From flying the heights of the big top to falling hard to the rock bottom, Joe Putignano’s story is one of living your truth, and perhaps more importantly, a story of that very truth being stolen, beaten, and found again.
A beacon of physical health with angelic ability, Putignano is far from being the poster child of addiction. Many have seen him in action as Cirque Du Soleil’s crystal man in Totem or spotted him in Marco Marco’s New York Show. His talents are real, and anyone who has seen him in action will tell you the same.
After a ten-year battle with heroin, the gravity-defying hero again rises to the top. His book, AcrobADDICT, is a story of self-discovery – a journey so many of us find ourselves on as a community…as performers…as humans. We were thrilled for the opportunity to spend some time with Joe, and chat intimately about his time with Cirque Du Soleil, overcoming addiction, and how he ultimately rose from the ashes.
Drag Star Diva: I think at one point or another in all of our lives we have all dreamt of flying, and not many of us have actually achieved it. What’s it like to be an acrobat?
Joe Putignano: When I was little and first started gymnastics, flipping did feel a lot like flying. I felt free and I think that is why I initially kept doing it. That feeling changes a lot over time because being an acrobat is dangerous and painful, and the older I became the more I understood mistakes can lead to broken bones or worse. There are moments though…when it still feels like I’m flying;)
DSD: You learned your skill at a very young age. What sparked the interest in gymnastics?
JP: I was 7-years-old and watching the 1984 Olympics when gymnastics came on. Within a moment, I was struck by lightning and I knew deep down in my heart, ‘this is what I’m supposed to do in life.’ I immediately took the cushions off the couch and started flipping around. My parents tried to stop me, but they couldn’t because I was possessed by the spirit of movement.
DSD: At what age did you start to feel that you had a talent good enough to compete with?
JP: I don’t remember having a choice on competing, after a month of classes, the owner came up and said, “You are on the team, we start competing in 3 months.” I was terrified but I knew it was what I was supposed to do.
DSD: You are widely known for your talent but in recent years you have also become known with your struggle with addiction; what made you come out as an addict?
JP: I’ve always been very open and honest about my demons and struggles because I know as humans we generally share the same fears. I suffered hard and long as an addict, and I knew opening up about it would help other people find recovery because that is how I found it. Someone had opened up to me about their addiction and it changed my life. We don’t have to suffer in silence or shame anymore.
DSD: You wrote a book, AcrobADDICT, about your life as a gymnast and your life as an addict. What made you decide to tell your story in a book?
JP: I had always wanted to be a writer. Like gymnastics, it was one of those things that I knew I wanted to do. The difficult part about writing is finding a story. I had been told by many people that I had an unusual story and I should write about it. Of course my own history wasn’t unusual to me, as it was my ‘normal’, but I began writing it down just to get it on paper. At that time, the director of the Cirque du Soleil show I was working on asked to read what I was always writing between rehearsals. Even though I was apprehensive I trusted him creatively, and a few days later he said sincerely, “You need to publish this, it can help people.” I then knew what I had to do.
DSD: Did you find it difficult to publish such a personal book?
JP: What was most challenging about publishing a memoir is I had to make some of my characters a lot ‘kinder’ than they were in real life. For instance, my parents were much more abusive and alcoholic than I wrote about. When one writes a memoir, everything has to be fact checked by the characters (if they are still living) and my parents and all my characters had to read the book before it was published and say yes, this even happened, etc. I know my parents did the best they could, and I don’t blame them for what happened to me, but they did a lot more damage than I wrote about.
DSD: Did writing about your story help in your recovery?
JP: My story actually didn’t help me in my own recovery, and I thought it would have. It created a sort of illusion that I knew something about recovery and addiction, when in fact…I don’t. I know suffering and I know I got into recovery by hitting rock bottom over and over, but this is everyone’s story in addiction. My story isn’t unique and I have to remember that because I don’t want anything to separate me from others.
DSD: What was the driving force of you using?
JP: Pain! I was in so much emotional pain when I was a teenager that I dreamt of suicide all throughout high school. I truly wanted to die. It is because of this that I can openly say, “drugs and alcohol saved my life” during those years because they medicated the pain and they gave me hope. I grew up having terrible self esteem, a non existent support network, and basically did what I had to do to survive.
DSD: What was the appeal of your drug of choice?
JP: My drug of choice was heroin and at the time, heroin took all my pain away and made me feel safe, warm and loved. It felt like I was being held in the arms of God.
DSD: How did you manage to continue with your career all the while in the depths of addiction, and did others know what was going on?
JP: Addicts are very resilient people and we will always find a way to make the madness work. Addiction is a full time job that takes all your money, friends, and self worth away. I’m not sure I managed it well. Looking back I can see how many opportunities I lost to addiction.
DSD: What was it that made you get clean?
