James Leonard's inspirational story of drug addiction, recovery and hope

With 2020 drawing to a close, the annual end of year ‘best of TV lists’ are bound to conjure up the same names with the likes of Normal ...


With 2020 drawing to a close, the annual end of year ‘best of TV lists’ are bound to conjure up the same names with the likes of Normal People, The Crown, and I May Destroy You all featuring prominently.

However, it’s arguable that the TV moment of the year occurred in January when James Leonard stepped onto the stage of The Tommy Tiernan Show.

As is the norm, the host had no idea who he’d be chatting to and what unfolded was an outstanding piece of TV as James told viewers his life story and gave viewers a glimpse at what it’s like to be addicted to drugs, homeless, fearful for your life, and in desperate need of life’s bare essentials.

However, the transformation in James’ life has been nothing short of remarkable because he’s now studying for his PhD and helping those people who were in the exact same position that he was.

For those that may not have watched the show, James is a former drug addict that has frequently been homeless and spent time in jail after committing crimes that were linked to his addition.

Rather than feel the need to interject during the conversation, Tiernan just sat back, listened attentively, and treated the Corkonian’s life story with the curiosity, compassion and empathy that it deserved.

2020 has been a trying year for so many people but for those watching, it was impossible not to feel inspired by James’ remarkable transformation. Earlier this year, he received a first-class honours Masters degree in Criminology and he’s currently studying for his PHD.

On the professional front, James is working with Cork ETB, hosting a successful podcast, and more recently, he celebrated a wedding anniversary with his wife, Gillian.

Speaking with the Irish Mirror, Mr Leonard said that his interview on The Tommy Tiernan Show continues to inspire and help “thousands of people who have contacted me after the show and they still contact me. They want to know more about how I helped myself and others”

James Leonard and his wife Gillian

Incredibly honest and candid, James reiterated a point that he made on The Tommy Tiernan Show when he said that his teenager years were the moment that he started to go down a bad road.

However, now that he has worked in addiction and homeless services in an effort to help people who were in his same position, he believes that there’s still a stigma attached to certain areas in Irish society that can create a culture which allows drug use and addiction to develop.

“When I went to secondary school, I didn’t really get on well. I got into a lot of trouble and that caused a lot of problems for me at home. That was a turning point and for my teenage years in general, they were when things started to go wrong,” he said.

Hailing from Knocknaheeney in Cork north-central, James’ father was imprisoned when he was just a teenager, something that contributed towards him going down a bad road.

James Leonard and Tommy Tiernan

This sense of anger, frustration and low self-esteem resulted in James starting to experiment with drugs as a teenager, which ultimately turned him towards a life of drugs and anti-social behaviour.

“Knocknaheeney is a highly stigmatised area. The same way that Ballymun and Moyross would be. It has a name that precedes it but when you’re from there – or Ballymun, Moyross etc – that’s all you know and it’s no problem. The issue is that other people have opinions of it and as I was saying if we were playing football matches away in other areas, we’d be called all sorts of names just because of where we were from. It’s still the same today and it’s just the policy of housing poor people together, that’s what it is. All over Ireland that was the policy and it’s still the policy today.”

This period of anti-social behaviour would ultimately lead James towards spells in and out of prison for small sentences – being in a stolen car, drug use, anti-social behaviour etc.

As James said, he would often wake up in a Garda station or in prison with no idea about how he ended up there. While spending time in prison, he was introduced to heroin.

At his lowest, James weighed about 9-10 stone, had sore arms, a gaunt face, and yellow skin. He was an addict for 10 years and told the Irish Mirror what the worst thing about being an addict is.

James Leonard

“When you’re a drug user – or if you look at a drug user on the street – you might think that there’s nothing cerebral going on there. They’re just using and that’s it. However, there’s actually a lot of thought and doubt going on in that person’s mind. A lot of it can be shame and guilt for what they’re doing and nobody wants that life. Nobody wants to be homeless, in prison or strung out on drugs. When you’re in the depths of it, it’s very hard to get out of it and it’s very hard to break that cycle. You will be using drugs when you don’t want to be using them and you’ll do things that you wouldn’t dream of doing if you weren’t on drugs, or if you didn’t need them. It does bring up a lot of guilt and shame.

“The isolation is the hardest part of it, I thought. Just feeling cut off from family and friends, you’re on your own. You’d have no money, you’d be hungry and thirsty too. It’s mad, you could be starving with the hunger and if you found €20 on the road and you wouldn’t buy food with it. It’s weird, that’s just the madness of it. The isolation is definitely the hardest thing about it – that sense of feeling alone and that adds to the belief that you need more drugs to numb all these negative emotions.”

