Joe Putignano is a talented performing artist and contortionist who has toured with Cirque du Soleil. He was, in fact, the main character ( Crystal Man ) in the touring Cirque show Totem and has performed in more than 1,000 shows.
Putignano also has performed in a number of stage productions with the Metropolitan Opera, and his gymnastics resume is nothing short of impressive. Dating back to 1987, he won numerous state and regional championships and was on the fast track to Olympic stardom through the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
But that's only the tip of the Putignano storythe awe-inspiring portion.
Putignano also has been homeless, a cocaine user, a heroin addict, disowned by his parents and twice has been declared dead. And, he's gay and was bullied while growing up. He also has attempted suicide.
The Putignano story certainly sounds like it should be a script written in Hollywood … but it's the real deal.
"My life … it's somewhat exhausting," he said, pausing to reflect, before breaking into laughter. "There was an immense amount of work to hit the highs and the lowsand to get out of them. But when I look back, I wouldn't change it because the road has definitely humbled me and gave me compassion, which I feel is now one of my bigger strengths.
"With a deeper sense of suffering and pain [that I endured], it now allows me to better connect with people, more on a soul level, which is really amazing. And there was a time when I didn't have that; I know I was an arrogant gymnast teenager."
So what's the high point for this 37-year-old, muscle-filled New York resident?
He doesn't hesitate with his answer: Just getting sober.
"I know that might not look like the [high point in my life], if you look at some of the things I've done on paper. But I never, ever thought I could get soberand was never able to, from age 19 to 30, [regardless of what] I tried, and I tried everything, including four rehab [stints], [time in] homeless shelters, a 12-step [recovery] program, addiction specialists," and more.
Putignano was an elite, competitive gymnast, training for the Olympics. But he stopped and simply quit the sport due to his drug addiction. He didn't return to gymnastics until he was in his late 20s because he was trying to get sober and thought going back to something that he once loved would help.
"All of those years in between [after quitting gymnastics], I wasn't exercising; I was basically smoking cigarettes and shooting heroin," he said.
"When I look back in retrospect, I can't believe I did thatand knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn't do it again because it was so much harder than I thought."
Putignano's wild, roller coaster life is chronicled in his can't-put-down addiction memoir, Acrobaddict, which tells of his truly amazing odysseyamazing that he's still alive to share his story, that is.
"Writing a book and actually getting it published was a personal high and definitely an important part of my life. Writing this book made my past not so much in vain and was able to help people through that," he said. "It certainly was tough to write all of these terrible things that I've done for the public [to read and know]."
The 370-page book, published by Las Vegas-based Central Recovery Press, took him about four years to write. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the chief medical correspondent for CNN, issued a statement when the book was released, calling it the most candid book of the year.
"Prepare to be frightened and taken to the depths of despair and then lifted up triumphantly," Gupta stated. "It is never too late to hit the reset button on your lifethat is what you are about to learn from Joe Putignano. He is equally adept at taking you through the remarkable journey of his own terrible addiction as he is in the world of acrobatics, descending from the Cirque du Soleil big top as a human mirror ballthe figurative spark of change in humanity ... It is proof that with hard work, anything is possible."
Putignano said that one of the biggest woes in his life was quitting gymnastics, and he did so because drugs were getting in the way. "I basically wanted to party all of the time," he said. "I was trying to do both when I was in college, but was hooked on cocaine, among other drugs."
Consequently, he was getting injured often.
He was, admittedly, at a "very dangerous level."
So he simply stepped away from the sport, which he now tags as "one of the lowest points" in his life. After all, gymnastics was his passion, his church, "what kept me alive."
But he had fallen in love with the drugs.
"That was truly sad," he said.
Putignano's drug-fueled spiral landed him in and out of homeless shelters in the Northeast for two years. There also were times he stayed at the home of his drug dealer.
"It's a real terrible thing, sleeping outside with no one to call [for help]. That was the absolute worst," he said.
Putignano also had stays in mental institutions.
And this was before he discovered heroin.
Putignano said his parents disowned him because, when he was home, he'd be strung out on drugs, thus paramedics had to be called, or, he got violent and thus the police were called. And when he phoned his parents, from a pay phone, they'd hang up on him. "That is the worst thing in the world; talk about feeling unloved," he said.
Putignano said his drug addiction was not impacted by being gay. "Addiction is greater than sexuality; addiction does not discriminate [based on sexual orientation]," he said.
Putignano was bullied for being gay while growing up, which he now says "definitely had a huge impact on the way I saw myself [and] the world … it changes almost every decision that you make; it's almost as if you feel alienated from the planet. That really destroyed my self-esteem and my self-worth.
"Being gay did not cause my addiction, but made it worse."
However, recovery is possible, he said, "no matter how far down the scale you've gone, how low you've hit." That's his message, especially for the crystal-meth users, abusers and addicted, which is so prominent in the gay community, he said.
Putignano hit his eighth year of sobriety March 25.
He is now in school full-time, pursuing a career as a physician's assistant, and he also is writing a second book, though it's not about him, rather, in the horror genre. He said the book will be released in 2016.