Former resident, and now counsellor, Paul Meleady in Coolmine mark condren

Patrick Walsh wanted to be a solicitor when he grew up. Why not – he could see how they operated on the TV. Confident, assured, doing their thing in front of a large audience. Pat thought it was just the job for him.

That was before he realised that opportunity was a concept relative to your socio-economic, education and family stations. It was before he was rejected by the army, before the drink and drugs, before the descent, before oblivion took away the pain. Then there was the streets, and finally, the last desperate refuge of the addict, the role of courier, which led him into conflict with the law.

Last week, Walsh was walking crisply around the lodge in the Coolmine Therapeutic Centre in west Dublin wielding a clipboard. Coolmine is a residential centre for recovering addicts, which employs a unique 'community as method' model of treating addiction.

Walsh's role is specified as that of an "expeditor". This involves pulling up fellow residents on the smallest of misdemeanours. He is effectively a policeman on the beat, albeit one whose power is transient and derived from his peers.

One resident fails to wash all the hairs from a shower after breakfast – he is pulled up. Another passes through to the kitchen without using the hand sanitiser – pull him up. This grown man reacts to an instruction with the smallest display of attitude – he's pulled up. That one is dodging his detailed work in the garden – pull him.

"This place is mad, but there's a method to it, it works," Walsh says. "The pull-ups help you learn about yourself. If you put in the work and talk about it, you can deal with it. Everything in here is based on behaviour and feelings."

Walsh logs the pull-ups on his board. They are then transcribed, little notes on behaviour from which patterns can be discerned, by both counsellors and residents themselves. One resident may have been doing well, and suddenly he's getting pulled up all over the shop. Something is wrong. What is it?

The problem is explored, torches shone into further recesses of the dark psyche where addiction lurks. And from the rigorous examination of behaviour, there emerges knowledge, awareness and with it the hope of repairing broken lives that theretofore were a source of chaos and pain, inflicted on themselves, their families, and society at large.

In some ways, the model employed at Coolmine echoes a harsh Victorian regime for raising children. Applying such a structure on a community full of choirboys wouldn't be easy. Doing so on two dozen adults who include a smattering of former hard chaws and prison inmates should, on the face of it, be impossible. But for these men it is the only way back from the edge, the imposition of order where there was chaos, which in turn attacks the type of behaviour that fed addiction.

"Desire is the biggest part of staying off drugs," says Stephen McBride, one of the project workers at Coolmine. "Some of the work we do here isn't about rehabilitation, it's about habilitation. Many of the problems go back to the early days of childhood. A lot of them just have a primary-school education. Some of them got as far as the Junior Cert."

'It's getting worse out there'

Patrick Walsh is typical of that background. After six months as a resident, he is nearing the end of the first phase of his treatment at the lodge. He is 24, three years younger than the average age of residents. He has put on two-and-a-half stone since arriving, yet he carries no fat. This is the first time he has been without drink for any prolonged period since he was 12 years of age. In a fortnight he begins studying for the Leaving Cert. After that, he'd like to do social studies. "I want to get into something helping young people," he says. "It's getting worse out there. A cheap price is being put on life."

Coolmine was established in 1973 in Blanchardstown, based in a lodge house for an estate left to be used for charitable purposes. In the early years of the therapeutic community model, it acquired a reputation for being a harsh regime.

Paul Meleady did the programme in 1990, barely hanging onto a life that had been blighted by institutional abuse, early addiction and homelessness. "It was a lot tougher then," he says. "It was based on an Australian model at the time with a whole lot of restrictions on the residents."

Meleady stayed clean and got a job, but despite his experience, Coolmine's ethos and success kept tugging at him. He went to college, studied counselling and has been a member of the staff for the last decade.

"It isn't run on fear today," he says. "Now, you can be what you want and we'll work with you."

Clients are referred from various centres and the probation service, the latter accounting for a third of all referrals. Each applicant is assessed for suitability. Desire, above all else, is a prerequisite.

New arrivals are thrown straight in. One man arrived last week and was met and greeted warmly by the residents. Then he was brought to his bedroom where two residents donned latex gloves and, under the supervision of a staff member, went methodically through every item of his luggage and clothing. You can't fool a fellow addict.

In this case, a burnt piece of tinfoil was found, but no drugs. The new resident will be asked about the paraphernalia later, but probably won't be sanctioned.

