Sunday 26 January 2020

A moment of clarity in the midst of addiction: 'I'd been in that psychiatric ward so many times, I realised I couldn't do it again'

Phil Grant has experienced first-hand the horrors of addiction. But, he tells our reporter, no matter how awful your situation becomes, it can be turned around, especially when there are good supports in place

Phil Grant says with the right support, you can turn anything around. Photo: Dave Conachy
Phil Grant says with the right support, you can turn anything around. Photo: Dave Conachy

Joy Orpen

To certain individuals in the grip of an addiction, it may seem like things have come to a hopeless end. But the reality may be that their life is, in fact, filled with "endless hope". This lateral way of thinking comes from a dynamic Scot, who epitomises the man-version of Cinderella. Though once homeless thanks to alcoholism, he is now working in a lovely castle in Ireland.

Phil Grant (47) was born into a Roman Catholic community in a part of Scotland known as 'Little Ireland'. His parents, were decent, honest people, who worked hard all their lives. However, it would seem that alcoholism played a significant part in their genetic make-up. But that fact was rarely mentioned.

"My father was an alcoholic. When I was five, he had a breakdown following the death of his mother; I now believe he also suffered from a lot of depression throughout his life," Phil explains. "But back then, that sort of thing wasn't spoken about. It was a case of, 'Don't talk, don't feel and don't trust'."

Over the years, the problems increased. Finally, when Phil was an impressionable 15-year-old, his father took his own life. Even though it was a most devastating event, it didn't prevent Phil's downward spiral of self-destruction. "I was already an alcoholic," he volunteers. "I was blacking out, getting arrested, and causing a lot of trouble." At the time, he was working as a gardener. He was paid on a Thursday, but, by Friday, he was penniless again, and he was effectively homeless.

"I ended up dossing anywhere and everywhere I could," he says. "It was confusing and very lonely. I couldn't understand why my life was going so badly, and I definitely couldn't see a solution." Over the next few years, Phil's existence was characterised by excessive drinking, drugs, depression, anxiety, arrests and many periods in hospital.

Eventually, he joined a group of people who were using the Twelve Steps to Recovery programme (originally founded by Alcoholics Anonymous). For the next seven years, he did attend group meetings, but he also drank heavily. And even though he continued drinking, he believes the influence of the group was crucial. "I felt drawn to members of this mutual-aid group, who were not just talking about their problems, they were doing so in a spiritual way, asking for guidance from a higher power," Phil says. (Here, Phil makes it clear that he is not affiliated to any religious group or culture; he says he gets his spiritual inspiration, which is very important to him, from many differing sources.)

So on September 10, 1993, when he was 24 years old, Phil, yet again, landed up in a psychiatric ward after 10 days lost to drink. And though he had tried and failed on many occasions to get sober, this time, things were different.

Finally, he'd had enough. "I'd been in that psychiatric ward so many times, I realised I couldn't do it again," he says vehemently. "I didn't want any more broken relationships with girls or my family. I'd say that was the clearest thought I'd had for years."

As a result, Phil went "cold turkey"; he gave up alcohol and illegal drugs, while slowly being weaned off prescription medication. "Being sober was strange, like being on another planet," he recalls. He then dumped his drinking "buddies" and turned instead to his real friends, who would support his battle to get sober. And he began, with the help of counselling, to look inwards for the real reasons for his addictions. "I realised I had a lot of fear and social-anxiety problems," he offers, "and all that was probably complicated by growing up with an alcoholic father and the veil of secrecy in the house." By his own admission, Phil put in a lot of work, and continues to do so, to resolve the many issues that have dogged him over the years. One of the most important, was learning to be open about his feelings; eventually, he was able to help his mother do the same. He is delighted that they are now able to talk openly about the love they feel for one another.

For the next few years, Phil put the pieces of his life back in place on a practical level. He became a volunteer in a soup kitchen; he also helped out at Meals on Wheels and other voluntary organisations. He returned to education, and eventually went to college to become a counsellor. Having qualified in 1998, he then went on to get accreditation from Cosca, the Scottish regulating body, and he also achieved international accreditation as an addiction counsellor.

In 2004, Phil was awarded a postgraduate degree in counselling and supervision, at Caledonia University. Magnus Magnusson, who presented Mastermind on the BBC for 25 years, and who also happened to be chancellor of the university, put the cap on Phil's head. "That was a beautiful experience," he says. No doubt he was immensely gratified to be able to share the honour with his selfless mother, who had stood by him through all the tough times.

Phil is actually grateful for those early experiences. "I work with people living with addictions on a daily basis," he says, "and I feel they have respect for me because I've been there. So really, I've been given a great legacy through my father." And referring to the sense of despair he felt when early attempts to get sober failed, he says, "I believe alcoholics suffer a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. It may look like a hopeless end, but actually, there is endless hope. It's about changing things around." He has certainly proved the veracity of that point.

Soon after he qualified, Phil joined the staff at Castle Craig, a residential centre for the treatment of addictions in Scotland, which is run by Peter and Dr Margaret McCann. The McCanns, who have connections in Ireland, decided to set up a similar centre here. Having tastefully renovated Smarmore Castle in Co Louth, they opened the 22-bed unit last November.

Phil, who is divorced with one child, decided to join the operation here, as his girlfriend lives in Co Wicklow. He believes the location is perfect for anyone with an addiction, as it removes them from access to the habit that is causing them problems, be it drugs, alcohol or gambling.

The tranquil, rural setting also complements the various therapies and activities, which range from one-on-one counselling, to group sessions, walks around the leafy grounds and swimming in the indoor pool.

Oh, and let's not forget Phil's popular drumming circles. "I like opening up to universal energies," he concludes with a twinkle in his eye.

For more information, contact Smarmore Castle Private Clinic, near Ardee, Co Louth, tel: (041) 986-5080 or see

Sunday Indo Life Magazine

Editors Choice

Also in Life