Joe Putignano’s emotional story of overcoming addiction and finding redemption
by C.L. Frederick
photos by Scott Marrs Photography
Athlete, author and addict Joe Putignano has gone from competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team to living in homeless shelters and on the streets. He is the author of “Acrobaddict,” a memoir of his fall from being a top athlete into the unforgiving hands of addiction, only to climb out of its grasp to become a Cirque du Soleil performing artist and a Broadway performer.
Putignano’s drug fixation first began in high school where he was already a world class gymnast and athlete, once training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. By college, he had already developed an obsession with cocaine, his gateway drug, which spiraled into a prescription drug problem and heroin addiction. He flunked out of college, became estranged from his family, and soon had his first stay in a homeless shelter.
After stints in rehab and defeating his addictions, he joined the cast of Cirque du Soleil’s Totem, began studying for a degree in health studies, and started writing his second book. He’s become a guiding light of recovery, appearing on television shows such as Anderson Cooper 360 and CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, M.D., sharing his experience as a gay former addict.
Putignano is especially interested in reaching LGBTQ individuals. “We’re a set of communities that have historically relied on nightlife as the only discrete way to congregate with other LGBTQ people. Our community has been vulnerable to self-medicating with alcohol and other drugs, even in today’s more tolerant America,” said Putignano.
Today Putignano, 38, lives in New York City and is a spokesman for recovery and an advocate for proper treatment and care for those afflicted with this disease. He is a living example of addiction truly being something one can recover from and works to change the stigma of addicts and encourages people to help them.
What are some of the highlights of your career? What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my sobriety. My own addiction was the most difficult and painstaking battle of my life. It lasted more years than I had ever anticipated. I know my sobriety is day by day, therefore it is fleeting, and I respect and honor this. It is like having a beautiful gift that I could easily lose, so I try to cling tightly to it.
As far as the highlights of my career, I have to honestly admit it was writing my memoir and being recognized for its literary qualities on CNN. I have been a hopeless poet since I was a child, but poetry is dead. For this project, I had to deconstruct my poetry and fit them into sentences and within the bones of my story. I am extremely proud I persevered through this because many people laughed at me when they heard I was writing a book.
How did drugs become a part of your life? When did you realize you initially had a problem?
I was that kid in school who was always against drinking and drugs, and was least likely to end up as an addict. I was a gymnast and very serious about my sport.
The way drugs became a part of my life was very innocent, in the same manner most drugs are introduced to people. I had friends who were doing them, and over time I wanted to try it because it looked like they were having fun, and they were, and it didn’t seem to cause them any harm.
I first noticed I had a problem is when I was taking handfuls of benzodiazepines to just to get out of bed. The kids in Boston I was hanging out with were doing the same thing, but the same kids were telling me I should slow down.
How would you describe addiction?
It is the one disease where one can liken it to being trapped in a jail cell with the keys on the inside. Sometimes all it takes is that one person to show them where the keys are and help them open that door.
Would you be able to describe your rock-bottom? What was your first step to recovery?
Even though I was clinically dead twice, in homeless shelters, rehabs and mental institutions, my rock bottom came in the form of incomprehensible demoralization. I was 29 years old and had been doing heroin for almost 10 years. I had a flash into the future and saw myself – if I survived – doing the same exact thing I was doing then: desperately searching for heroin, shooting up, running out, getting dope sick, and repeat. I realized that this would be the happiest I would ever be and the future of my life was empty. All these incredible highs began to crack, and reality came flooding in. My soul was black, and I found no joy in life. I wanted to die.
My first step into recovery happened many years before, around the age of 19. I was in my first homeless shelter in Patterson, N.J., and they made us go to 12-step meetings. Although I could not grasp the power of recovery then – because I was still having fun with drugs – it did plant a powerful seed that cultivated over 10 years. Not in a religious way, but divine light will always find a way through the darkness, even if it takes a decade.
