Saturday 24 March 2018

My journey from homelessness to Trinity College Dublin

Liam Duggan's long struggle with mental health and how he turned his life around to study in Dublin's TCD

Liam Duggan has secured a place at Trinity 20 years after doing his Leaving Cert
Liam Duggan has secured a place at Trinity 20 years after doing his Leaving Cert

Damien Corless

With the release in recent days of the Leaving Cert results, followed by the CAO point requirements for college, the limelight has inevitably been focused on the nation's straight-A super-achievers.

But super-achievers come in many guises, and one Dubliner has journeyed from homelessness to a place on a coveted TCD course in the space of less than three years.

Now aged 44, Liam Duggan had just received his Leaving Cert results back in 1988 when his life became horribly derailed, plunging him into a nightmare that sucked him to rock bottom and wouldn't let go.

Now, as he looks forward to starting a degree in Business, Economic & Social Studies, Liam's recall of how his life fell to pieces remains both vivid and fractured.

"I'd spent the summer working in London as a building labourer and a kitchen hand," he starts.

He was offered a place at Thomond College, now the University of Limerick, and set off for a celebratory holiday to the Greek island of Paros where, he says, he became immersed in "drink culture".

"Towards the end of the holiday I started to lose the plot. I lost my tickets and passport. I was having a breakdown," he recalls. With no money, he reached Athens as a stowaway on a ferry. By now he was in the horrors. He believed that the streets were laid out as a maze to confuse visitors, and that the Tourist Office was in on the ruse.

He has no idea how he got back to the London flat where he'd spent the summer.

"I was very dislocated and out of touch with reality, but I had this homing instinct - I knew I had to get back to my mam and dad," he reveals.

The last of the Irish lads was vacating the flat and brought Liam home. His parents were shocked at the state of their son.

"There was some paranoia, but mostly I was walking around La-La-Land with a smiley happy face," he recalls. His distressed parents begged him to get medical help and when he flatly refused, they had to take desperate, heartbreaking measures.

"I was behaving very strangely. The guards came to the house with a straitjacket because I wouldn't walk into a hospital."

He did, however, walk out of St John of God's psychiatric hospital as soon as he was moved out of the initial lock-up ward.

"I escaped several times," he says. "The first time I went up to the first house I came to and rang the doorbell. I asked for a shirt and trousers because I was in my pyjamas. They invited me in for a cup of tea and next thing I was back in hospital."

Liam initially refused to take medication for a condition by now diagnosed as full-blown psychosis. He relented, however, and settled down to a life of not-quite-normality. He married, had children and held down a job as a taxi driver for the next 20 years, all the time knowing it wasn't quite a real job.

"The taxi was 20 years of occupational therapy," he says. "It was my dad's taxi. He'd drive it by day and I'd do a few hours at night, mainly taking my mates around. I'd make a tenner here and there, but it was more a way of keeping in with my friends and fitting back into society.

"When you're released from an institution you're still under medication and you're insecure about your place, and you're trying to deal with the stigma of your illness."

With his marriage long over and another relationship ending, Liam found himself homeless towards the end of 2011.

"I have to re-skill and refocus," he resolved and in January 2012 Liam began studying with the National Learning Network which is dedicated to supporting people in difficult circumstances who'd like to enter or re-enter education.

"The people were wonderful because they encouraged you. You realised you weren't going to rule the world with your new skill-set, but they opened doors," he says.

Liam proved a star pupil on TCD's Trinity Access Programme (TAP) which he completed with flying colours. Early on in his new student life he kicked what he calls "drink culture, including smoking" and he reflects that mental clarity has been its own reward.

He says: "If you want to get into TAP you have to show you're committed by already being in full-time education. I got into TAP with a good interview. The people have been so supportive. They put it beautifully in a nutshell when they accepted me, telling me: "First we cherry-picked you, now we're going to spoon-feed you. That blows away any self-doubt you might have."

And Liam did not lose any sleep early this week wondering if he had amassed enough CAO points for his preferred course. He had received his zero level CAO offer last week based not on Leaving Cert points, but on his impressive performance on the TAP programme over the past year.

It's a measure of a new-found confidence in his life that Liam has spent much of this summer at a desk in the Trinity College Library, reading up on the materials for his chosen course.

"I'm getting a head-start on the head-start programme," he quips. "The people in TAP told me a while back that I had come up to the mark, but until you've written confirmation it's still a nervous wait. It's a lovely feeling to get that piece of paper in your hand.

"My main areas of interest for the end degree are economics and sociology. The people at TAP have told me that I'm already half-a-year ahead of most others starting the course.

"I'd like to investigate the economics of happiness," he adds.

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