It may have escaped your notice given how quickly and quietly it has crept up on us, but we are already half way through February. It only seems like yesterday we were hastily bundling all the Christmas decorations into shabby cardboard boxes, bound for the back corner of the attic until the far-off time when we would need them again. Or so we thought. At this rate, we will be making the accent again sooner than we can comprehend.
Of course, before Christmas does roll around again, we must first contend with the other holidays that generate a bit of buzz throughout the year. Recently we had one that divides opinion each year. I’m talking of course about the feast of Saint Valentine, the patron saint of love.
When I say Valentine’s Day divides opinion, it’s usually because everybody associates it with over-the-top, soppy declarations of undying love accompanied by people outdoing one another with expensive gifts. It’s either your thing or it’s not.
But who is to say that Valentine’s Day needs to be all about schmaltzy couples flaunting their love for one another? Couldn’t (and shouldn’t) the day be about celebrating all the people in your life that you love, and foregoing needless gifts in favour of something more meaningful?
Well, one lady who is doing just that is Irish actress Rachel Sarah Murphy, who many will recognise from her sixteen years playing the feisty Jo Fahey on the popular RTÉ soap Fair City. As the new year came in to being, she made a resolution to be alcohol free in 2017. It’s certainly a big decision, especially given our country’s love of everything from a glass of Chablis to a pint of the famous black stuff. But it is something Rachel is passionate about, and she has been continuing her journey post January, which is usually the time most people throw in the towel.
So why decide to undertake such a challenge, and keep it going for the rest of the year? For Rachel, the answer is two-fold.
“I just thought to myself, you get one life and it is not a rehearsal, and there is so much to see and do, and I want to experience it without hangover getting in the way. More importantly, I’m a single mother to a beautiful little girl, my Lolly, who deserves to have her mother with her one hundred percent and ready to go out and do fantastic things together. I’d spent too many Sundays trying to lift my head off the pillow with a hangover, and I didn’t like the way it made me feel”.
In addition to raising her young daughter, Rachel also owns and operates the successful Irish Film Academy, an acting and film production school in Dublin, where it was founded over ten years ago, and a newly opened branch in her native Cork. Days are filled with auditioning actors hoping to gain a place on the variety of courses on offer, and overseeing classes to impart her wealth of advice and experience gained from her training at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York, which she won a place at when she was 19, and also the New York Film Academy where she trained in film making.
The idea to open the school came about twelve years ago when she decided to take a break from her role on Fair City, and visited London to undertake some training behind the camera, something she says strengthened her skills as an actress. It was here that she met David Pope, the head of education at the American Academy of Dramatic Art, who encouraged her to open an acting for camera school in Ireland. Upon returning home, the Irish Film Academy popped into her head one morning, and she knew it was something she wanted to pursue.
“I was doing a four-week intensive directors course, and the head of education came up to me after and said, ‘why don’t you think about opening up a school like this in Ireland?’ And I immediately said, what! Then I came home, and at seven o’clock one morning, I woke up and thought: ‘Irish Film Academy’. So, I bought every domain name possible online and I just thought, what am I about to begin?”
Once her mind was made up, there was no stopping her. Rachel re-mortgaged the house, got a car loan and just went for it without looking back. “Money is never the problem, it’s the excuse”, she says. “I just got all of those things in hand, and I opened up the Academy”.
Between running an acting school, working long hours on Ireland’s favourite soap and raising a toddler, who could blame her for wanting a drink or two in the evenings to unwind and relax? Though not an alcoholic, Rachel says she can identify with those people who look forward to ‘Wine o’clock’. Or, as it was in her case before deciding to kick the habit, G&T o’clock.
And though Rachel loved a G&T, she didn’t like how it made her feel afterwards. Many reading this might be shocked to hear that she suffers with anxiety issues and panic attacks, given her confident, positive, go-getter persona. It’s something she has always been honest about, and never shied away from talking about it.
“I suffer with anxiety and panic attacks, and often I would think that a glass of wine or a G&T would relax me. And, yes, it would to an extent. But, the reality is the next day the anxiety would come back double time, and on top of that I’d feel guilty about not being able to spend time with Lolly”.
Though never a chronic drinker, Rachel has much experience with alcoholism, having been raised by an alcoholic and previously been involved in a relationship with another. She likens alcoholism to being trapped in some sort of tumble dryer, spinning around and around until it is hard to get out of it. Knowing that other people may be concerned with where their consumption was taking them, and people who like her just wanted to take on the challenge to go alcohol free and needed to feel like they had a bit of support, she decided to vlog her experience using Facebook, which led to a page dedicated to her journey gaining almost 5,000 followers in a matter of weeks.
“I just decided I’d do it, and suddenly it just went ballistic. My friend PJ Coogan from The Opinion Line on Cork’s 96FM wanted to do a little bit on it, people started to get involved, friends of mine who have been off the booze for over sixteen years came on board to offer advice.”
The vlogs have resonated with people so much that Rachel is receiving between 50-100 private messages every day from people keen to follow in her footsteps. Trying to reply to them all can be difficult, but she enjoys connecting with them, and hearing their individual stories, which are both happy and sad at different times. Of course, all this adds an extra pressure to not fall back into old habits, but it is a pressure Rachel is happy to bare.
“I’m delighted I’ve done it. I just must stick with it now. I can’t go out somewhere now and have a glass of wine and not be caught. Somebody with a mobile phone will have me up on Facebook as quick as anything, and I’d be fecked”.
It’s easy to see why Rachel and her challenge has inspired a reaction; she is equal parts unflinchingly honest and positive, and it is that which makes people follow the vlogs and take up the mantle themselves. The experience has also highlighted an issue that she feels needs to be addressed. For people suffering with full-blown alcoholism, there is support systems in place such as Alcoholics Anonymous, to help with the difficult times. She feels that more support systems need to be made available for people who are not full blown alcoholics but have concerns about drinking, where they can meet like-minded individuals, and learn how to drink responsibly where there is no hangover or guilt the next day.
“I really think that is key. If somebody out there thinks a support group is a great idea and could go about setting one up, I take my hat off to them. I just don’t have the time at the moment, but maybe sometime soon in the future I will. There should be a support group out there for people who are not alcoholics, but are concerned about their drinking because it could stop them making the short walk into alcoholism”.
For now, Rachel is content to keep going with her challenge and to keep sharing it online. But she admitted she will not be too hard on herself if she does fall off the wagon once or twice at some point, and stresses to everyone following the vlogs that they shouldn’t be too hard on themselves either. Her motto is there is no success in this life without failure, and if we are not prepared to fail, we cannot hope to succeed.
“We all stumble, she says, and that’s one thing I don’t agree with AA on, when they say that when you stumble, you go back to day one. Because there are all these fantastic days before hand, they have to count for something”.
One commenter who is following the Vlogs has suggested doing a 5K run, for a chance to all meet up and keep each other going, an idea Rachel thinks is fantastic. Though she might have to run the 5K in Dublin, Cork and wherever else her followers arrange, which will have her exhausted she jokes, it will be a chance to “get fit and cut back on the chocolate”.
“I don’t know if I’ll go back to drinking after 2017. I’m going to see what I can achieve this year without alcohol in my life, and with Lolly, and I think that will be massive. And if I achieve beyond mine and Lolly’s wildest dreams, I know I won’t go back to it. I’m in this until New Year’s Eve 2017, and I would love for anyone who wants to, to come join us”.
If you’d like to see and hear more from Rachel, you can follow her here.