As intelligent and street savvy as I am, I held one huge fear in my life. My fearless attitude and my determination to ensure nothing or no one get the better of me, were no match for this fear.

I had faced down muggers, maulers and internet dating trawlers. Like most people of my age the deaths, births and marriages came and went. I dealt with and transformed the hurt into life lessons. But that one thing, that one fear hung like a shadow over me all my life. In recovery, it became a monkey on my back that never stopped chattering. No-matter-what, I could never see myself overcoming it. My future looked like it was to be doomed with the fear getting the better of me.

It was the area where I felt the most inadequate and could not seem to get past the block. Education!

Let me take you back to 1995 when I first entered recovery, full of bravado which was a veneer covering the huge insecurity I felt constantly. Well read on a diverse range of topics, I could be found holding court on a variety of these topics in many a coffee shop. I got a name as someone who was ‘in the know’. More often than not I was reading books that no one else was reading, so I sounded like I knew what I was talking about.

Though I was confident and comfortable in the self-help arena, those traits sadly did not transfer over to the field of education. Three times I took on a degree course. Twice I dropped out so close to the finish line. It was so frustrating for my family and friends that I could not bring it to a conclusion, literally! They could see the potential that I could not.

I managed to justify in my head about how okay I was not completing the course of study. My brain is not oriented to engage an academic course, I told myself time and time again. I am more creative in my approach than the linear approach academia requires me to take! I could go on for a month telling you the rubbish I told myself that made me feel ok about dropping out.

Not once did I look at the grades I got for assignments along the way. Always in the 2:1 range and several 1:1’s, and yet somehow I felt I couldn’t do a degree or that I wasn’t intelligent enough to do what it takes. I told myself that people like me didn’t go to college and get qualifications. These beliefs seriously held me back and kept me stuck for so long.

I came from a working class background in Dublin. I was an avid reader as a child and a teenager. But drinking took up all that time and it was very difficult to read after having drunk a lot of alcohol. Most everybody I knew left school in their early teens, got a job in a factory and went to the pub for their only leisure activity. Book learning was mocked. You dared not voice how eager you were to learn for fear of provoking this question: “Who do YOU think you are?” That tone to this day sends chills down my spine. Thankfully its impact has softened as I have come to know myself more.

The approach I took this time to obtaining my degree was very different. The course in Community Studies spoke directly to my employment. The content held my interest from the start, and I actually enjoyed reading material. It had a practical application, giving me an understanding of the changes that were happening in the sector. I met with other adults returning to education for similar reasons, and together we shared our knowledge. It was like the course was made just for me. I opened up and for the first time, I saw how I earned the grades I got. I also looked deeply at the feedback to see how I could improve for the next assignment. My fear did surface from time to time, but it was assuaged by tutors’ and classmates’ affirmation that I did indeed bring something valuable to the class as an adult learner. Not once did anyone say, “Who do you think you are?” Rather I heard, “You are on the right track, keep going.” It kept me going in times of doubt and in struggles with my assignments.

If you are thinking about returning to education and can identify with some of the thoughts that ran around in my head, know that I did finish a degree course this year, 2019, at age 53. My graduation was last week. Sadly I could not attend but I will have my degree in the post this week. If your head is telling you that you are not good enough or you don’t have what it takes, don’t listen. Take solace in the fact that recovery opens doors in our brains that allow us to learn and grow and be more capable than we sometimes feel.

My best advice is ‘give it a go’. There is a course out there for you that speaks to your particular interest. You can only learn more and maybe even gain a qualification that will take you to the next level of your career.  Your confidence will soar, and it’ll make the difference that you know in your heart you want to make in your life.

Best of luck.


I am sober continuously since 1995 and have decided its time to talk about my experiences in recovery that have taught me how I blocked myself from living the best life I could.


  1. Hello Sandra.

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring education story. Your affirmation that “recovery opens doors in our brains that allow us to learn and grow and be more capable than we sometimes feel” is spot on. I had begun my studies for my degree at age 27, only to drop out at 31 due to my substance abuse. My recovery began in 1993 at age 33. Putting my life together took a few years, but I finally was able to return to college at 38. I found it much more difficult than it had been when I was younger. I experienced first hand the damage alcohol and drugs can do to our brains, but lots of hard work in recovery and in school allowed for healing to take place, and I actually managed to do very well. I graduated with Honors and received my BA in English in 2001 at age 41. Being the glutton for punishment that I am, I went back again in 2003 to begin my postgraduate studies and actually finished a Masters in Adult Education with a concentration in Technology in 2005 at 45. Doors opened for me that I never dreamed would open for a former wastrel like myself. And I am so very grateful for Everything my new life in recovery has brought my way.

    Good Luck to you as well, and thanks again for sharing.

    Peace Always to You,
    Don Newman

    • Hi Don
      thank you so so much for your comment. It is truly inspiring that you had the experience you had and still came out favorably. It is indeed wonderful how recovery opens doors for us in so so many ways.
      Thank you for reaching out.

  2. Lynda molloy Reply

    Congratulations Sandra. You are an inspiration to us all especially of a certain age 🤗. Loved reading your piece of your journey. You and your family must be so proud of your achievements . There is now no obstacle in your life journey you have proved to yourself and oothers life is a challenge but with the right mind set fears and mental blocks can be overcome. Lynda Molloy (TM).

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