‘I became a slave to drink - sleeping in a cardboard box, weighing six stone’

Tony Donovan at the Right Key's workshop
Tony Donovan at the Right Key's workshop

As s a young man Tony Donovan had the same hopes and aspirations as many of us, however his addiction to alcohol took him on a journey of self-destruction which led to him living on the streets of Dublin in a cardboard box, suffering both physically and mentally.

Tony, who now lives in Belfast, has now turned his life around thanks to the Recovery Café in Dromore and Right Key, a group dedicated to helping those recovering from the pain of personal problems.

The 70-year old has ended his love affair with drink and is happy and looking forward to life.

Reflecting on the path his life took Tony said: “When I think back to when I was 18 or so, I had the same ambitions as anyone else - to have a good job in life, and to meet a nice girl, get married and settle down, and probably have a few children. But my addiction was to take me on a completely different journey than what I had wished for. I’ve been through hell, I’ve been to hell and back.”

For years, Tony was able to hide his issues with drink. He worked successfully in a variety of jobs and on the surface, everything seemed fine but like many addicts his decline was gradual.

“I had some good jobs in my life and I worked very hard. I worked in accountancy, I was an assistant auctioneer, believe it or not. I became a manager of a hotel in London and I was there for many, many years,” continued Tony.

“I was still functioning at that time, and my addiction hadn’t really took a hold of me.

‘‘I then came back home and worked as a manager of a pub in Rush, Co Dublin for six or seven years, and then I lost that job through my addiction.

“I wasn’t working, and my addiction was getting stronger and stronger. It didn’t happen overnight but my addiction took over my life and I became a slave to drink. It got so bad that I ended up on the streets of Dublin.

‘‘I was drinking bottles of wine, and I was sleeping out in a cardboard box. My physical health suffered very badly as a result of it. I was physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually wrecked.”

“Drink took everything away from me – it nearly took my life. A few years ago I had been drinking so heavily that my whole system collapsed. My liver was affected and I was down to six stone from being on the streets and not eating and just drinking all the time.”

Despite the desperate downward spiral of Tony’s life he never gave up hope that he could find a way to break his addiction. Everyone used to think that there was no hope for me,” he added. “But I said there’s no such thing as no hope and that’s why I went into rehabilitation in Cuan Mhuire (a charitable drug, alcohol and gambling rehabilitation organisation) in Newry.”

It was just after he’d finished the programme around three and a half years ago that Tony met Sheila Smyth from the Right Key and this proved to be the catalyst for change.

Sheila persuaded Tony to get involved with the group, initially singing in a choir they’d set up called Voice of Recovery.

“I never sang in my life,” continued Tony. “I was always full of fear, and my confidence was gone. Sheila used to come out to Cuan Mhuire to do singing workshops. She said music gave people hope so I went and I joined in. Eventually I got stronger, my fear left me, and my confidence came back.

“Bit by bit my health came back - I was at death’s doorstep. I’m not being dramatic, I’m giving you exactly the truth as it was. I didn’t think I would’ve pulled through, but after I got involved with the Right Key, my health got better, but above all my outlook got better. Even at my age, I want to make the most of life.”

The Recovery Café proved to be an invaluable lifeline for Tony and now he is involved in a project which, thanks to the generosity of the public who play the National Lottery, received £159,409 from the Big Lottery Fund’s People and Communities programme.

Through it people affected by addiction learn new craft skills including guitar making, and come together with others for support and friendship.

They are also putting together a Book of Recovery telling people’s deeply personal stories.

“I would never have seen myself learning how to make a guitar and doing arts and crafts,” said Tony. “I’m discovering new gifts that I never really realised I had.

“I love coming out to the workshop. Everyone here is at one with themselves. We have a purpose in life, and something to look forward to. The dream that we had has been fulfilled and it’s going to go on and get stronger.”

Now with a real purpose in life, Tony has everything to look forward to.

He now lives in a one bedroomed apartment, has his friends and the Recovery Café there to support him and he will share his story in the Recovery Book.

“Drink took everything away from me, it nearly took my life but today is a different story. I am sober, I am happy, I am healthy, I have a purpose”, Tony concluded.

“Thanks to the Recovery Café and the Big Lottery funded project I have all the help and support I need on a daily basis. I am full of gratitude that I’m alive and well.”