I Couldn't Stop ...

From Good Housekeeping

Frances Black is now one of Ireland's top-selling female recording artists, but 10 years ago she was a secret alcoholic, married and bringing up two small children while steadily drinking a large bottle of wine a night...

When I told my family I was an alcoholic they found it hard to believe. They said, 'You're not an alcoholic, Frances, we've never seen you badly drunk.' People have an image of alcoholics lying in bed all day but I didn't drink in the morning; I wouldn't reach out for vodka first thing. I looked fine. I was looking after my kids, then five and seven, getting them up for school and dressing them and making them lunch and picking them up. But all the time I was preoccupied with when I could have a drink. I'd think, 'Oh, it's seven o'clock soon, dinner time.

I started drinking when I got married. The marriage was a mistake; I got pregnant when I was 19 and I knew it wasn't the right thing but there was pressure from my family. I was a very immature 19, not like 19-year-olds today who travel the world. I hadn't a clue what was going on in my own head. Neither of us was ready for the financial and emotional responsibility of marriage, and we weren't ready for each other. We split up in 1985, but during that time I became very comfortable with drink.

I'd always have a bottle - a very large bottle - of wine with dinner. Sometimes I'd buy a few cans of beer to drink in front of the TV, and at the weekends I would get a babysitter in and go out. I'd drink three or four pints, but it was part of normal social life.

I drank from loneliness. When you have two small children and things aren't working with your partner you can feel very alone. I was with the children all day, had no communication with anyone else, and when my husband came home we'd fight. Drinking just numbed the pain and removed the ache, or at least got rid of it until the next morning.

I started drinking even more during the separation and tried to get babysitters all the time so I could go out with my friends. I suppose I was more keen to get on to the next pint than anyone else, and I'd drink the first one very fast.The first two, really - it generally took a couple of pints before I felt settled and could sit and talk.

Christmas 1985 was very lonely for me.The children and I spent the day at my mother's with my brother and sister and the rest of the family, but in the evening I had to return to an empty house on my own. I put the children to bed and sat there, with no television, and I just drank. My life felt more like an existence: I went through the motions but there was nothing inside. I thought it would never get better.

In 1986 I met my current partner, Brian. I never even dreamt someone like him existed. When he came on the scene I hated men. The break-up with my ex-partner had been very bitter, all my friends were going through awful times and I thought there was no one out there who would treat me with the respect I wanted. From the moment we met we were an item, but I was very nervous. I had put a huge barrier in front of me, and the shutters were down. But he loved me and he made me feel worthwhile rather than worthless. It took a year but in the end he got through.

I think Brian knew from the beginning that he could never have any control over me or my drinking. He never raised an eyebrow about it. If he had, I would have reacted by drinking more. At the end of the day he knew it was my problem. But after a while, I could see he was getting disillusioned. He had this sad look on his face and it made me sad, too. Finally I was worried I'd lose him so I decided to give up drinking.

It didn't work. I lasted a week, but when the weekend came I gave in. Without alchohol I felt like part of me had died. I couldn't talk to people and I felt I had nothing to live for. lt was only then that I realised I couldn't 'just give it up'. It had become the only way I could talk to people socially. I was shy. If I ever bumped into anybody in the street I felt embarrassed and stuttery and my sentences wouldn't make sense. But when I was drinking I'd open my heart to people and tell stories. I was great company.

It wasn't right with the kids, though. If they woke up in the night and came into my room, I'd stay asleep and in the mornings I would be tired, irritable and nasty. They were always late for school. I would get up and start shouting around the house. I shudder to think of it now.

Soon after trying to give up, I read an article in The Irish Times by a journalist about her alcoholism. It was like looking at a mirror image of myself. She'd come home in the evening and drink a gin and tonic before dinner then wine with her meal and a brandy to finish off. And when she tried to stop she couldn't, so she went for help. A phone number and details were at the bottom of the piece. I rang and made an appointment.

I walked in to see the counsellor and said,'I'm not an alcoholic. I know you deal with alcoholics all the time but I'm not one. But I want to give up drink.' She asked me to fill out a form and to be honest 'for my own good'. She read it and said,'Frances, there's no doubt in my mind you are an alcoholic and you need help.' I was shocked. I told her I didn't think I'd be able to do the AA course because I'd just joined a band. She said,'Frances, you need to do this course for the sake of yourself, your health, your husband and your children. If you tell the band, they'll understand.' It was difficult to explain to people but, although they were surprised, they did understand. One of the band members was an ex-alcoholic, so that helped.

The next month was the hardest of my life. It was like losing my best friend. I felt like I'd lost my left leg and couldn't walk. I had no crutch, nothing to lean on. My sister and brother and I are close, and my mother was supportive, but they didn't eat, drink and sleep my alcoholism. It was my problem, something that I had to deal with. It was scary having to take a look at my life. Other people's stories were horrific. I didn't realise how much my drinking would have affected my kids. I decided I didn't want my children to be like me: insecure, not being able to deal with people, having no communication skills. I wanted them to be stronger, more secure, confident people. It was hard, but I felt I couldn't go backwards. And my relationship with my son and daughter changed dramatically. I spent less time making them look gorgeous and more time talking to them, just being there for them. They don't seem to have any bad memories, but they must remember me being a bit more cross.

If I hadn't stopped drinking I shudder to think what my children's lives would have been like. Or my own. I think I'd have had a go at the band but I don't think I'd have been successful. People wouldn't have taken to me.When I sobered up I became more honest I learnt that it was okay to be yourself, that it was okay to blush or stutter or make a. fool of yourself, that most people understand.

I began to see that we could all make mistakes and that it really didn't matter - the band liked me anyway. I still get depressed and low, but each time I come out of it stronger. I'm beginning to realise that you have to let go of things that don't work. Everybody feels bad at different levels; it's very easy to turn to drink or drugs to get rid of the pain, but you have to face the problem. I still have difficult times, but now it's all just part of life. I enjoy what I have. I have two beautiful children and a wonderful husband and anything else is just a bonus on top.

Frances Black's new album Don't Get Me Wrong is out now on Sony.

If you're worried about your relationship with alcohol, ring the Alcoholics Anonymous helpline (0171 -352 3001, I0am-10pm daily).