Poetry saved my soul
As a successful fashion journalist, Christina Reihill spent the Eighties and early Nineties enjoying liquid lunches, company cars and all the other perks of high-flying London life. But it all fell apart around her once she shed her alcoholic crutch, she tells Ciara Dwyer, as her Soul Burgers Live work hits the stage
'My life is as near perfect as it could be," says Christina Reihill. "The best person I get on with is myself. That doesn't mean I always get on with myself but I am true to who I am, finally."
This has been a long time coming. When I meet Christina on a crisp November morning in her Monkstown home, she strikes me as a serene soul. Her voice is deep and she speaks in calm, measured tones. Beautiful scents of natural soap and candles waft through her house, which is like a comforting cave with its low ceilings and dimmed lighting. On the walls, she has written inspirational phrases in chalk; these help get her through the day, and life, even. As you pull the toilet chain, you see a list of rules on how to live. All are wise, but the final one is my favourite. It says, 'You will forget all these.' And indeed I have.
For five years, Christina worked as a psychotherapist. I picture her holding sessions in her home, listening to patients with compassion. She is big into listening. She says that it is so important to listen to others, to ourselves and to our instincts. She should know because she had to learn this the hard way. For many years, Christina did everything but listen to her feelings. Instead she ran away from herself. Self-destruction was the name of her game. She used drink and drugs to such a detrimental degree that she eventually ended up in the Rutland Centre. It was there that she admitted she was an alcoholic with a drug problem. (Having undergone extensive therapy there and afterwards, it is no great wonder that she went on to study psychotherapy.) She is also very articulate when talking about her problems. She has analysed herself and her addictions and has learnt how to look at them objectively.
"I lived in London and I had this hedonistic life which crashed horribly," she says. "The experience of treatment shed a lot of perception on who I was, what I should be and what I could be. As a diary, I started to write poetry. I was trying to crawl out of hell and I was finished with trying to impress everybody. Those days were over. In the Rutland I was accepted with my raw vulnerability. I lost a lot but it wasn't all lost. Once you admit you're lost, you're ready for the journey."
Christina's poetry is now in a book -- Soul Burgers. She and the actress Charlotte Bradley will take to the stage to perform the poems in Soul Burgers Live in the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire next Sunday, December 12. There will also be Irish musicians playing music chosen to blend with the poetry.
"The show is a spiritual journey from the death of addiction to the life of full functioning and fulfilment," she says. "Although it is about my life, it's a universal story ... Right now in this country, we're getting strangled by fear. There are parallels between the fear of addiction and the fear of change."
As she gets ready for the show, she is excited. Christina is full of hope and she believes that with hard work, anything is possible, as long as she stays sober. It's one day at a time.
But it is best to begin at the beginning. In her enthusiasm, she dashes through her life, as if I am privy to all the events down through the years. Some she has told me about briefly in a phone conversation. Christina Reihill was a high-flying journalist in London in the Eighties and early Nineties. She worked for Vogue and other publications where she enjoyed lavish perks like a company car and a company credit card. Lunch, and many of them were liquid ones, was on her bosses. For many years she was a functioning alcoholic. But she thinks part of the reason that she drank was that she had strayed so far away from her true self. No longer was she the daring young girl she had been while growing up in Blackrock. That spirit had long faded.
Born 48 years ago, she is one of six children. Her father, John Reihill, a Dubliner, was in the oil business. Emer Collins, her Cork- born mother, was a housewife and distant relation of Michael Collins.
"Maybe that's where I got my rebellious streak," says Christina.
"I'm joint second-youngest. I am twin to a boy. I was born five minutes after my brother. I was smaller than him and I had to stay in an incubator for five weeks. There's something in that. I believe that's why my home is the way it is. It is a cave; my haven."
Their house was full of music and song. Christina used to joke that her mother was in love with two men -- her father and Frank Sinatra. The latter's music was always playing in the house.
"We had a lovely garden and a lovely home. It was idyllic. I was a quiet little girl and dreamy too. I wanted to be a vet when I grew up because I loved animals. But I was spirited too."
At school, Christina set up a little gang -- The Gogo Gang. The special members wore a red badge, but to qualify for this they had to prove that they were physically courageous. This would usually involve doing something daring like leaving something by a nun's bed.
It was a happy childhood until the day Christina was on a 10-mile walk with her school.
"I remember that I was eating crisps and this big, black car rolled towards us. I recognised that it was my grandfather's car and my uncle was in it, and a housekeeper. My knees gave way."