He has three weeks of an orientation phase to get his head around the regime. There are three cardinal rules in the lodge and its sister centre for women in nearby Clonee. No drug use on site; no physical intimidation; no sexual relations. Beyond that, sanctions rather than expulsion is used.

The day begins at 7am, when all 25 residents rise. Any slacking – you're pulled up. After breakfast, there is a 'space and attitude' meeting of the residents. Here procedures for the day are run through. Then, the floor is open to anybody who wants to say how they're feeling, throwing out in particular any germs of resentment or frustration before they fester.

While the meeting goes on, two expeditors leave to inspect the bedrooms. They return before meeting's end with a report. The smallest transgressions are pulled up. Last Wednesday, just one of the rooms was given the all clear. "P and Q," Walsh told the four roommates, who in turn gave a whoop of victory. Pride and quality.

The others were pulled up. In prison, or on the streets, most of these men would have viewed the pull-up system as something akin to ratting out on a mate. In Coolmine, the residents come to see it as looking out for each other. "It's not grassing out on somebody, it's offering them a handshake," Walsh says.

The facility manager, Yvonne Booth, points to the emphasis placed on personal standards at the centre.

"Taking responsibility is a huge part of that. The ethos is very much peer-led and peer support," she says.

The morning meeting ends with at least one resident getting up to sing a song. What sounds corny actually works as a shot in the arm to the communal mood. Everybody leaves in good form, often laughing at the singing effort, if not the song in question.

The cave of addiction

The expeditors are at the second rung of the residents' hierarchy, briefed with ensuring things are expedited, kept moving, freed from slacking. At the top is the community co-ordinator (CCO), usually one of the longest-serving of residents. Below the expeditors are the heads of the four departments, which cover administration, the kitchen, maintenance of the grounds, and a budding horticultural section. Each department head has an assistant. Promotion is won, the new responsibility both a reward and challenge to secure a higher footing in the climb out of the cave of addiction.

The current CCO, Barry Irish, has been at the lodge for over six months. He'll be moving onto the second phase soon, living in a community house in the city while reintegrating with society. Irish arrived in Coolmine straight from Limerick prison. His current station is a measure of the distance he has travelled.

"I can't go back to that life, I can't drink or do drugs successfully. There's nothing out there for me but institutions, prison or death. That's where it brought me. Recovery has been tough, but I'm getting my life back."

The days are filled with work and meetings. To a visitor sitting in the dining room while meals are being prepared, everybody appears, well, to be on speed, such is the urgency applied to the work.

In reality, the fuel driving them is their peers, the desire to keep standards up so that as many as possible will make it.

Aside from the behavioural and peer treatment, there is no escaping the deeper probing of the addict's psyche. Counselling sessions take place in a few small rooms, which are bare but for two chairs and a box of tissues.

After dinner in the evening, there is another house meeting, a space to give vent to feelings as the day winds down.

Occasional trips home must be applied for and are dependant on behaviour. One recent request form began by "respectfully" requesting permission. Included in the form were the assurances: "I will not go upstairs on buses. I will not go to bars and clubs. I will say hello to anybody who is using and keep walking." Attention to detail is all. Temptation and potential triggers to go back using are avoided. One house rule in this vein is the banning of dance-music radio stations.

Honing a programme to that level of detail might appear extreme to some, but the stakes couldn't be higher. Success in treating addiction is always relative, even for a place with Coolmine's record. Tracking former residents is difficult. A general rule of treatment is that one third make it, one third come back to try again, and one third are lost.

Until recently, they used to keep a memorial board at the lodge for the residents who didn't make it, the board often adorned with mass cards. It got to be too much, the memories serving as a bitter reminder of the limitations of even the best treatment.

Last Wednesday evening, 10 young men and women received graduation certificates from Coolmine's various residential and day programmes. Drugs minister John Curran presented the certificates at the Draoícht Theatre in Blanchardstown. The room was swollen with families full of pride. One of the graduates wore a shirt and tie. He dedicated his certificate to the memory of a friend "who didn't get to stand here today".

He recalled that he first went into Coolmine in September '07.

"I'm in college now," he said. "I'm doing something I love doing. It does get better and it does get easier."

Names of residents have been altered to protect identities