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‘We never really knew the depths of the addiction he was in until things started to get really bad’

A mother describes the lengths all of her family had to go to in order to help her son deal with his drug dependency so that they could begin to recover and get on with their lives

Martina McKnight is used to noting signs of drug addiction through her work in homeless services, but she didn’t recognise them in her own son.

“You don’t see what’s staring you straight in the face sometimes because maybe you don’t want to,” she says, explaining the mother’s guilt she still carries for not realising sooner the trouble one of her four children was in. But her son Kelvin was very adept at covering up his drug habit, knowing she would be quick to spot it otherwise.

“Addiction turns you into a liar – Kelvin would tell you that himself,” says Martina. She and her husband, David, did know Kelvin was drinking and experimenting with weed as a teenager, but they had no idea of how illegal substances were getting a grip on him. He had a part-time job while finishing school and then moved on to an apprenticeship, so he had his own money.

“We never really knew the depths of the addiction he was in until things started to get really bad.”


Kelvin would be up all night, or away from the family’s Limerick home for a couple of days and, on returning, look wretched or to be “under the influence” of what he would always say was alcohol.

In reality, he had become addicted to cocaine. “He lived to be able to buy the cocaine.”

Once his addiction became apparent, Martina knew there was no point “putting” Kelvin into treatment because “he had to want to go. He had to reach rock bottom. So that took some time, some coaxing, some pleading. Our family was in complete turmoil for about a year, trying to get him to access some treatment.”

Her son made efforts to give up cocaine himself, but could only sustain that for about three months at a time, she recalls. “Kelvin knew how to get himself clean, but didn’t know how to stay clean.” The persistent offers of drugs would get to him in the end. “A lot of families don’t realise that,” says Martina. “Their sons or daughters are still getting phone calls from people trying to sell drugs to them, like [as if] they are selling clothes.

“[At] one stage we took his phone, thinking we were doing the best, and they got him when he was gaming online. I am sure there are times he wanted to be found too,” she acknowledges. “Even when we took the keys of the car, they would deliver it to the house. You are afraid to sleep.”

As parents they felt totally helpless, but they managed to maintain a relationship with Kelvin through it all. “There were times that it was stressful and it was hanging by a thread,” says Martina. “I had never seen my husband cry until Kelvin was really bad and he [David] said, ‘I don’t know what to do any more’.”

The “rock bottom” came one morning when Martina got up to go to work and found Kelvin in the car outside. He told her he had thought of taking his own life that night. “That was the turning point for him and for us as a family. He said he couldn’t do it on his own, he needed help and that he understood what we were saying to him about needing more support.”

Take a person in Dublin 4 who has become addicted to cocaine. The dealers know the family have the money and they will get it out of them

Martina immediately started ringing around services and centres, “getting walls and barriers put in front of me all day. I think it was the next morning I rang Aiséirí and it was like I was talking to an angel on the phone. They knew what I was talking about and understood where Kelvin was coming from, and understood where we were coming from as a family.”

Aiséirí runs four addiction rehabilitation centres – in Kilkenny, Tipperary, Wexford and Waterford – and provides both primary and secondary treatment services. It also offers support to families around the country who are trying to cope with having a loved one with an alcohol, drug or gambling addiction.

Martina was relieved that Aiséirí was not requiring Kelvin to be totally clean of drugs, as other services were. “They said they would give us a bed for Kelvin – it would take maybe a month.”

Individuals can usually get a screening assessment done within a fortnight and admission to a treatment centre within just another week or two after that, says the head of clinical services at Aiséirí, Sara Cassidy. “If somebody is seriously in crisis, we will do our best to help people as quickly as possible. Generally, if somebody is ready for treatment, they are ready. You will lose them if they are waiting too long.”

When it comes to family support, “there is no delay really, we can slot them in immediately”.

Knowing what Cassidy describes as the “carnage” an individual’s addiction causes in the lives of the people around them, Aiséirí is expanding its services out to families. While it always had weekly group family days running during somebody’s treatment, it is now offering more individualised plans with counsellors and one-on-one family therapy where necessary. All through March it is running a One Step at a Time campaign for which it is asking people to register for the challenge of walking 40km by the end of the month, and all proceeds will go to expanding family services.

There are family support teams run by addiction counsellors in each of the four centres, but the one psychologist who is doing family therapy is currently travelling between them all. Ideally, there would be one in each location.

Addiction is most definitely a “family disease”, says Cassidy, “affecting the youngest little baby in the house to the oldest – the grandparents”.

All members of a household can become very unwell with the stress of coping with addiction and from adapting badly to an addict’s behaviours. “Families are really struggling out there and you’re talking about from every demographic”, she says, despite the stereotype of addiction hitting socio-economically disadvantaged families. “Every group we have in the adult services has professionals in it, people from upper class, middle class, working class [backgrounds]. Anywhere from age 20 up to their 80s. Nobody is not affected. Families that have a good foundation, education and support and financially are okay are still being desperately affected. It is absolutely cruel.”

Where there is drug addiction in a home, “families are being threatened and tormented”. The better-off families are regarded as an addict’s “ATM”, she says. “Take a person in Dublin 4 who has become addicted to cocaine. The dealers know the family have the money and they will get it out of them. In the rural areas, they are seeing the farming families as ATMs.”

Some families who come to Aiséirí have handed over as much as €50,000 or €60,000 to cover a family member’s drug debts. “They have paid out enormous amounts of money to keep their loved ones safe, or keep the family home safe.” It’s a “terrifying way to live”, she says, and family members end up not eating properly and not sleeping properly, and their work is affected.

