The energy and obsession that drove Joe Putignano’s promising gymnastics career was the same energy he put towards using heroin. But after bouncing in and out of rehabs, he’s been clean and sober for over nine years. Joe even made a triumphant return to the sport as a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. He’s now sharing his remarkable story in the aptly titled and extremely powerful memoir, Acrobaddict.
In this exclusive interview with Recovery.org, Joe Putignano talks about how drug abuse won over gymnastics, the worst moments of his addiction and how he made his way back to the sport he loves.
When did your drug use first begin?
Joe: I started with normal high school experimentation when I was 13 and my full drug use began I was 17, during the rave era in Boston. Ecstasy was my gateway. I was drinking alcohol, smoking pot and taking acid, but ecstasy was the drug that felt like the solution and felt like I couldn’t live without it.
With the successful gymnastics career you had, how were you able to manage your addiction in a sport that requires such precision?
Joe: It wasn’t easy, to be totally honest. You have two love affairs. Gymnastics was the passion that the universe or God gave me, but drugs were something that I discovered and won out over what the universe had given me. I tried to do both things simultaneously and managed for a while, but ultimately lost my sport just because it’s so physical and demanding.
You mention in your book that your downfall into addiction happened within just a couple of years. What were some of the things that happened during that time?
Joe: I went to college, but I came from an alcoholic home and honestly did it just for a place to live. I started doing cocaine and that won out over the ecstasy. There were a lot of rumors about me on the gymnastics team in my first year and you could see that I was angry and destructive.
I finally went to my school and said that I have a cocaine problem. They said, “Okay, thank you for telling us. We’re aware.” [Laughs]. They told me I could try rehab, so I thought that meant I could leave whenever I wanted. On the fourth day, I told them I was cured and wanted to come back, but they told me I had to finish 14 days or else I’d lose my grants and not be able to return on campus. I just said, “Fuck you, I’m cured,” and left. Eventually, I went to an outpatient rehab and they put me on Klonopin, which changed my life for the worse.
After bouncing in and out of rehabs and treatment facilities, what was the catalyst for you to get sober and truly embrace recovery?
Joe: After that, I went on a two-year Klonopin induced blackout. Not even just Klonopin…I’d eat anything. I was all over the country, homeless, arrested, in and out of rehabs and mental institutions. I was critically dead twice. It was just a nightmare.
I discovered heroin by the time I made it to New York City, which went on for eight or nine years. It was interesting because I kept going back to the same place and they kept me telling to do the same thing, which is go to a meeting. I’ve been going to AA or 12-Steps since 1999, but I just didn’t get it and didn’t believe it was possible for me to get sober.
Eventually, I was 27 and working at the New York Times, and was shooting heroin a couple of times a day to not get sick. I finally had enough and said that I’ll do anything to get re-clean and sober. I went to the employee assistance program and they asked if I’d like to go to rehab that Monday.
Did your return to gymnastics come shortly after getting sober? Or did it take a few years?
Joe: When I was at that rehab, the therapist said to me that I would never stop using unless I found a passion inside of me. That was always gymnastics, but I felt like it was too late. I didn’t make the Olympics, so in my mind, I lost and was a failure. She told me to try and open my mind up to doing it without competing.
Right after that session, I went up to my room at the rehab and started doing handstands and splits. It sparked something within me right away and became that little flicker of light in the darkness. I just followed that light and it continued to grow.
I had a relapse here and there, but basically started working on a different path. I started training with a contortionist when I was almost 18 months clean. It’s a bizarre thing to try and become when you’re 27 years old, but luckily I had flexibility from gymnastics that allowed me to work in that.
Ultimately, I was on Broadway when I last relapsed. That was a dream job and everyone was so proud of me, but I had to go back to 12-Steps and tell them I had one day clean. That was March 25, 2007 – and I’ve been clean since then.
What are some of the things that have helped you maintain sobriety?
Joe: I’m just doing what everyone told me to do from the beginning, which is the steps. For me, it wasn’t just the 12-Steps. The steps were honesty, because my honesty flies out the window as soon as I get addictive behavior. And just learning I can tell people I don’t feel good today…I didn’t know I could do that!
There have been times in these past nine years where my sobriety has been strong and times where it’s been weak, but it’s just been a matter of embracing that.
Image Courtesy of Joe Putignano