeRing is an alternative to AA" says Irish Examiner

LifeRing emphasises self-help and empowerment

Áilín Quinlan of the Irish Examiner interviewed Irish LifeRing founder Dennis and group attender Maria about LifeRing. 

"SHE left her husband after years of domestic abuse. She took her three small children, rented a place, and started divorce proceedings.  One night, she was startled by a volley of shouts outside the window. Her husband was outside screaming threats and abuse. He’d never hit her, but he was aggressive and formidable, and after years of psychological and verbal abuse by him, she feared him. Now he was in a rage. She was frightened and lonely, and in her 30s and responsible for three small children, the oldest just seven.

Dennis Stefan

She read about LifeRing on the internet
That night, Maria drank wine to help her sleep. Living alone with the children, struggling through divorce and working full-time was stressful and exhausting. Gradually, those glasses of wine before bed became a bottle, then two — every night. "I was running home from work and buying a bottle and getting it down me. I was a secret drinker," she says. But she was working and caring for her three children, so she believed she was coping. By her 40s, she was unable to wait until the children were asleep to open the first bottle. The drinking was now starting at tea-time, and by 8pm she was down to the shop for another bottle: "I always thought I could cope, because I’d managed to stay working full-time. But what I wouldn’t see was that I’d completely isolated myself from people because I wanted to drink — and I was now drinking in front of my children," she says.

The kids begged her to get help. Still in denial, she refused to go to the GP or to Alcoholics Anonymous. The kids persisted. "Sometimes I’d stop, but the craving was so powerful that after a day or two I’d start again," she says. She read about a group called LifeRing on the internet. There was a branch in Cork, where Maria and her children live. "LifeRing seemed to be the safest option. It’s not dogmatic and I felt it was a safe and non-judgemental way to address your problem. I joined last October. The night before I joined, I drank two bottles of wine."

About LifeRing
A self-help group for people with addictions, LifeRing was established in California ten years ago by recovering addicts, among them Martin Nicolaus. It came to Ireland in 2009 after retired criminal attorney Dennis Stefan moved here. Stefan, 65, has successfully battled alcoholism — it started in his early 20s as a way of combating a "major depression."  His condition was exacerbated by his inability to find work — he had graduated as a chemist before returning to college to study law.

"I moved to Ireland in 2006 and looked around. There were no alternatives to the traditional 12-step programmes here. There were at least five in the States. No one philosophy or programme suits everyone and I felt there needed to be an alternative in Ireland," he says.  A veteran of several recovery programmes, Stefan researched a number of groups and discovered LifeRing, a not-for-profit, peer-led, evidence-based recovery group operating in the USA, Australia and Sweden.

He was attracted by its practical structure — it was organised and used proven methods from cognitive behavioural therapy and reality/choice therapy, plus he liked its philosophy, which is based around the tenets of sobriety, secularism and self-help. "The secular nature of LifeRing is quite different to that of the traditional 12-step programme," he says. It’s not an atheist programme — it simply works on the principle that members can empower themselves: We have choice in our lives and we can learn to make better choices," he says. The other thing that attracted Stefan was its practicality. "We focus on the practicalities of everyday living in sobriety. Members don’t rehash the past. We care about your present and your future."

LifeRing meetings across Ireland
In the past three years, the group has set up branches in Cork, Belfast, Navan, and in Killorglin. For Maria, it provided the support she craved: "I got practical tips on how to stay sober — for example, enrolling in the 12-week outpatients’ addiction programme in Arbor House in Cork. I did that and it helped hugely. It was in the LifeRing sessions that I realised I’d been using alcohol to numb the pain for years — pain from the divorce, the loneliness, and bringing the children up on my own.

"I realised that I’d been drinking to avoid that pain, and it had turned me into an alcoholic. What I liked about the group was that all you have to do is focus on the present and on staying sober — you don’t have to go back into your past.  "It was incredible to have sober friends who will help you.  I like the lack of religion and I like the approach that LifeRing takes — you sit in a circle and everyone gets a chance to speak.  You just stick to what happened last week and how you’re going to get through next week — it’s very practical and focuses on how to stay sober this week. I’m now in early recovery, so I have to be very careful to steer clear of alcohol and of situations where alcohol is present."

Her home life has been transformed.
"My children are delighted. We do more things together now, and they respect me a lot more. I’m much happier," she says. "I’m only one of many — there are thousands of women out there who are secretly drinking their glass of wine at home. You have to be careful — it can get a grip on you." (Some details have been changed)

This article is reproduced from the original published in the paper on Thursday, June 07, 2012.  For the original article visit the Irish Examiner