Alcohol is still the most problematic addition, “even though the drug culture is growing by the minute”, says Cassidy, who thinks the service is moving closer to a 50:50 divide between clients with alcohol or drugs as their primary addictions. This ratio used to be closer to 70:30. Although problematic gambling is also increasing, there are still only small numbers coming forward for treatment for this.

When he was away, our attention went to our daughter a bit more. She had anxiety, but we never once realised it was because of what was going on

Family support runs not only through an individual’s residential recovery programme, which typically lasts 28 days for an adult (42 days for an adolescent in the Co Kilkenny centre), but also during secondary treatment services that are based in the community. She believes the biggest gift that family work offers initially is the chance for affected families to meet other families in similar circumstances and realise they are not alone. “You are trying to break down all the stigma and shame around addiction and help families understand it is not their fault. It is an illness that grows over time,” she says. It is not the fault of a mother, father or partner, she stresses – “even though the addict has most likely told them it was”.

Many families believe that if they could only “fix” the person with the addiction, everybody else would be grand, says Cassidy. “Unfortunately, in reality, that is not always the case. The person goes into recovery and then the family has to look ‘at their own stuff’; everybody has to look at their own issues. It can be equally as discombobulating for people when somebody is in recovery because they don’t know what to do with this person afterwards, because they are completely different from when they were using. The success of a person’s recovery does depend on how much help [is available] and how well the family can get. As much as there is a ripple effect with addiction, there is a huge ripple effect with recovery as well.”

Aiséirí, a national charity, will help family members even if the person with addiction has not been to its services. They carry out a lot of support on the phone with distressed people who, she says, ring their central number (052 744 1166), with no idea where to go or what to do. “We desperately want to help the family members and we will do it any whichever way we can,” says Cassidy. “We are not rigid in the way we work.” Online programmes developed since Covid enable them to reach people more easily throughout the country.

The day Kelvin checked in to the Aiséirí centre in Cahir, Co Tipperary, for a month’s detox programme, his mother felt a mix of emotions. “I actually felt like I was letting him down leaving him there, but it was the best thing I ever did for him and us as a family. I didn’t want him to think we were leaving him, because I was his crutch all along and I suppose his mental health support as well. He talked to me.”

But there was relief too for the family, tinged with anxiety about whether they would soon be getting a call to say he wanted to come home. “They can leave; they are adults, they are not locked up. But we were very lucky that Kelvin went through his first month there.”

With all their focus for so long being on his recovery, it was only once he was in treatment that they realised the rest of the family needed support too. “You think paying debts and doing different things is helping, but you soon learn where you are going wrong,” she says. “One of the family group things is, you tell the person what your worst fears are. I think it was good for Kelvin to hear that I was afraid of him dying.”

Even before the drug taking, she had carried a dread that he would die prematurely, but, through the family support, that long-held fear has lifted. “When he was away, our attention went to our daughter a bit more. She had anxiety, but we never once realised it was because of what was going on. It was great for her to access support too.”

The other two siblings had left home, but the eldest was affected by seeing the impact of his brother’s addiction on his parents, and the next eldest was particularly close to Kelvin, so went through a lot seeing him so bad and was trying to intervene. Every member of the family availed of Aiséirí support at some stage.

After the intensive residential programme in Cahir, Kelvin moved on to secondary treatment, Céim Eile, in Waterford, where participants stay in a community residence, attending work or education by day. Martina remembers the first time he came home from there, “I was like, smothering him. Everywhere he went, I wanted to know where he was going.” His sister and father were equally vigilant. “He said to me at the time, ‘You are going to drive me back to using…’.”

The next time Kelvin was home he said he had spoken to his support worker, who had explained that his family had not done the work he had done, so did not realise how far he had come. “I think that was a wake-up for us. So while he worked on himself, we worked on ourselves as a family, and I suppose tried to learn how to trust again,” says Martina. “To start enjoying life again, so that when he did come home and we had the time with him, we made the most of it.”

Aiséirí helped him save himself – and they saved us as a family as well. They helped us recover while he was recovering. We owe a great deal to them

After six months in Céim Eile, Kelvin moved on to a sober house in Waterford city, with supports in the community. He resumed the apprenticeship that he had stopped in his third year, while being chosen to take part in the RTÉ series Davy’s Toughest Team last year was a boost for his self-esteem.

The 26-year-old will be three years clean in July. He has qualified as an electrician and has his own flat in Waterford, a city where he has his own community now. Even though Kelvin has finished with Aiséirí services, he can ring up or drop in to Céim Eile any time for a chat and a cup of tea. “I don’t think he will ever return to Limerick because he has that support around him and he supports other people now,” says Martina. Kelvin does a weekly meeting for young people in Kilkenny. “He is part of the community, giving back at the same time.”

As far as she is concerned, Aiséirí “saved our son – or they helped him save himself – and they saved us as a family as well. They helped us recover while he was recovering. We owe a great deal to them.”

This is why she is now prepared to speak publicly, with the rest of the family’s agreement, about their experiences.

While she acknowledges she might sound very matter-of-fact about it all, when a support worker from Aiséirí rang her about doing this interview, she says, “my stomach did somersaults”, as her first instinct on hearing from the worker was, had something bad happened to Kelvin?

“It makes you realise you are still vulnerable,” she adds. “It’s still there.”

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting