Former Cirque du Soleil performer and heroin addict shares what he’s learned about athletics and addiction

I very rarely respond to pitches from New York PR types, but this one – an opportunity to contact gymnast and Cirque du Soleil performer, Joe Putignano - interested me.

Namely, here is an athlete who battled an addiction to heroin, not one who took steroids or blood doped.

The angle was interesting in light of performance enhancing drugs that Lance Armstrong finally fessed up about and the reaction of people to Michael Phelps, who was photographed smoking weed in Columbia after the 2008 Olympics only to return in 2012 and collect even more gold medals.

Athletes and drugs …  Putignano dives deep into it the subject in his newly released book, “Acrobaddict,” ($18 – Central Recovery Press). CNN’s Sanjay Gupta describes the book as “a raw and emotional tale… a roller coaster through the depths of addiction, tragedy, hard work, and redemption…” 

So I asked Joe to give me an Esquire-style, “What I’ve Learned” profile. Here it is:

I wrote this memoir to help others. I will never forget holding a syringe full of heroin over my arm, desperately pleading with myself to stop, but couldn’t. I was in absolute agony, paralyzed by the immense power of trying to rid myself of emotion, but endlessly suffering from the insanity of my addiction.


I was too afraid to die, and too afraid to live, and my addiction became the space between life and death. I had never envisioned my life to turn out like this, and every needle puncture was a painful reminder of the happy, energetic child I once was.



I was one of the lucky one’s who had found a passion for the sport of gymnastics, but I gave that perfectly wrapped gift back to God, in exchange for a lifetime full of misery and fleeting highs. I continued to get high to forget about the agony of abandoning those dreams.


In my deep drugged-out delusions I still dreamt that one day—some day—I would get clean and find my way back to those dreams I had as a child. I fought an endless battle against myself. Years of relapse, rehabs, and an obsession that circled the drains of hell kept taking me down.


Eventually, years later, I got clean and into recovery, and that small flame grew stronger, igniting my bones with the desire to be and do more, to go back to those dreams I had abandoned.


 I followed the light of that fire back to athletics and trained harder than ever to return to the sport I loved so much. It was during that time, as I exited out of hell, that I knew I had to attempt to help others who were suffering just like me. Those addicted. Those still in the long methadone lines, the one on the bar stool drinking away his or her dreams down into an empty soul, and the many who love and/or affected by addicts.


After I finished writing my book, I realized it was for anyone who wanted to rekindle their own dreams and reach for the stars. Nothing is impossible; it will be difficult, but not impossible. I wrote Acrobaddict for those who are still stuck in their own version of a syringe. I know I’m not special; I’m just an ordinary guy, and if I can do this recovery thing, anyone else can, too.


Athletics and addiction share many of the same qualities. I didn’t realize this connection until I was halfway finished writing my book. In earlier chapters, I wrote about my passion for gymnastics. It was like a drug; I would sneak downstairs after practice and continue to flip until I could not move my body anymore. Every time I did something I thought was difficult and dangerous, I was filled with a euphoria and high that kept me crawling back for more. It was the same thing dancers talk about when they are dancing, as if they are filled with a burning hot fire.

It wasn’t just the high that drew me to gymnastics, but also the rituals I had fallen in love with. The chalk on my hands, the sound my feet made when I landed on the crash mat, the way the chaotic world seemed to stand still in a solid handstand as if all the terrible sounds of life became silent. The sport became my church, my salvation, my art form that allowed me to escape my life.

Endless hours of training in gymnastics felt like its own war, but I kept returning because I loved it so much. I couldn’t think of anything else, and during school I never could concentrate on learning because I was so enthusiastic about and obsessed with doing gymnastics. The root for my enthusiasm is en theos, which means possessed by gods. My muscles were so sore that a simple touch would send spasms of pain throughout my body, but I knew I didn’t have a choice because I was driven to the point of madness. There was something inside of me that wouldn’t allow me live any other way.

This deep passion I had for gymnastics ultimately turned, when the crushing weight of my addiction took over. I fell in love with drugs in the same way I first did with gymnastics. It was the high. I was on fire; I was free from the world, and it allowed me to escape into a place where I found silence and solace. The high was much easier to obtain because all I had to do was inject something, take a pill, or sniff a line. I didn’t have room for both love affairs in my life, and I had to get rid of my first love for my new one. I gave back my gift of movement for the darkness of addiction.

The rituals of heroin oddly reminded me of gymnastics as a child. I wasn’t pouring chalk onto my hands, but powdered heroin in a spoon, no longer hearing the loud thundering crash of my feet hitting the mat but instead heard the never-ending promise of my self spoken lie of “just one more time,” and I no longer saw the world upside down from a handstand, but instead saw life from a dizzying heroin haze.

The long years of athletic abuse taught me to be a proper junkie because I could handle pain and dope sickness with the best of them. It was as if the training from gymnastics taught me how to endure the brutal beatings an addict gives to him- or herself. Gymnastics taught me how to take full control of my physical movement, which later allowed me to mimic being abstinent, like a man inside a machine knowing how to have complete physical control in a blackout.

The passion I enjoyed turned into a raging obsession. When I was younger, all I could think about was flipping, competing, trying to be the best, now my obsession was, how could I get more, how could I stay high, and what was I going to do when this runs out. What am I going to do when I have an emotion that I can’t handle?

– Joe Putignano



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