In 2012, James was frequently using and overdosing, but one incident changed things around.

After injecting two bags of drugs – while knowing that it could have been fatal – he passed out on Cork’s Blarney Street. Thankfully, two members of An Garda Sìochàna just happened to walk past him and they luckily stumbled upon his body, otherwise, James would have been dead.

The Tommy Tiernan Show featuring James Leonard

“I haven’t met those officers again but I’d like to. I’d love to talk to them,” he said.

After this brush with death, James started to change his life and what unfolded is nothing short of remarkable.

After contacting Merchants Quay Ireland to get into a detox programme in Carlow for 16 weeks of therapeutic work, James left that programme with a new frame of mind and refocused his life goals – he now wanted a stable job, a car, a steady relationship, a home – things that he felt were unattainable at one point in his life.

After this stint in rehab, he got a bed with the Simon Community and was given a job as a cleaner – something he loved because it provided structure, purpose, and a sense of self-respect.

“When I came out of rehab, I was in an aftercare house that belonged to the Cork Simon. I was doing a bit of cleaning and work but after that, I went to the College of Commerce where I did a Level 5 Psychology and Social Studies course. I suppose when I was about two years in recovery – when I was just starting in UCC – I felt that I was more confident in myself. I felt like I had two years under my belt and that I had a career path in sight. Things started to look like they were achievable at that stage and things just went from strength to strength,” he said.

James Leonard and his wife Gillian

While the dedication, will, and strength of James to turn his life around is remarkable, the charming and softly-spoken Corkonian was quick to praise the people and organisations that gave him a helping hand on his road to recovery.

He’s a firm believer that a kind word and positive encouragement can have massive benefits, even if people don’t see the immediate benefits at firsthand.

“A kind word or some encouragement, you might never see the result of it or you might never see it in action, but one nice gesture could plant the seeds that are sewn somewhere down the line. You never know what’s going on in a person’s head. People could be struggling and you never know what a kind and compassionate word can do for that person at that moment,” he said.

In terms of his educational credentials, James has obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Youth & Community Work, a Master’s Degree in Criminology and as mentioned previously, he’s currently a Ph.D. candidate at UCC’s Department of Sociology & Criminology.

The Simon Community helped change his life and after receiving those degrees, James returned the favour by spending a year and a half working in Cork’s Simon Community. He now works at Cork Education & Training Board Youth Services and sits on the Board of Directors at Cork Simon Community.

Aside from this, he has also worked with Irish prison officers while also training, disciplining, and educating the most ostracised young people in Cork.

When his life and professional experiences are combined, he’s clearly an authority on the subject of addiction and homeless services.

However, while speaking about his work helping others, Mr Leonard believes that it has given him a greater appreciation of the people who tried to help him when he was in similar circumstances.

“Whenever I was working with homeless services or working with people who have an active addiction, it can be very rewarding but most of the time, it’s actually frustrating because change comes really, really slowly. It might take a phenomenal amount of effort to make the smallest of changes. That gave me some perspective on how those people that were trying to help me must have felt, including my family. The powerlessness of it. When I was working with homeless services, I built up a good reputation with some of the people who were residents in the shelter and I want the best for them. But a lot of the time, it ends in relapse and it doesn’t have a good outcome because you can’t really address addiction and psychological issues if you’re homeless.

“It’s those basic needs of food, shelter, and water. If you haven’t got your basic needs met, you can’t address anything else. It’s basic psychology – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Your first need is shelter. That ties in with the housing first policy that we have with Cork Simon and City Council, it’s about not trying to address the issues for people while they’re homeless, but trying to get them in a house and then put support services around them. We’ve had some success with that, we helped house some very “chaotic” people and then put the service around them. Thankfully, they’re thriving in their new homes but again, you can’t address a drug issue without addressing general inequality and homelessness. It goes hand-in-hand.

During his chat with the Irish Mirror, the Corkonian stated his belief that it’s so important that drug addicts have supervised injection clinics available.

James Leonard on The Two Norries podcast

“For people in active addiction, to have a service like a supervised injection clinic, it’s not just a place form them to shoot up. It’s a place where you can have special interaction, provide healthcare, and you can also signpost the options that we’re talking about – the options that helped me improve. Maybe, they can have interventions too and support workers on site. It’s much more than a “shooting gallery,” it’s a hub of information, it’s a signpost to a better future, a place where people can get information that might improve their situation. Again, you can go back to that thing where you plant the seed with somebody, but you can’t work with them if you’re not in their company. If you can get them in the doors and make sure they’re safe, it’s possible to do other work with them too,” he said.