JP: I was as desperate as only the dying can be! I was in so much pain by the end of my using and so fucked up inside. All the drugs on earth couldn’t medicate my feelings of shame, self pity, guilt, remorse, or sadness. I couldn’t live with drugs or without, but I was willing to try getting clean. This willingness is a pivotal moment in one’s recovery, as it opens unlocked doors.
DSD: What was your process in getting clean?
JP: Getting clean is a different process for many. For myself it is a difficult process because I had to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I am a very emotional man and many negative emotions can feel like daggers to my heart. I had to learn and still have to learn to sit through these feelings. I have to stop chasing a life filled of pleasure and learn to live life on life’s terms; basically, I have to live in reality.
DSD: Getting clean is no easy feat, so what kept you motivated to stay the course?
JP: Desperation. They say it is easier to stay sober than get sober, and after many years clean, many years relapsing with more clean time, I’ve learned this to be true.
DSD: Today as a recovering addict, what motivates you to stay clean?
JP: Recovery is the best chance at happiness that I will ever know. I can’t ever forget this. It is something I have to do, in the same way that a type 1 diabetic has to take insulin. If I don’t stay clean, I will die and hurt everyone I love in the process. When I am high on drugs, like many, I am not the man I am…I am something dark and violent, pain’s pain.
DSD: After all you have overcome, and the success you are seeing now, what does that feel like?
DSD: You were cast in a once in a lifetime part as The Crystal Man in Cirque Du Soleil’s Totem. What was that experience like?
JP: Performing with Cirque was one of the most physically grueling and demanding jobs I’ve ever done. However, it was a life’s dream come true and extremely rewarding. I know this is odd to say, or maybe it isn’t, but I have terrible stage fright, so every night before the show I would freak out in my head and ask myself, “why am I doing this, leave, just go home!” Yet when the lights came on, and I came down from the ceiling, an eerie calm washed over me and somehow I did things on stage that I could not do at this very moment. In retrospect, it was an honor and will always be a great memory that I can draw strength from.
JP: Oh no, that means you saw how petrified I was walking down the runway. lol. I believe I was 25 years old and I was performing in Broadway Bares and a photographer came up to me and asked if he could take pictures. I thought it was odd because a few years before that I was a homeless heroin addict and nobody wanted to take my picture then (with good reason), but I still had zero self esteem. It took a long time to trust other people and this is still a process.
DSD: You work as a personal trainer as well. Was it hard to go from the bottom of addiction to the top of wellness?
JP: Yes it was very difficult and it still is. I turned 40 last year and life is always going to throw new challenges at me like injuries and even age restraints. I’m learning a difficult kind of self care these days.
DSD: Some who struggle with addiction feel they can’t turn things around. What do you say to them?
JP: I know this feeling all too well and I can relate. Please, if you are out there struggling, it can change and get better. I can’t promise it will be easy, but it will be better than a life drinking or on drugs. Go to 12 step meetings, rehabs, whatever it takes. For myself, it took ten years of relapsing just to get 90 days clean, so if you are an addict like me: don’t ever give up!
DSD: Although addiction is something that plagues every walk of life, why do you think it’s so prevalent in the gay community?
JP: I know for my generation, and the generations above mine, we were endlessly picked on for being gay. Bullying can destroy the human spirit and drugs and alcohol can bring temporary relief from the pain. Many of us felt isolated, depressed, anxious and drugs and alcohol had once helped feel more comfortable around other people.
DSD: What can we do as a community to help those who are in the depths of addiction?
JP: The stigma around addiction must be smashed! Addiction is not a defect of character! Addicts are not bad people, they are sick and wounded people. People that don’t feel loved. Our society tells us often that addicts are lazy, hopeless, unintelligent people, but this is not true. The stigma of shame and guilt warps the mind of an addict, and in result many are too ashamed to seek recovery. If we want to save lives we need to see addiction as a disease of mind, body and spirit.
DSD: Also, many who are in recovery fear a relapse; how do you calm that daily anxiety of relapsing?
JP: I’ve had many relapses. Some say relapse is part of the disease but it doesn’t have to be. I know for myself, when I’ve relapsed it is because I lost focus on what was important in life. The last time I relapsed was over a guy. They say romance and finance are the quickest things that can make a person relapse and I definitely believe this to be true. If I am to have no more relapses for the rest of my life, I need to treat my addiction everyday by doing to a 12 step meeting or something recovery related. It must come first, as this really is life and death.
DSD: As your journey continues, what’s next for Joe?
JP: I’m currently on a break from nursing school and have plans to go back in May. My goal is to become a nurse practitioner.
DSD: Could we expect a follow up to AcrobADDICT?
JP: Actually…there is. After writing Acrobaddict, I thought I’d never write about myself again. I needed a few years to get away from that project and try a few other writing endeavors out. Over the years, a sequel has emerged and I am working on it now.