The Irish trifecta - depression, anxiety, and booze. One man’s journey from the depths to letting the light shine in his life once more.

Six years ago, I wrote an article for the Irish Voice newspaper outlining my lifelong struggles with depression and anxiety. I talked about being hospitalized at a psychiatric facility in Ireland at age 20 just as my music career was taking off. I also discussed a more recent bout of depression in 2012 that necessitated a weeklong stay in a clinic near where I live in Pennsylvania. My message then was simple, there is always hope as long as you are open to getting help. I received a lot of feedback from the article especially from folks who were dealing with their own struggles.

As I re-read the article recently, I realized that I never mentioned my drinking. Since alcohol is a depressant, I was adding fuel to the burning fire within me. It was the elephant in the room and I was afraid if I addressed my drinking publicly, I’d be admitting I had a problem and would have to stop. I was in denial.

Drink and rock n’ roll in New York

I had my first drink at age 30. It was the mid-80s and I was living in Manhattan. I went to the dentist for a root canal. Things didn’t go so well, I was on the dentist chair for well over two hours. When I came out of the office it was pouring rain and I had that terrible post dentist congealed blood taste in my mouth. I tried to find somewhere to get a coffee. The first place I saw was an Irish bar. I went in and asked for a coffee. The guy looked at me like I had two heads and said they didn’t serve coffee. Without hesitation, I asked for an Irish Coffee. The first Irish coffee certainly took the horrible taste away—so much so that I decided a second one might not be a bad idea.

I have a vague memory of the subway ride back to my apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The Novocain was wearing off but I really didn’t care as the Jameson in the Irish coffee gave me a glow that made my entire body tingle. It was a totally new experience and I liked it.

At the time, I was the guitarist in the Sean Fleming Band at Fleming’s on 86th Street between 2nd and 3rd Ave. Fleming’s was a hot spot in New York with celebrities and people from all walks of life showing up each night. We were the resident band four nights a week. It was the dream gig for a musician.

I was recently divorced after six years of marriage. The band and Fleming’s staff were my support system and extended family. We were close and socialized together on a daily basis.

Living the life in New York City, playing music and loving it.

Living the life in New York City, playing music and loving it.

Every Thursday, a gentleman came into Fleming’s and sent a bottle of the most expensive champaign up to the stage for the band. I pretended to take a sip but a drop never passed my lips. After my experience with the Irish coffees, I decided to give the champaign a try. Once again, after a few glasses, I felt that inner glow and that tingling sensation. Within a few months, I had expanded my repertoire to include Remy Martin V.S.OP.  and Hennessy V.S.O.P.  Brandy—only the very best for Seamus.

I was older than most of Fleming’s staff. They watched in amusement as I got drunk for the first time and they saw me do all the stupid alcohol-related things that one normally might experience in their late teens and early twenties.

Life and soul of the party

Within the space of a few months, I went from being the introvert quiet guitar player at Fleming’s to being the life of the party, at least in my eyes. It wasn’t long before I was running up and down the bar each night playing guitar with a bottle of tequila or Jameson in one hand and taking a big slug directly from the bottle much to the delight of the growing crowds! That lasted for ten years. How am I still here?

Quickly, the drink took center stage in my life. Instead of feeling isolated from my drinking friends, as had been the case for most of my adult life, now I was part of the hip scene. I was invited to the cool parties, concerts, and sporting events partly because of the increasing notoriety of Fleming’s and my nightly bar walking and tequila slugging. My spiked hair, blonde highlights, the leather pants, and a forty-pound weight loss helped. I was living the dream. Thank God there was no Facebook or YouTube in 1987.

Drink – a problem

Despite all the fun the new Seamus was experiencing, even in those early stages, there were warning signs that the drink and I didn’t mix. I woke up many mornings not knowing how I got home the night before or what I said or did to embarrass myself. This is the perfect example of an alcoholic blackout. As the drinking progressed, the blackouts became more frequent and severe.

There is a history of alcohol abuse in my family. It was one of the reasons why I never took a drink until age thirty. I had seen first hand the damage it could do to those I loved the most. I was also scared that the drink would impact my already fragile mental state. But regardless, the drink took hold and when combined with my depression and anxiety, the results were lethal. The Irish Trifecta: depression, anxiety and booze took its toll.

Since I’m very public about my struggles with mental illness and addiction, I’m often asked when I first knew I was an alcoholic. The honest answer is from the very early stages of my drinking. I knew I was doing something that was detrimental to my physical and mental health. While I enjoyed the social aspect of drinking, I didn’t like the Seamus I became after too much drink. I had a constant feeling of remorse and guilt.

Out of control - when drinking became too much.

Out of control - when drinking became too much.

