James: I never gave up hope of recovery from drug addiction

Today, we start a five-day series, where people share their battles with addiction, or how drugs and alcohol have impacted their family. Today James Leonard, who first used heroin in a prison holding cell, tells us about his experience and how he has turned his life around
James: I never gave up hope of recovery from drug addiction


I EXPERIMENTED with alcohol, cannabis and to a lesser extent solvents in my early teens, but when I finished school, I started using harder drugs and more frequently.

When I turned 18, I left the family home and started using ecstasy heavily. I thought it was everything I was looking for. It made me feel safe and it gave me a bond with my peers as only ecstasy can. That feeling of love and belonging was only topped by the feeling of sickness and depression the morning after.

I began trying other drugs and eventually became dependent on benzodiazepines, namely diazepam, rohypnol and Xanax.

Offending and prison

Ages 17 to 20 were chaotic. We used benzos’ and alcohol to the point of complete blackout and seldom had any recollection of the risky lifestyles we were leading. Waking up in garda stations not knowing how we got there was very common.

I first went to prison when I was 18 for a fine. I was caught with a €50 block of hash at a UB40 gig in Cork which ended in a fine that I did not pay. When I went into prison, I was scared and excited and the same time. I felt anxious because of the unknown but excited to see what all the hype was about.

Going to prison felt like a natural thing for me to do. Prison for young men in my area was common and most of my peers were either in prison or had family who were in prison. For a young man like me, to go to prison was a masculine thing to do.

Cork Prison was an old Victorian building. After the initial scare of it, I quickly became comfortable in the environment. Prison was never a deterrent for me: aged 19 and 20 I spent time inside for being in stolen cars and I first started using heroin at 21.

The next few years saw an escalation from smoking to injecting and then more prison visits and hospital admissions.

I first tried heroin in a holding cell in Cork District court where I was put in with someone who had a small amount and we smoked it. I convinced myself I was safe if I did not inject. That was a big mistake and inevitably I began injecting and this destroyed me and took any bit of self-respect or dignity that I had left.

My appearance deteriorated and I became isolated from friends and family as heroin addiction can be a very lonely place.

At this stage, the visits to prison provided me with much-needed respite and allowed for my body to regenerate. In prison I had structure to my day which included going to the school, the gym, and the yard. I engaged with services like Cork Alliance Centre and Irish Association for Social Inclusion Opportunities and often was released from prison with follow on care plans but could never bring myself to engage with those plans once released.

The feeling of safety and security I felt in prison was immediately gone once I was told I was being released. On release, the anxiety and fear that came over me demanded I use some substance to help me cope, and the cycle began all over again because once I started I could not stop. However, I always tried again and that attitude of never giving up hope or accepting my fate was the one thing that helped me to eventually find myself in recovery.

Early Recovery: Education &


While my childhood experience of school meant that my confidence around education was low, I nonetheless began a full time one-year course in Applied Psychology and Social Studies at Cork College of Commerce. I absolutely loved the experience of college and the course content really captured by attention.

I then enrolled in Youth and Community Work in University College Cork with the aim of getting a qualification that would help me get a job where I could help people the same way I was helped.

During my three-year degree I gained work experience in a non-formal education centre (Cork Life Centre) and two Irish Probation Service funded projects (Churchfield Community Trust and the Irish Association for Social Inclusion Opportunities). I also began training recruit prison officers for the Irish Prison Service in collaboration with the Cork Alliance Centre, another Probation funded project.

I then won a scholarship to study the MA Criminology, again at University College Cork and was also working at Cork Simon Community. It made me feel very proud to work for an organisation where I was a service user four years previous.

Onwards and Upwards

I have secured full time employment, in the Cork Education and Training Board and will commence an employment based PhD soon, a collaboration between UCC Department of Sociology and Criminology and my employer. I graduated recently with a first-class Criminology master’s and my thesis has been published at a respected international academic journal.

I have written multiple articles for my local newspaper and I have just started up a recovery themed podcast with a friend, The Two Norries Podcast. I have been provided with many opportunities and some very kind people have opened doors for me. I can work as hard as I want, but without these great people I would have very limited life opportunities. I am forever grateful to those people.

Tomorrow: “I ended up rock bottom... I even had to have a few scoops of whiskey before GAA training.” We hear from Daniel O’Sullivan, whose life was crippled by anxiety — now he is five years sober.

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