Binge-drinking during the Victoria Day weekend in Canada is nothing new. Irish author Catherine Barry knows all about heavy drinking. The reformed alcoholic documents the horrors of rehab and recovery in her 2011 book, Charlie And Me (New Island).
More than a chart of frightening addiction, the book outlines her relationship with her Alcoholic Anonymous sponsor, Charlie Gallagher, and the ways he helped bring awareness to her life as a woman, a writer, and an addict.
“My first book, The House That Jack Built, (published in 2001) was all about alcoholism and my journey into drinking,” she explains, on the line from her North Dublin home, “and I had already done that. Charlie And Me is a book about recovery. I wanted to write about what happens when you stop drinking. The more I read of these accounts from celebrities and such, they (have) this happy ending and they weren’t very truthful. I was trying to write about recovery and what it’s like to stop drinking, and how hard it is, and that’s really what I honed in on, and wanted to show people.”
The reader is drawn into Barry’s tumultuous inner and outer worlds as she battles boyfriends, bills, and inner demons, with Charlie providing sage-like wisdom throughout. Far from being a side-character, Charlie -and his words - are central to the book, and to appreciating the journey Barry takes throughout its pages. The work is deeply poetic and wildly personal, a choice the author says was intentional.
“I wrote a very difficult book I knew would be problematic around my family,” Barry confesses. “It looks like it was written very easily, but there were loads of drafts. I did contact (Charlie’s) family about (it) and got their blessing, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t step over the line of disclosing anything about anybody other than myself, which is a difficult task.”
The romantic ideal of writers, especially Irish writers, smoking and drinking late into the night, scribbling (or typing) their genius tomes, is far from reality, and, for Barry, is something she can’t relate to. Rather, Barry is more interested in exploring the dense, difficult terrain of addiction and recovery, carefully examining the ties alcoholism has to depression, suicide, and psychiatric illness. Though it was scary to share certain details of her life in print, the hardest part was developing an authentic voice as a writer.
New Island Books
Catherine Barry's book is a moving account of not only her battles with alcoholism but her relationship with her sponsor, Charlie Gallagher.
“I was always uncertain about it... insecure, as are most writers/artists/actors,” she ponders. “It seems to be a common thing we all feel.” She pauses, carefully weighing her words. “I wanted to contribute something... with substance... and I really found that in Charlie And Me. I’m a lot happier with the kinds of things I’m writing now. They’re meaningful and they’re helping people, they’re contributing something.”
That feeling stands in direct contrast to Barry’s experiences writing fiction through the aughties. “I was pushed into this chick-lit corner by the publisher I had, and I didn’t really belong in that, or the literary category either,” she says, sighing. “Unfortunately, (in Ireland), there’s only the two, though people are getting about more open-minded about that now.”
Poetry is a big part of Charlie And Me, filled with winding, lyrical language that was directly influenced by Barry’s passionate love of music.
“My first love was music,” she states. “I did some singing in my younger years and played the piano, joined a few bands. I initially wanted to be a musician. But, to be honest, with the way my drinking went, I would’ve died in that business.”
Still, poetry was the author’s “starting-point... and Charlie saw that,” she says, her voice softening. “ I was so low in my own confidence at the time, feeling very bad about myself ...and he planted that seed of trying to do something more than poetry and moving on to short stories and all that... I actually had a beautiful poem he wrote about me called “The Crossword Girl,” which was initially the title of the book.”
Though it’s been over ten years since Charlie’s passing, Barry thinks of Charlie often, and she keeps his poetry as inspiration.
“He was rare - I knew he was rare. I can honestly say that with my hand on my heart. The only other person who’s had that profound an impact is my own father - and in a lot of ways they were probably similar -different people, but similar in their tenderness and warmth. Charlie never judged me. Never. It was rare.”