’Acrobaddict’ Joe Putignano’s Passionate Obsessions
Joe Putignano’s life has been defined by extreme contrast; he has reached the remarkable heights of professional fame as a world-class acrobat, and fallen to the tragic lows of heroin addiction. Putignano suggests that, for him at least, the dedication, energy and passion that instigated his professional success also drove him to the darkest depths of his drug addiction; an obsessive and habitual relationship that, at its nadir, rendered him homeless and pronounced "dead" after an overdose.
Indeed, his short life has been anything but average or ordinary. Putignano eventually climbed onto the figurative wagon, and channelled his fervent energy into building a career, the highlights of which have included performances at the Metropolitan Opera House and a stint with the world renowned Cirque du Soleil.
However, despite his success as an acrobat and model, the release of his new autobiography, Acrobaddict, is arguably his proudest achievement. This is because it chronicles, in a rather powerful and frank way, the recovery that he fought so hard to attain.
Certainly, Putignano’s narrative is something of a departure from a typical addiction memoir. His writing explicates, via vivid descriptions and metaphors, the root causes of his discontent and obsessions. His passion for explanatory prose is conspicuous, and he confesses that he intends to pen more books in the future (think gay sci-fi!).
EDGE caught up with Putignano at a reading of "Acrobaddict" in Cambridge, MA. We discussed his struggles with addiction, homophobic bullying, and his blossoming writing career.
Different from others
EDGE: So, can you tell us a little about your memoir? What do you think sets it apart from other addiction narratives?
Joe Putignano: Well, I think it is different because it isn’t just about using drugs and getting clean, like a traditional memoir. I talk a lot about passionate obsession, in both sports and athletics, and addiction. I talk a lot about the driving factors in my addiction, as well my desire to get clean and rebuild. I guess ultimately the book is about redemption, and the drive to succeed again.
EDGE: What motivated you to write it? It is an incredibly powerful book, and the writing process itself must have been an emotional journey of sorts?
Joe Putignano: Honestly, it was people telling me in places like New York, people who knew me as an addict, that my story was insane and that I had to write it. And I had been writing my whole life, it had been a passion of mine, so it wasn’t like I became an addict and suddenly decided to go into writing.
I had always thought writing a memoir was self-indulgent, and I didn’t think my life was that special. But then a good friend of mine, Robert Lepage, who directed me in Cirque du Soleil, was like, ’I love your writing style, you have to do this,’ and I really took his direction.
EDGE: Was it hard to be that candid?
Joe Putignano: Yes it was, in a sense, but I am a really honest person when it comes to emotion, because I don’t hide emotion well. You can tell when I’m overly happy or angry... but yeah, it was still hard in a sense. (laughs)
Actually, if I am being honest, it was absolutely difficult! This is going to be a crazy analogy, but I felt as though I had a loaded gun to my head with a pulled-back trigger, and that it wasn’t put down until I saw the book in its final form (laughs) There was so much pressure, because I was not only telling my own story, but I was trying to help others, so you have to really connect with the emotion.
EDGE: The underlying causes of your addiction -- namely depression and anxiety -- would you argue that these feelings were instigated in some way by the homophobia you experienced while growing up?
Joe Putignano: Absolutely. My addiction was not brought on by being gay, but it was definitely fuelled by [homophobia]. If you grow up in a world being gay, and people tell you that you aren’t good enough, or not worthy, and that there is something fundamentally wrong [with you]... and there is nothing you can do in your core to change who you are, then no matter what you do, it is going to impact you in a negative way. And I had issues with addiction, coupled with deep shame -- the addiction was an attempt to numb that shame.
EDGE: Do you think the propensity for addiction in general is a product of external factors, or is it something that is always inside of you?
Joe Putignano: Well -- and I can only really speak for myself -- we talk about passion and energy, and how you can’t destroy it. And I have this passion inside of me, and I have a passion to create things that make people happy, and I have this enthusiasm that is all consuming.
When you flip that over, however, it becomes obsession, and it is the same energy and the same drive... but that is when it destroys you and others, and if you can’t kill it, then you have to try and switch it back. And that is something I still battle today. I have been clean for six years, and I still have a desire to burn a house down. (Laughs) But I do something nice with it instead. Well, not really (laughs), but you know what I mean.