They told her that her mother had died. She was only 36. Emer had been diagnosed with cancer four years prior to that.
"There was a finality about our last meeting," Christina says, "a tension in the air. We are told so much -- if we listen to the cues. I was a little girl and I think people were trying to protect me but it left me worse. A huge amount is spoken in silence. It's more of a sensing than a knowing. I remember not being able to breathe. "
When her mother died, it was like a cleaver had come down on her life. She was only 10. "It was an abrupt end to my childhood. Like a feral animal, I felt very exposed and unprotected. I remember singing that song, I'll Never Fall in Love Again, and promising myself that I wouldn't fall in love again because I would get very hurt."
Christina's father was devastated. Left with six children between the ages of nine and 15, his way of coping was to take the family away on a cruise two days after his wife had died. They were gone for three weeks.
"I thought it was very exotic. It was like an adventure. We were on this boat with black people. The first night we stopped in the Isle of Man and we met a friend of my father's and she was quite bohemian. I liked that. My mother's illness was sobering for me because I spent a lot of time with her when she was sick. When she was in pain at night-time, I was with her. I was a very dedicated follower of Mummy. When she died, as bizarre as this sounds, at some level I felt I'd failed her because no matter what I said or did, she couldn't live any longer."
Years later, Christina's brother told her that she didn't have a monopoly on grief. All the children grieved in their own way, but Christina regards her mother's death as a turning point in her life. Her father remarried a year later. His new wife, Ann, a widow with three children, moved into their house and an entirely different life began. It was decided that all the children should go to the same school, in Bray. Plunged into this new world, Christina felt displaced. After she completed her Leaving Cert, she went to a finishing school in Windsor and it was there that a teacher took Christina aside and told her that she would be much more suited to doing media studies in London. The teacher was right, and off she went.
From there, Christina worked hard and eventually ascended the heights of the journalism world, specialising in fashion retail. As she says herself, "life was fabulous". During those golden years, she met Mark Inglefield, a handsome writer who shared Christina's love of poetry. They worked together on a satirical magazine called The Digger. He was to become her husband. While living in this supposed promised land, her drinking got out of hand. She drank during the day, drank while driving and once woke up behind the steering wheel. Soon she was losing jobs over her inability to function. When she would wake up with a shaking hand, she didn't associate this with her dependency on drink. She had been drawn to alcohol because she liked how it made her feel. Eventually it stopped working its magic on her. Also it had done irreversible damage to her marriage. She and Mark parted.
One night she decided that if she broke her promise to herself that she would only have a few glasses of wine, she would call a group who do a 12-step programme. She drank too much and eventually she was on her knees at home, crying and praying to her grandmother.
She phoned the group and soon she found herself in a draughty room with stale biscuits and stewed tea, meeting kind people who called her by her name. "It had been a long time since someone had called me by my name."
This was the beginning of her road to recovery and eventually led her to the Rutland Centre in Dublin. Her ever-supportive father told her: "You must do whatever it takes to sort yourself out." And she did.
"In the Rutland there's nowhere to hide. It makes you terribly aware of who you are inside. It puts a footlight on your internal thinking. It's quite shocking when you realise how deluded I was."
She has been sober for 15 years. That time and distance has allowed her to examine her recovery. She even laughs at how much she deluded herself while there.
"I told them that I had a drink problem and then they asked what about drugs. I told them that wasn't a problem. I didn't do them often, just cocaine two or three times a week. They told me I needed to look at that. "
"It's one thing knowing you're an alcoholic, it's another thing accepting it. When friends and family came in -- as part of the therapy sessions -- and told me what I had been like, I had to sit and listen. There was shame and remorse and the worst part was not knowing there was a way back. I had gone so far. That was the most frightening part of addiction. Then there was the dawning. The truth seeps into your bones and you don't want to be that person anymore."
And so she changed and worked on herself. In the Rutland, she wrote her poetry to help herself but friends told her that it had a universal meaning. The poems are about pain, loss of identity, fear and finally finding your true self.
Christina Reihill has survived many dark nights of the soul. She faced her addictions and a heartbreaking divorce. Yet she has come out of it all a new woman, strong and full of hope.
"Everything is possible. Anything is possible," she says
Soul Burgers Live is at the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire, 5pm, on Sunday, December 12. Tickets €15. Call (01) 231-2929 or visit www.soul-burgers.com, www.paviliontheatre.ie