A FORMER addict who turned his life around after finding love on the streets is giving hope to people in the grip of Cork’s shocking heroin epidemic.
John Paul McDonald, who lives in Cork and has been clean for 21 months, said that falling in love and volunteering in Cork Penny Dinners both played a huge part in his recovery.
John Paul was one of the many people caught up in Cork's drugs crisis.
The latest figures from the city's Joint Policing Committee show that cases of drug possession for sale and for personal consumption have risen in Cork City this year.
Cases of possession for personal use increased from 578 in the first 10 months of 2018 to 728 in the same period this year.
“It’s an epidemic that frightens me,” John Paul said.
“I’m a compassionate and empathetic person. However, during my time on heroin I didn’t give a damn about anyone.
"If I can get into that kind of headspace I dread to think what sort a mind frame those with less compassion and empathy might find themselves in.“
John Paul spoke about his experiences for an Echo series to show how Cork Penny Dinners is helping former heroin users get back on their feet through volunteering.
John Paul said it was his partner who encouraged him to take the first step back into society.
“When I met Caitríona, head of Penny Dinner, and told her my situation she immediately moved me into a B&B so I could have a place to stay.
"Volunteering is one of the most influential things I’ve ever done. It’s kept me busy and focused."
The experience has even prompted the Kildare native to consider pursuing a career in social care.
"There is a massive gap in social workers. Because of what I’ve been through I feel I may have something to offer.”
He recalled how his lowest point led to him finding his highest one.
“I met her within the first week I moved to Cork," he said of his now partner. "You couldn’t write my story.
"There was a group out on the streets helping the homeless.
"At that stage love never entered my mind. These people had clothes, toiletries and five minutes to chat and that was all that mattered.
"When I met her it was instant for me but I can't say that she felt the same.
"We established a friendship at first. I couldn’t have ever expected anything more than a no, given the situation I was in.
"I knew that nothing was going to happen for us until I got clean.
"It was at this point that I decided to go for rehabilitation in Scotland. I saw the potential for our relationship.
"For me, that was the impetus to get clean. We kept in contact that entire time and wrote each other letters. I knew there was common ground for the future.”
The 37-year-old admits the road to recovery before that had been long and difficult.
“If someone told me years ago that I would one day be on heroin I’d have thought they were a lunatic who knew nothing about me.”
John Paul’s descent into hard drugs came after a road trip with a dealer he had befriended.
“I used to bring a guy up to Dublin to collect drugs. In return, he used to give me a little bit of cocaine and petrol money.
"On one particular day, he didn’t have the money. Instead, he handed me three bags of this brown stuff and told me I could sell it and make the money back that way.
“I asked him how to use it. He refused to show me at first.
"I stressed that if he needed someone to continue bringing him to Dublin he would have to. From that day on heroin and I became inseparable.“
He explained how life as he knew it changed from then on.
“Heroin became a love of mine for eight years.
"The drugs that I was using up to that point didn’t do what I needed them to do. Heroin was a painkiller, a warm blanket that shut the world out.
"I couldn’t function or do anything else. Every minute of every day I wanted to be taking everything.”
John Paul recalled how everything at that time revolved around his all-consuming heroin addiction.
“Even when I had it I knew it wasn’t going to last so there was always a plan to get more. You can go two routes-either become a criminal and do petty crimes or do what I did and make friends with the right people. At the time I was devious and could manipulate anyone into doing anything.“
During this time John Paul continued to hold down a job.
“I spent 12 years in the army working on the upkeep of small arms within the defence forces. Basically, I was to weapons what engineers are to cars.
"The army sent me to college for four years and it was very interesting. However, during all that time I had been a functioning addict. I was able to go out and have a few drinks for the night only to wake up the next morning and continue drinking.”
While in the depths of heroin addiction John Paul was also faced with a devastating loss.
“I still worked to the best of my ability but then something happened in 2007.
"My sister and the father of her child died in a house fire and I didn’t take it very well.
“I was using it as an excuse to use drugs. I told myself it wasn’t fair to use someone else’s death to cover up my own pain. The reason that I got here was because I couldn’t function in the normal world.”
After going through treatment in Scotland John Paul spent a lot of time with his own thoughts.
“I was previously staying with a Born Again Christian who gave me a room in his house.
"For all those months I isolated myself and devoured every book I could about addiction. That was my safe space.
"I couldn’t step outside of it to do anything wrong but I also couldn’t step out of it to do any good either.
"It was my partner who encouraged me to volunteer with Cork Penny Dinners. The first time I arrived there was nerve-racking and my stomach was in bits.
"When I met Caitríona all the doors opened.
"I had been living in my head before. Now, I can see that as human beings we are social animals who thrive around other people.”
Despite overcoming much in his life John Paul remains humble.
“My partner always tells me how proud she is of me. However, every time she does I deflect it. The minute I get proud is the moment my thinking can switch.
"I try to keep as low a profile as possible and engage with as many people I can. I have a voice and I’m going to use it.
"The strongest thing you can do is put your hands up and say 'I need help'.”
The future looks bright for John Paul who has many hopes.
“I want to go to college and be able to make enough money so that if any member of my family gets sick I’ll be in a position to help them.”
For more information on Cork Penny Dinners or to donate visit http://corkpennydinners.ie/