EDGE: What was it like to hit rock bottom? I am sure there were numerous occasions when you felt that way...
Joe Putignano: Oh, definitely, there were so many, and so many that I couldn’t include in the book. There was a word count that I had to honor. But I think there were two real defining moments during my struggle. I think the first moment was when I traded in my passion (acrobatics), it is like you are leaving one love for the other -- one that you know is inherently destructive, but that you can’t leave. And the other moment was when I was overdosing and pronounced dead, which was a very strange thing, because when you write a memoir you need to get proof, so all I know is that the doctor said my heart stopped, and that was certainly a bottom.
That said, I didn’t see it that way at the time. At the time I felt powerful, as though I had beaten death. I was under the illusion that nothing could kill me, but it can... and it will!
EDGE: If there is a significant message that you want your readers to take away from this, what would it be?
Joe Putignano: To never give up. It doesn’t matter what it is, and I am somebody that -- and this isn’t bullshit or a cliché -- I am really somebody that buried their dreams, and I believed that I was way too old to go back, and I just saw myself as this burned out junkie... and I guess I was. I was the polar opposite of a gymnast, I was doing nothing but shooting up and smoking. And so many years had passed, and I was old.
And I just went back. I showed up, without the ego, and I did the work without any expectations of a result. So I totally believe that when people don’t think they have options, they actually do. I would argue that with the right mind-set anything is possible.
EDGE: If you could offer advice to someone struggling with addiction, especially a young person, what would it be?
Joe Putignano: This is the hardest question, because an addict doesn’t stop until they are ready to stop. And I actually get a lot of Facebook questions -- from not the addicts themselves, but from parents, and boyfriends or girlfriends. And I got a message from a concerned mother just this morning, and she was doing everything correct in her attempt to help her daughter, and it was just so sad because she felt so helpless. I suppose the only thing I can say is that they will only stop when they are ready to. I guess loved ones have to just keep trying. But ultimately it is down to the addict to acknowledge that things actually can get better.
However, it is incredibly tough for an addict, in the throes of addiction, to realize that. For example, if you had told me that during the height of my addiction, I wouldn’t have believed you.
slug>EDGE: Moving away from addiction to your life post-recovery, what achievement are you most proud of in your career thus far?
Joe Putignano: This will probably sound cliché again, but it is my recovery. It was an incredibly difficult and emotional journey, and I am glad I had the strength to persevere and come out on the other side.
EDGE: What would you like to be remembered more for, your acrobatics or your writing?
Joe Putignano: (Immediately) My writing. Absolutely. I have been writing since I was eight, and I have a certain style -- it is quite poetic, and not everybody loves it, but my book has received good reviews! (Laughs)
EDGE: In a professional sense, do you think your sexual identity has ever held you back in any way?
Joe Putignano: Yeah, I think it has. There is an incredible book called ’The Velvet Rage,’ and it’s quite controversial, but I love it. People don’t like it because it touches a nerve, but it explores the angst associated with being gay.
But yeah, in terms of my career, I didn’t know any gay gymnasts -- and it is a physically demanding and solitary sport, and I trained mostly alone, and you don’t have a team to hide behind. And honestly, I think my sexual identity has held me back in everything I have done. Even with this [writing], you become the ’gay writer.’ The straight writer isn’t known as the ’straight writer,’ for example...
EDGE: I was going to ask you that next! Do you think sexual identity should be a defining characteristic, or is it secondary and irrelevant?
Joe Putignano: I definitely think it is secondary, because it certainly isn’t my defining characteristic. (Pauses)
That said, with some further thought, I think people should come out, because it is good to have positive gay role models, and I never had that growing up. I didn’t have anybody to look up to. So I think it is good to look up and see gay people doing stuff.
EDGE: Tell us what’s next for you?
Joe Putignano: I am writing a second book, and it’s about eugenics. And it is very different. It is a fictional story, and it is about discovering the ’gay gene.’ It is sort of like a futuristic, gay ’Gattaca’ -- and it will explore the implications of stopping the race, so to speak.
I tend to write more fiction, especially horror fiction -- I am full of horror fiction! I have yet to have any fiction published, though. But I think we need a fictional voice that says we [gays] are more than just an overly sexualized culture! People need to realize that we are actually beautiful artists and creators that can contribute something.
For more on Joe Putignano and where to find his book, visit his Facebook page.