From addiction to education

Karl Kilmartin, student at the National College of Ireland studying at home.

Karl Kilmartin, student at the National College of Ireland studying at home.


EDUCATION PROFILE: KARL KILMARTINhas taken a rocky road to college. The former heroin addict has worked hard to beat his addiction. He is now taking a degree course in business management. Louise Holden reports

KARL KILMARTIN has made a remarkable journey from heroin addiction and joblessness to establishing a new life as an NCI degree student and father of two.

In just five years he has turned his life around – thanks to his own extraordinary courage and the help of some very supportive people and organisations.

Karl Kilmartin is the product of loving home and a happy childhood. He had an uneventful passage through primary school in Bishop Galvin and on to Mac Dara’s Secondary School in Templeogue, Dublin. At the age of 12, things started to fall apart.

“All we were ever told about drink and drugs at school was ‘just say no’,” says Kilmartin, who began to drink aged 12. “If the young me had spoken to the older me, I never would have started down that road.” But start he did, and by the age of 14 Kilmartin was a regular drinker and cannabis smoker. He just about made it to the Inter Cert, as it was then called, but he had no interest in school at all.

His mother agreed to let him leave and take a job as a barman.

Unfortunately, life behind the bar only gave Kilmartin easier access to drink. The 1990s rave scene was in full swing and Kilmartin was paid-up member; a regular user of ecstasy, acid and later cocaine and heroin. What followed was a 15-year haze of alcohol and drugs, during which time Kilmartin alienated himself from everyone who wasn’t just as lost as he was. At the age of 30 his life was a mess and he had little care to change it.

“Then my mother was diagnosed with cancer,” he recalls. “I had never had any real experience of death. Suddenly it was all there in front of me – my mother was dying before my eyes.”

Kilmartin spent a horrific year on methadone, watching his mother fading away. “I sat by her side as she was dying. A year later, on the night of her funeral, I tried to kill myself.” Kilmartin survived the suicide attempt and an experience which should have broken him actually gave him the first glimpse of a possible future.

“I was absolutely wracked with guilt that mother had died while I was still an addict. I felt that the only atonement I could make was to try and make something of my life.” Karl went into detox, at Tuan Dara Cinic in Cherry Orchard Hospital, where, for the first time in nearly twenty years he went without alcohol and drugs.

“I was screaming, crying, it was horrific, but I got through it,” Kilmartin remembers. “I was off the drugs, but now I had to deal with the grief.”

After detox Kilmartin went into rehab in Keltoi in the Phoenix Park, where he began the very painful process of dealing with his mother’s loss, as well as his addictions. “They rebuilt me. They took me apart and put me back together again.” Kilmartin left rehab clean, but “hollow”. He signed up for a Community Employment Scheme working with young people in Fatima Mansions and Dolphin’s Barn in Dublin.

“I knew that I could do something useful with my experiences, but I wasn’t quite strong enough to start that journey, so I went back into rehab, with an organisation called Place in Santry. I got more counselling there. They also guided me into a construction job with the Trinity Church Network. You wouldn’t believe how good it felt to do a day’s work. It gave me a sense of control again.”

The stakes were high now – Kilmartin had two small children. He met his partner, Donna, in the tough early years of his rehabilitation. “She is my rock,” he says. “She has supported me along a very difficult path over the last few years.”

Last year, Kilmartin spotted an ad in the newspaper, placed by the National College of Ireland. “They wanted life stories, from people with an interest in returning to college. The prize was a scholarship. I sat down with a tape recorder and just cleared it all out of my head. I’ve always been a good communicator, and when I went to write it all down, it turns out I’m a good writer, too.”

It came as a complete shock to find out that he had actually won. He very nearly turned the offer down.

“I’m so glad I decided to go for it,” says Kilmartin. “I’m now in the first year of the degree programme in business management and technology. Turns out I’m pretty handy with computers.”

It’s been a difficult few months but the college staff have been very supportive, says Kilmartin. “I’ve been treated with nothing but respect since starting here,” he says. “It was been overwhelming, at times very stressful, but I’m gradually getting the hang of it. I love the buzz of college life, the learning, the new people.”

His favourite subject is professional and personal development, where he has had the opportunity to develop his communication and presentation skills. “I get a kick out of standing up and speaking to people. Someday I would like to use it to tell my story to young people in schools. Not at 16 and 17 when it’s too late. At 12 and 13 before the trouble starts. That’s when some honest advice would have helped me.”

College and family is enough to keep Kilmartin busy and the moment, and occasional bouts of depression are the unfortunate outcome of years of drug taking. Nonetheless, Kilmartin is managing his situation now with the support of his family and NCI.

“Next year, when I have a better handle on things, I hope to get involved with drama and creative writing, and also to work one night a week with the Trinity Church Network, visiting addicts on the streets of Dublin.” For now, Karl Kilmartin is just another student. Except, that is, for his exceptional path to education.

Care and community

KARL KILMARTIN’S story maps a chain of agencies and organisations that have been critical in his recovery.

2004: 30-year-old addict Karl Kilmartin visits his GP and says he wants to be free from heroin and alcohol addiction. His GP admits him to Tuan Dara Clinic in Cherry Orchard Hospital to detox. Six weeks later Karl is admitted for rehabilitation and grief counselling in Keltoi Clinic in the Phoenix Park.

2005: Kilmartin gets a placement as a youth worker on a Community Employment Scheme in Dolphin’s Barn for two years. The experience gives him a sense of what he has to contribute, and also what he still needs in terms of rehabilitation.

2007: Kilmartin is accepted in Place, a rehab centre for ex-offenders in Santry. After 18 months of counselling he is ready to seek work again.

2008: He gets a placement through Jobcare, working in construction for the Trinity Church Network and the Niall Mellon Trust.

2008: Kilmartin wins a competition which opens the way to a scholarship at the National College of Ireland. He is now in his first year of a degree programme in business management and technology.