The Balancing Act Of Sobriety: Joe Putignano Talks Acrobatics And Addiction

By McCarton Ackerman 01/31/14

The gymnast, whose dreams were once derailed by his addiction, talks to The Fix about his new memoir documenting his triumphant return as a Cirque du Soleil acrobat.

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A former champion gymnast in his youth, Joe Putignano was part of an elite college gymnastics team and had his sights set on the Olympics. Then a severe drug addiction derailed his dreams. Within two years, Putignano had dropped out of college and found himself in a homeless shelter. He waddled through periods of sobriety for nearly a decade, during which heroin also become part of his life, and almost died during a severe overdose that resulted in two cardiac deaths within 24 hours.

But after getting sober nearly seven years ago, Putignano made a triumphant return to the sport he loves by working for more than three years as an acrobat with Cirque du Soleil, and is now telling his life story in the new memoir Acrobaddict. He spoke exclusively with The Fix about the worst moments of his addiction, why nearly dying from an overdose wasn’t the catalyst for him to get sober, and why he recently underwent shoulder surgery without the aid of any painkillers.

You previously spoke about undergoing shoulder surgery without painkillers in order to not compromise your sobriety. How did the surgery turn out for you?

It went well. Because of my addiction, we were trying to find a better solution than painkillers. We did a lot of acupuncture and Tylenol, which ended up helping more than you might think. It was definitely painful, but it worked. I was so addicted to opiates that using them wasn’t an option. One Vicodin would send me off into a bender for two weeks.

Were you awake throughout the surgery then?

They did use Propofol to put me to sleep, but they didn’t use opiates, which they usually do when you’re out. They put a device on my head and tested my brain activity to see if I was going through pain. They would have had to give me opiates if I was about to wake up, but luckily that didn’t happen.

When did your drug use first start?

I have a huge history with addiction. I started doing drugs when I was 17 during the ‘90s rave era and it quickly went from cocaine to prescription drugs like Klonopin. Eventually, I started having seizures when I wasn’t using it. I was competing in college on the gymnastics team, but ended up homeless and losing everything due to my drug use.

How were you able to function while high in a sport that requires such precision?

That’s a good question and something I’m still trying to figure out. I was high on heroin when I first performed at the Met as an acrobat, so I was able to balance the two initially. The problem is that the drugs slowed down my muscle reaction so much that I was getting injured and eventually broke my ankle on the vaults. I’ve been trained my whole life to make the human body do whatever I want, so when I was high, it was like moving a machine and it became easy to fool people. 

There’s definitely a relationship between my addiction and my athletics. Having this training actually gave my addiction longevity, but it also enabled me to go through the pain of detox and withdrawals because competitive athletics is pretty hardcore. But in my younger years, it came to a point where I had to make a choice between the two and I chose drugs. 

Going from competing in college gymnastics to winding up homeless within two years is a pretty rapid downfall for anyone. How did you handle it?

It was pretty shocking how quickly my addiction progressed. I was 19 and at a homeless shelter in the NYC area, just thinking about how this had all happened. But when I had benzos, which was pre-heroin, it felt like I could do anything. It quieted the desire to be perfect in gymnastics and if I initially thought that one pill is the solution, then 10 will really do it. It was ultimately something that had been brewing for a long time.

When did your heroin use start?

Heroin began in my 20’s. I started sniffing it and it eventually became intravenous. Luckily, I had already been to 12 step meetings because they made us go in the homeless shelter and I still went to them even when I was using because it felt like a safe space. Addicts don’t always try to bury themselves. I’d get 90 days clean and then get a Vicodin at the dentists office and it would be all over. I was clean from age 27-29, with the exception of one five-day period. 

Since you were going back and forth between sobriety and using, what got you to finally stick with recovery?

My heart had stopped due to an overdose and I had two cardiac deaths in 24 hours. But honestly, death to an addict isn’t scary because the addiction is a living hell. I wasn’t afraid to die. What scared me was continuing to live with this obsession at age 50 or 60. Living with this long-term just felt sad and I had already burned every bridge, so I just didn’t feel like a good person.

How did you end up getting back into gymnastics then?

Most gymnasts have the goal of going to the Olympics and because I didn’t do that, I felt like a failure and felt like I had betrayed the sport to do drugs. When I was working at the New York Times, they sent me to the last rehab I’ve been in and I decided then that gymnastics was my art and I was going to do it for the love of the sport. I started doing handstands and push-ups in these little rooms. That spark when I first started the sport began to hit again and that same addictive obsession began to be translated into my passion.

I went to a surgeon in New Jersey and received an opiate blocker implant that wasn’t approved. They cut a little hole in the back of my arm and the implant itself made it so that even if I used, I wouldn’t get high. I was selected to be on the Bob Dylan musical on Broadway after getting clean for 90 days and the approval from that enabled me to stay clean for two years. I knew I wouldn’t have been picked for this when I was out on the street. But I ended up relapsing the last week of the show because my sobriety was so entangled in this production that it felt overwhelming. That lasted for five days and I immediately went to 12 step meetings afterwards. I’ll be sober for seven years in March.

What advice would you give to people looking to get sober?

Someone told me that when you’re using, today is as good as your life gets if you don’t change because as you keep using, things will get worse. I try to speak to a lot of people in recovery because i was a chronic relapser myself. It’s so cliche, but you just have to keep trying because your life literally depends on it.

McCarton Ackerman last interviewed VH1's Jen Berman about her recovery from an eating disorder.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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