Frances Black, the founder of the RISE Foundation, which is helping families cope with addiction and showing that the impacts of addiction go far beyond the addict.
Earlier this year, Ireland’s Health Services Executive published a survey called “Alcohol’s Harm to Others in Ireland.” Among the primary findings of the study was the fact that at least a quarter of the population (28% to be precise, over 1.2 million people), drinkers and non-drinkers alike, had reported being affected by someone else’s drinking, whether at work, at home, or in public. “Problem alcohol use,” the study concluded, “can no longer be framed in the realm of personal responsibility.”
What the study did not examine however, was the extent to which this harmed population was affected. Similarly, it was beyond the scope of the research to prescribe suggestions that would aid those, either directly or indirectly, harmed by another’s drinking. Filling these gaps between diagnosis, prescription, and recovery for the last five years has been the RISE Foundation, founded in 2009 in Dublin by Frances Black.
Black, who left school at the age of 15 and by 17 was performing full-time with The Black Family and later Arcady, herself suffered from alcohol addiction and has long been open about her own recovery process. Part of that process was educating herself about addiction, and in 2004 she returned to college and graduated as an addiction counselor. “As part of my college course I had to do some training,” she explains. “So I trained in the Rutland Centre with the renowned addiction specialist and Clinical Director at the time, Stephen Rowen.” (Rowen now works as a senior therapist with RISE.)
It was working with addicts themselves in the Rutland Centre that alerted Black to the necessity of programs for family members. She recognized that stress and worry were quickly turning into extreme and sometimes paralyzing anxiety among those who were bringing their kin into the center.
“No matter how many times they may ask them to stop, unfortunately their loved one in addiction just can’t hear them,” she says. “Family members feel like they are grieving for the person they are losing to addiction. So I decided that these family members needed their own separate support and therapy from qualified addiction therapists; that it was important they had their own program to learn to deal with the stress and anxiety of living with someone in addiction.”
It has long been common knowledge that problem drinking harms the problem drinker. But often elided in giving treatment to the individual is the treatment of their family and friends. Perhaps most famously, Alcoholics Anonymous includes making amends in their 12-step process, and began Al-Anon as a spin-off group to help those with a friend or family member going through AA understand and aid in the process. In Ireland too these types of tandem programs exist and there are many peer support groups, but RISE is unique in that its sole purpose is to treat the family members of those suffering from addiction.
While alcohol addiction may get the most publicity in Ireland and is the addiction most commonly seen at RISE, Black recognizes that it isn’t the only addiction facing the nation, and the center is dedicated to all forms of addiction, including gambling and drugs.
The statistics are staggering. For every one person diagnosed with an addiction in Ireland, research suggests, there are at least six others in their lives who also suffer. Often times, if addiction is genetic, the family members themselves will turn to substance abuse to cope. It is that cycle which the RISE foundation seeks to break.
In 2012, Dr. Garrett O’Connor wrote in this magazine of five generations in his family, including himself, who used alcohol as a coping mechanism, both for their own psychological traumas, but also for those caused by witnessing and being powerless to help family members who were addicted to alcohol.
In Ireland, Black argues, alcohol abuse is more than a genetic or a familial inheritance. It stems from a culture of tolerance and what she, citing Dr. O’Connor, calls “malignant shame.”
“We use alcohol as a way to escape from hundreds of years of carrying this toxic emotion.”
“Because of malignant shame,” O’Connor wrote, “there is often a tendency to keep the behavior of problem drinkers a secret from the outside world. Under these circumstances of silence and denial, the family can become seriously isolated from the community, and dangerously deprived of vital access to dependable sources of emotional support and growth.” But where O’Connor sought to break the cycle of silence, Black seeks to break the culture of tolerance and family isolation. By bringing families together, she and RISE seek to “support families impacted by a loved one’s addictive behavior through awareness, education and therapy, and to combat the associated shame and stigma,” according to the foundation’s mission statement.
“The RISE Foundation helps to reduce anxiety, stress, and confusion (and often times denial) for the family members,” Black says of the foundation. But just how does RISE accomplish this? First off, she says, it empowers family members to identify, and preempt, how addictive behaviors can impact the family, and what they can do to take care of themselves simultaneously.
Secondly, and more importantly to the organization’s mission, RISE challenges family members to understand the cultural constructs in Ireland that led to the addiction of their loved one and teaches them to recognize their limits of responsibility and control.
“Family members learn that they can’t control a loved one’s addictive behavior, they didn’t cause it, and they can’t cure it. By becoming aware of the beliefs and experiences that shape their own behaviors, participants identify new, healthy ways of coping with addiction and relationships.”
What is unique about this approach is RISE’s emphasis on education as well as therapy, operating on the assumption that knowledge is cathartic. Of course, it is for the family members, most of whom had never defined their loved ones as alcoholics or chronic gamblers, or perhaps even considered using the term “addict,” prior to some of the sessions with RISE. Towards that end, RISE operates two distinct programs (in addition to one-on-one therapy), each with a distinct set of aims.
The first, and most attended, is a ten-week, non-residential, family program, “developed to create awareness and educate our families,” Black says. “The program is run one evening per week, for 3 hours per session. Each program is attended by up to 12 participants and is facilitated by 2 qualified and experienced RISE addiction counselors. The format is a combination of lectures and group therapy.” These sessions are run in centers in Dublin, Swords, Portlaoise and Kilkenny.
While the first program is most common and is run out of RISE’s Dublin and Belfast offices, the second program is only available by ferry – a five-day residential program that takes place in the Manor House on Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim. Black knows the island well, as her father was raised there.
“The island is a haven of peace and tranquility and its geographical location attracts people from all communities. The program runs from Sunday to Friday, several times a year. Each program is attended by up to 12 participants and is facilitated by 2 qualified and experienced RISE addiction counselors. The format, though similar to the non-residential program with a combination of lectures and group therapy, is more concentrated and intensive.”
Despite the huge success of the residency programs, Black and RISE are not content to stagnate; they aim to do much more with the island, where plans are underway to expand their facilities on Rathlin. They hope to develop “a dedicated addiction awareness and education center for family members and community workers,” she says, though they’re still struggling with funding due to the recession.
“There are two old lighthouse cottages on a really beautiful part of Rathlin and the Irish Lights Commissioners have agreed to lease them to us if we can get the funding to renovate them. This project could be life-changing for so many people in this wonderful country of ours as alcohol misuse is a huge problem.”
A center like this could be game-changing for Ireland, where 3.7 billion euro of government money is spent treating alcohol-related problems. Families need resources to deal with the effects of another’s addiction, and RISE has consistently provided that, but of equal importance is a brick-and-mortar educational resource that aims to effect both cultural and political change.
“I believe that it is important to look at issues around minimum pricing, [and in particular] alcohol being marketed in sporting and music events,” Black says. These kinds of policy changes may not be easy to come by if there is no centralized center like the one RISE proposes. It starts by looking at education and creating awareness. The HSE study was a significant one, but its findings are threatened with elision if work like Black’s ceases.
To learn more about the RISE Foundation and the Rathlin Island project, visit www.therisefoundation.ie
Phone: +353 01 764-5131