Candid, powerful, and inspirational, there wasn’t a single person who watched Leonard’s chat on The Tommy Tiernan Show and didn’t hang on his every word. However, things could have been very different because originally, he didn’t want to appear on the show.

After the show aired, Leonard admits that he struggled to deal with the attention that he was getting. However, he’s far more comfortable with the spotlight after realising that his story has helped so many people who might be experiencing similar problems that he faced.

“In terms of the media, after the show aired, I was contacted by RTE to appear on a TV show. TG4 wanted to do a documentary on me and I was contacted by every newspaper and radio show in the country. I just refused everybody because I was overwhelmed and I’m actually quite a private person. Like, I didn’t even have Facebook at the time because I wanted to go under the radar. Even when I was asked to go on The Tommy Tiernan Show in 2018, I declined.

“They came back in 2019 and said ‘we’re after moving to primetime, it’s a bigger slot on Saturday night,’ I kind of asked a few people but I wasn’t keen on doing it and had to be talked into it. Afterwards, I was overwhelmed by all the media attention. I declined every media interaction and it’s only in the last couple of months that I’ve felt a bit more comfortable chatting and writing about it. I suppose at the start I felt very exposed and vulnerable, but now I’m beginning to accept that the chat I had may have helped some people.

“Before I went on the Tommy Tiernan Show, I was working in homeless and addiction services. But when I actually appeared on the show, I had just started a new job in Cork ETB. I was only in the job a week and then they see me on TV. In the new job, like any person that has just started, I was anonymous. I was hoping to go in under the radar. Then it’s like ‘you’re going on the TV!’ When I started, there was a bit of anxiety about that but when I came into the office the Monday after I was on TV, I got a beautiful reception from my colleagues and got beautiful flowers and a card. Everyone was proud of me and it was lovely,” he said.

While 2020 has been difficult for the majority of people including James and his family, there has also been some positives because after The Tommy Tiernan Show aired, the Corkonian was inspired to use his newfound spotlight for good use.

In doing so, he created The Two Norries podcast which he hopes can inspire people to change and to educate those who have an interest in topics related to drug use, addiction, recovery, desistance, trauma, mental health and social class.

“Thousands of people have contacted me after the show and they still contact me. The episode was repeated on the TV a couple of weeks ago and people wanted to know more about how I helped myself or others. With all the attention and people wanting to know more and get some guidance or help, that’s where the idea for the podcast came from. We’ve had a prison governor on, a forensic psychologist, Philly McMahon, Senator Lynn Ruane, and all these people who have a different perspective on mental health and social issues. People can access that freely and it’s great to see that people are tuned in.”

Senator Lynn Ruane on The Two Norries podcast

With COVID fears, lockdown, job loss, financial insecurity, and extreme anxiety becoming the norm in Ireland, hope and happiness have been in such short supply this year. However, so many people shared a great sense of joy and admiration for James after he graduated earlier this year, something that brought immense pride to his family.

“It was brilliant because first of all, in January, I was on The Tommy Tiernan Show and then a month later, I graduate. I felt very lucky to graduate in UCC with a traditional ceremony because a month later, we went into lockdown. A lot of people graduated on Zoom etc and I feel very sorry for them because it’s not the same. For me, I was able to bring my nephew and my dad.

“They never saw anything like that because for people who aren’t used to university life, it might seem very strange when the President comes in and he’s wearing his long robe and addressing people in Latin. It’s very ritualistic but at the same time, when your name is being called out and you go up to collect your certificate, it’s a very proud moment. I was delighted just to show my nephew that this is actually for him too and I wanted to make my dad proud. That’s all I wanted to do, sort of make amends for the hurt I caused and at that moment, I felt like I was doing the right thing.”

James Leonard graduating from UCC

The past 12 months have been incredibly difficult for so many people. Undoubtedly, there have been moments when it feels like despair, depression, and sadness are too much to overcome. A moment when people feel like they’ve hit rock bottom, when they want to give up and when it seems like there’s just no hope left.

These are all things that James can relate to and when asked if he had any advice for people who might feel like things are spiralling out of control, he had this to say.

“It will pass. Everything that we’re going through with COVID, it will pass. We’ll get back to normal and all these additional mental health issues that go with it, they’ll pass too. We’ll get through it. We can all get very fatalistic sometime about this – especially since we’re all going in and out of lockdown – but just try and grind it out, whatever way you can. If that means eating more food, watching more Netflix, or playing more Xbox, that’s ok. Don’t be too hard on yourself and just try and get through it. Just remember that a kind word, one nice gesture, or a helping hand can make the biggest difference to someone’s life. It did for me.”



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Newsrust: James Leonard's inspirational story of drug addiction, recovery and hope
James Leonard's inspirational story of drug addiction, recovery and hope
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