Black from the Brink

By Lucy Smith
From Sunday Tribune

The fact that popular singer Frances Black is just about to release a new album and go on a nationwide tour, is something that she would not have believed possible three short years ago, when she found herself battling the demons she thought she had long since vanquished. It has been well-documented that Frances suffered with alcohol addiction in the mid 1980s, following a series of personal difficulties, including becoming a teenage mother, and the collapse of her hasty first marriage. However, it is only now that the singer is feeling strong enough to talk about the circumstances that led to her relapse in 2002, after 14 years of sobriety.

“I suppose that my addiction stemmed from my feelings of inadequacy and fear,” she admits, with the characteristic warmth and honesty that has endeared her to legions of fans. “I had a very bad impression of myself from a very young age, and I always had this image of myself as a failure, even when my first album went to number one and stayed there for ten weeks. Although I stopped drinking in 1988, I think I still had the mentality of an addict, and carried all of the resentments and anger that goes along with the disease of addiction.”

Frances is now very happily married to her second husband Brian, and she has two children, Eoghan (25) and Aoife (23). She was extremely close to her late mother Patty, from whom she and her well-known siblings, Shay, Michael, Mary and Martin, inherited their exceptional singing voices. When Patty became seriously ill in 2002, the pain of watching such a strong, vibrant woman deteriorate, mentally and physically, distressed Frances greatly. “Mammy was such a tower of strength to us all, and she had such a wonderful spirit and a heart of gold,” she says softly. “Watching her go downhill physically was really hard, but when the bouts of dementia started, it was the most heartbreaking thing for me. She needed 24 hour care, and I lived two doors away from her, so I’d go in and sit with her at night. There were times when she started getting confused, and would become really fearful and would plead with me to be taken home to her mammy. I’d be trying to reassure her the whole time, and it was really tough - it was the hardest thing of all to deal with.”

The stress of the situation was compounded by the fact that Frances’ father-in-law became ill and passed away around his time. “Brian’s dad was an amazing man, and we all missed him very much,” she says. “Mammy was getting worse all of the time, so we were both grieving for a parent who wasn’t going to recover.”

To alleviate the pain she was feeling, Frances went on a course of anti-depressants, and one of the side–effects she experienced was being unable to sleep at night. “I started taking sleeping tablets, and, for someone like me who has an addictive personality, it was just the worst thing I could do,” she says. “I got really dependent on them, and started to take them a lot. I became addicted, and then, when the pain got really bad, I ended up picking up a drink. I drank for about two days, and I was so frightened, because I realised that I didn’t know how to stop.”

Looking for advice on how to deal with the situation, Brian called an addiction counsellor that the couple knew, who suggested that Frances should go into a treatment centre. The singer was initially reluctant, until she came to an acceptance of the fact that she wasn’t going to be able to overcome the problem by herself.

“I went to a treatment centre in Castleisland in Kerry, and the journey down there was one of the bleakest of my life,” she recalls. “It was a really dark, miserable day, and I remember walking in the doors feeling absolutely petrified. I felt so ashamed because I thought I’d let my husband and children down, and I’d even let my fans down. I was just about to go on tour, and it had to be cancelled - I felt terrible about disappointing all the people who had bought tickets to see me perform.”

What Frances didn’t realise at this dark time in her life, was that she was at the beginning of a process that would ultimately lead her to a greater sense of hope and belief in herself. “Walking through those doors was the most amazing, life-changing experience for me,” she says. ”I got so much love, compassion and empathy there, and it gave me unbelievable strength. Addiction is a soul sickness, and I began to understand that I have a disease, and it was nothing to be ashamed of - it had just raised its ugly head again and I lost the power to handle it.”

After a month spent in Kerry, Frances returned home to continue the process of recovery. “Going back to reality without anything in my system was difficult,” she says, “but I went to aftercare in the Rutland Centre, which was the main thing that helped me stay clean and sober, even when my mother passed away. That, and the amazing love and support I get from my family and friends. I still have my doubts and feelings of inadequacy, so I have to be really careful to mind myself now, and not put myself in situations that will trigger my addiction again. I have to battle my negative thinking, so I’ve learned how to deal with the voices in my head telling me that I won’t be able to do a big gig, or cope with releasing a new album. I don’t have the same expectations of myself now, so I just do the best I can on a daily basis, and that’s a huge freedom for me.”

Apart from her flourishing international singing career, Frances is also in her second year of training to become an addiction counsellor. “I left school when I was 14, because I was terrified that I was going to fail my exams,“ she says. “Going back to college was a huge step, and it’s very hard and challenging, but I love it, and it has given me great confidence in my abilities that I can actually cope with it.”

Life is really good at the moment for Frances, who has twice been the winner of the IRMA award for Best Irish Female, She looks fantastic and radiant, and exudes positivity and enthusiasm about the release of her eight solo album. “I’m feeling great and really excited about it all,“ she smiles. “I’ve left behind all of the sadness and am full of hope, which I think comes through in the album. I called it after the title track, “This Love Will Carry,” because it was such a gorgeous song about how love can get you through life’s difficulties. It struck such a chord with me, because being surrounded by love and compassion was what got me through my darkest times.”

• Frances Black will perform at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on January 29th, the LIT Millennium Theatre, Limerick, on February 4th, and the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork on February 5th.See www.frances-black.net for full list of 20 Irish tour dates. Her new double album, “This Love Will Carry,” will be released on February 3rd.