Why did you decide to share your story with the world? How has writing “Acrobaddict” changed your life?
I honestly didn’t want to write a memoir in the beginning. For starters, I didn’t think my story would matter to anyone and I didn’t want to write about myself – it seemed rather prideful. While I was performing with Cirque du Soleil, I was writing another book – the one I’m finishing now – and the director of the show, Robert Lepage, asked me if he could take a look at what I was writing. He is a man I admire, and I let him read a few chapters. He loved my writing and urged me to write my own story. I resisted this idea, but then he said, “You could help someone avoid the same path you went down … you could, save a life.” It was then I knew I had a responsibility and had to write it.
Writing “Acrobaddict” changed my life because it opened up a dialogue within me, and all of those who are suffering from addiction. It is incredible because I get many emails daily from people who are struggling with addiction, and I do my best to listen and give some direction. The word compassion means to suffer with.
What advice would you give to anyone struggling with addiction?
My advice is cliché but very true: NEVER, EVER GIVE UP. The only reason I am here telling you my story is because this was the only aspect I did correctly. I am not special and I kept trying to get clean. I went in and out of 12-step meetings for 10 years, and finally, I understood what recovery was and I stayed. Many people think, as I once thought, that a life without drugs and alcohol is boring. I have never been more wrong in my entire life. In sobriety, I remember every experience and am in the moment. The greatest highs on earth cannot compare to this.
What did you do to beat your addiction and get to where you are today?
I haven’t beaten my addiction, as it still lives in me. There are those days when it’s knocking at my heart, but I have a spiritual program that works for me today. However, the first step, I did talk about in my book, was when I was working at the New York Times, and they had intervened and sent me to rehab. After speaking to one of the counselors, she told me that she could see that I was destined for more than this life. When I returned to work, instead of going and getting high, I stacked boxes of paper up on the copier room, worked on my flexibility and fought to bring back the athlete I once was.
How good does sober feel to you?
Well, I remember when I was using, waking up hung over, with a cocaine headache, pain in my veins from all the injections of heroin, dope sick, desperate with an obsession to get more drugs, wanting to kill myself, but today I woke up fresh and alive on my pillow. I’m hopeful, energetic and alive. I’m not sure anything can compare to recovery because the hell of addiction is not in my present life, and I hope I can keep it this way for the rest of my days here on the planet.
What is life like today for you? What do you treasure most?
Life is hard for everyone. Even when we try to improve on one aspect our lives, something else loses focus and falls apart. It truly is a balance, and for myself, I am on a constant mission to create new things, which means I’m consumed with projects and I do a lot of doing, instead of being.
This is also where my boyfriend Josh has been essential. He makes sure that I make an effort to keep my creativity going even when my studies become overwhelming. We work on a variety of projects together which helps him break his routine at work and tap into our collective creativity.
I treasure creativity the most. When I am creating something, my life and problems dissolve into nothing, and I am free. I love making something from nothing.
What is next for you career wise? Do you plan on writing another book?
I am writing another book with the working title called “Diabolus Hora,” which is a horror book. I am one of those die-hard horror fans and have always wanted to write one. This book is inspired by the music of PJ Harvey, because her songs walk me to a dark place, leave me there, and then I have to write my way back home.
I have just been accepted into the accelerated emergency nurse practitioner program and will be starting this in May, which means I have to finish this book by then. It is a rigorous program, and I won’t have time for anything else.
What are things in your life that give you strength?
All my strength is derived from music. Music is everything to me and, the reason I write is because I am not musically talented, and I wanted to contribute to the sonic shapes. My writing is my silent song.
My boyfriend, Josh gives me true love and strength on a daily basis. He definitely supports me in all my endeavors and has the honesty and willingness to tell me I’m being a douchebag when I am. This is a beautiful thing to have.
Where can people buy your book?
My book is available at my website joeputignano.com, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Amazon.com, and other various book stores. t