In 2007, after performing with Blackthorn at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, I went for a few drinks with friends. As we left the bar, I fell down two flights of cement steps and fractured my skull. I was medevaced to UPenn Trauma Center in Philadelphia where I spent two days in critical condition. I was scared to death and didn’t drink for a while, but my addiction took hold and I was back drinking after a few months.

Read more: Mental health resources in Ireland and the US

Masking the problem

I avoided admitting I had a problem for many years and because I hid it well, most people didn’t realize I had issues with the drink. After all, I held a job with a top band in New York.

I went back to college at New York University in 1987 and got a Masters degree in a rigorous Media Studies Program. In the 90s, I worked in the corporate world and quickly made my way up the ranks. Also, from 1996 till 2012, I was the lead guitar player with Blackthorn, one of the top Celtic rock bands in the country. In addition, I was an adjunct professor at New York University and Fordham University.

I managed to marry my beautiful wife Mary Pat in 1996 and we had four wonderful children. I was doing great, how bad could my drinking be? BAD! Behind the veneer of success and the blessings of a wonderful family, I struggled each day to keep my life together.

On Halloween 2014, my wife and I held a party for our children and their friends. The kids were getting too old for trick or treat so we held a party in our home with all kinds of games and fun activities. Before my wife got home from work, I had several nips of Jameson knowing a few glasses of wine was not enough to get me through the night. The party was a roaring success and the kids had a ball.

My wife was surprised at how “merry” I got after a few glasses of wine. As the parents arrived to pick up their children, she said, “It might be better if the parents don’t see you with the drink.” It was not said in a nasty or vindictive way, just more as a matter of fact. I went up to bed and fell asleep.

Asking for help

I woke the next morning and said to myself, I can’t live like this. I called my friend Mike Brill who is a fellow musician and an alcoholic. He had been sober for twelve years and is a Face and Voice of Recovery. I said, “Mike, I need help with the drink.” Within a few hours, he was in my living room and thus began my journey to sobriety.

Mike took me through the twelve-step program. It worked for me on many levels. It helped me examine how I got to where I was. It made me reflect on those impacted by my drinking over the years. As part of the program, I got in touch with those who I could and apologized for the hurt I caused. I talked to my own family and that was really hard. Also in keeping with the twelve steps mantra, I decided I would use my story to help others who struggle with addiction.

I did a lot of stupid stuff during my drinking years but one thing that haunts me to this day is that more than once I got in a car drunk endangering total strangers and those who I love the most including members of my family. I never got a DUI but that doesn’t excuse me from the unthinkable that could have happened when I was behind the wheel. 

I’ve been married for 22 years and the only real bad times we had in our marriage was when I came home drunk after driving, made a fool of myself in public, or when I got drunk when we had company at home. I can’t take back the years of worry I caused my wife wondering when and if I would make it home safely after a show or a night out.

Also, I know I was not at my best as a musician when drinking. Music is in my DNA. As shallow as it may seem, I actually dream about playing guitar. But as the drinking progressed, I lost my focus. I let alcohol eat away at the beautiful gift I’ve been given.

Love and light in sobriety

I have been sober for three and a half years. What’s changed? A lot. I love getting up in the mornings. I’m a hundred percent present there for my wife and children. I’m able to react with a clear head when there is a crisis of any kind with my family or friends. Life still throws those curve balls but I’m in a better place to field them.

I don’t worry about getting in a car after a show and being the cause of an accident because of alcohol. I actually remember the wonderful conversations I have with people all over this great country. I’ve run four half marathons since becoming sober, which for those of you who know me, is kind of funny. I’m celebrating fifty years in the music business and it’s turning out to be one of the best years ever.

Today, I do motivational speaking where I tell my story in a presentation called “Shine the Light.” I talk about the “Irish Trifecta: Depression, Anxiety, and Addiction.” I use my music along with my warped sense of humor during the presentation.

"Shine the Light": Happy and healthy Seamus Kelleher.

"Shine the Light": Happy and healthy Seamus Kelleher.

My message is simple, there is always hope as long as I reach out and open my heart to getting help. No matter how dark things seem, each day I get out of bed is an opportunity to change the direction of my life—it’s never too late. That “I” could be YOU. If my story resonates with you, consider taking that first step. The payoff is beyond words. Alcoholism does not have to define you, it is not a life sentence. Recovery does exist and is attainable.

A dear musician friend of mine, the late Pete Huttlinger, once said, “Everyone in life goes through something. If you haven’t yet, I’m sorry, it’s coming.” Pete was a gifted musician who had to learn how to walk, talk, and play guitar again after a massive stroke. In the scale of things, my “something” is minor. Even with my mental illness and addiction, I managed to make it to age 64 and I’ve had a full and productive life. I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by family and friends in my darkest days who helped me see the Light.

If you think you have a problem, take that first step, let the light shine into your life again.  You won’t regret it.

Read more: Irish adventurer on fighting depression and rowing to New York

* Originally published in April 2018.