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Cover Guy: Joe Putignano

Joe Putignano has lived a lot of life in his 30 some-odd years. A world-class gymnast with Olympic dreams, athletics all too soon took a backseat to drugs, alcohol, depression and eventual homelessness. Joe’s new book, Acrobaddict, out in September, is a compelling chronicle of his journey from young Boston kid in the gym to heroin addict on the streets of New York to performing at the Metropolitan Opera House. But this isn’t just some addict-gets-sober memoir. Acrobaddict delves into an athlete’s obsessive struggle for perfection, the relationship between self-doubt and self-harm and the unbelievable resilience of the human soul.

“I kept journals throughout my entire youth. From the first time I took acid, I’d write about everything, and they got me in trouble all the time,” Joe says with a laugh. “But I always wanted to be a writer, so I wrote down everything. Even when I was homeless, the two things I had were my teddy bear and my journal. So when it came to writing the book, I had this amazing written history.”

A history that at times is truly hard to fathom. The youngest of four, Joe grew up in a working-class family, with parents who often spent more time at their restaurant than at home. At 8 years old, he was teaching himself the rudiments of gymnastics in the family basement. Joe’s description of those times—“gymnastics became the path in my life where I could communicate with the God I’d heard about,” he writes in Acrobaddict—sounds more like that of an addict chasing a fix than a grade-schooler exploring a new hobby.

It didn’t take long for Joe’s parents to realize their son had a gift and enroll him in gymnastics classes. Joe writes that after he walked into the gym for the first time, nothing would be the same in his life. The then-9-year-old could never know what lay ahead: the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and a fast track to the Games. For the moment, though, gymnastics provided safe refuge from the thoughts and anxieties already tormenting young Joe.

“My spirit was trying to be free, and this was how I would release it to exist without boundaries,” he says of the sport. “While flying through the air, I found peace within me. I was satisfied. I was complete. I was finished. I was...beautiful.”

This theme of completeness runs throughout Acrobaddict, manifesting itself via relationships, be it Joe’s relationship with gymnastics, his family, lovers or drugs. But it would be his relationship with his first coach, Dan, a fatherlike figure that Joe describes in the book with immense admiration, that would prove to be pivotal.

“The shift of focus away from gymnastics definitely happened around the time my coach left,” Joe says of Dan’s moving away. “Not that his leaving was the final thing, but after I went into the new training center and seeing the young guys catching up, I felt like I was trying to trap a tornado. And I didn’t really have a lot of support, which I think is really important for anyone who is out on some sort of quest. I do think my main source of support was my coach, so when he left it all crumbled for me.”

Without gymnastics to “obsess” over and without his coach for support, Joe looked elsewhere for acceptance. He writes that gymnastics made him feel fearless and that he now craved that feeling in everyday life. High school drinking progressed to smoking pot, which led to trying Ecstasy and acid. All the while, Joe went through the motions of gymnastics training with a new team and coach—but with noticeably less passion and determination.

In the past, the confidence that gymnastics gave him helped mask Joe’s insecurities. If he was a warrior in the gym, strong beyond belief despite his smaller stature, then the taunts and teasing from kids at school didn’t ring as true. The name-calling had less impact. But once that safety net of athletic self-esteem was gone, it became harder for Joe to suppress those thoughts and questions.

“All the prayers in the world couldn’t change this. All the sits-ups in the world couldn’t change this. Nothing I could do would change the fact that I was gay, and that ate at me more than anything else,” Joe says. “And I wasn’t even entirely sure. I knew I was different, but even straight addicts say they felt ‘different’ when they were young. But eventually being me became me getting made fun of, and I would literally stay up all night thinking how I could fix this.

“When I wondered if I was gay, this feeling of trauma would come over me,” he says. “The fact is, it was harder to admit I was gay than admit I was a drug addict.”

This topic of sexuality is also woven into the book, often in terms of that continual struggle to be whole and find acceptance within. Strangely enough, it was a night of drug use that ultimately led to Joe accepting the fact that he was gay. He laughs it off now, but he’s frank in saying that, much like some in the medical field have said Ecstasy can help people come to terms with disease, the drug helped him finally find peace with his sexuality—not that he necessarily advocates that method for others.

“This is weird to say, but I feel like drugs saved my life in the beginning. I was in so much pain, the drugs were medicating me. They opened me up,” Joe says. “I feel like they were a boat that I built and got on top of and it got me to the other side, but when it did, the boat fell apart.”

Running with the boat metaphor, you could say the vessel began taking on some serious water about the time Joe hit college. By his sophomore, year, his gymnastics career was over and he’d developed a severe cocaine and prescription pill habit. He began unhealthy relationships with “straight” or closeted men, got kicked out of school and started spiraling down a deep, dark hole.

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To read more about Joe, be sure and pick up the new issue of Instinct, out now! And to read an excerpt of Joe’s book, Acrobaddict, before it’s released on Sept. 10, check out http://instinctmagazine.com/magazine/articles

Photography by Frank Louis