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Gymnastics helps performer rise above addiction

Joe Putignano is the "Crystal Man" in Cirque du Soleil's touring show "Totem." He shares his story of how he was a rising gymnast with Olympic potential, who came crashing down into a life of alcohol and heroin addiction.

Joe Putignano is the "Crystal Man" in Cirque du Soleil's touring show "Totem." He shares his story of how he was a rising gymnast with Olympic potential, who came crashing down into a life of alcohol and heroin addiction.

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(CNN) — Editor’s note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. This week we introduce you to Joe Putignano, the “Crystal Man” in Cirque du Soleil’s touring show “Totem.” He shares his story of how he was a rising gymnast with Olympic potential, who came crashing down into a life of alcohol, cocaine and heroin addiction. After two life-threatening overdoses, he finally got clean, and says it was gymnastics that pulled him back to life.

By Joe Putignano

Spotlights drench over me in a warm glow, and in this illumination I can no longer hide my past from the world — any insecurities will be exposed to an audience of thousands. In fear I hold my breath, binding myself to the band’s soft prelude, slowly unraveling myself from a tight spinning ball. Evolutio means “unrolling” in Latin and is the theme of our Cirque du Soleil show Totem. Evolution is the common thread in my life, from athlete to drug addict to performer.

The voice of my horrific past sings to me over the live music, and my memories of my life with heroin bleed into my performance. I am reminded of the fine-tipped syringe I held in my hand with the small words printed “Use once and destroy.” I feel a strong connection to that statement, envious of those who can use once, put it down, and not be destroyed by it.

The stage lights’ searing beam focuses on me, refracting off of the thousands of shards of glass covering my body. It reminds me of the solitary point of the needle piercing my vein. Is my past reflecting through my present as a man covered in broken glass? I wanted my body to become the map of stars over our heads, with my fresh needle holes and track marks to become the very constellations that astronomers search for.

My future mapped out in my skin. I entered the needle into my arm and it was painless and sensational. As I pulled back the plunger, a dazzling display of blood danced into the heroin like a liquid firecracker, as if the two were always meant to be together: A pas de deux. Moments before the high rushed in, guilt forced me to capture myself in the mirror, exposing the boy I used to be.

My innocence wanted to remember itself, filling my mind with beautiful images as a young gymnast. I loved gymnastics more than anything I had ever known and it had become my church. I couldn’t believe I used to have such a powerful dedication to the sport, which now seemed inconceivable because now my dedication turned into darkness. Instead of using my body to its full potential, my new purpose became to eradicate all pain and shame.

The memory came crashing down with the walls of this religion as the drug coursed through my system. Seconds after main-lining, I felt a tsunami of fire burning through my body, pulling me back to the present moment as the heat from the stage’s light warms my costume.

The high from heroin was so hot, wrapping me and holding me, cradling me in its grip and swirling to the tips of my tongue with pure exquisite euphoria. This was the ultimate, the alpha and the omega. This was the key to life and I would never live without it again. I was a fallen soldier at my own war, and I surrendered to the addiction because of the many failed attempts at stopping.

I traded everything I ever loved and cared about for the spell of drugs, and in exchange was guaranteed a life of pain and misery. I would have given back every wonderful high for a moment of sobriety after living years and years of slavery to this cruel existence. I became the victim of my own making, and I was forever trapped in a prison made of syringes. But like the powerful emanation bursting off my costume, my soul wouldn’t allow me to quit trying, and I continued to crawl through hell.

The band’s music restores me to the show as I am suspended above the stage. I slowly contort my body, trying to push the limits of my flexibility to create hieroglyphic shapes, tapping into the unstoppable force within. The audience remains unaware of the story I retell myself each night, opening the show and connecting to the long history of my own evolution: athlete to drug addict to sobriety. I try to summon the young athlete I used to be, who was determined to succeed. I connect to the young man I was, trapped in his Sisyphean nightmare, waking up on a sidewalk, freezing cold, shivering and broke, dope sick and desolate, forever relapsing and falling further into hell.

I take a deep breath for the current man I am, who is fighting to change, who still struggles against his progressive and fatal disease of addiction. And I stretch my bones to the four corners of the circus tent to honor the human who still suffers, those who are silently screaming in their own minds, trying to change, but can’t.

As I begin to continue to bend deeper, I instantly think of my contortion teacher Jonathan Nosan, who trained me for this very moment. Together we tried to transform a beat-up withering drug addict into a powerful body of strength, flexibility, grace and humility.

As the music intensifies, I am drawn back into the performance of the show, into the acrobatics I must prepare for, and my thoughts drown in a timeless state. I return to my parent’s basement as a child to the moment I met my God, who bestowed me the gift of gymnastics and acrobatics.

The lights explode, the music howls and I flip backwards against all the terrible things that stood in my way. Within the movement I have no physical body, no time, just pure energy rushing through my veins overpowering and transcending any blissful heroin high I could ever produce. All the drugs on earth cannot compare to the simple grace and joy of the movement. This is absolute union of mind, body, and spirit.

I am honored to return to my beautiful art that I believed I had lost forever. Like most addicts, I believed I could never stop using drugs. I believed with pure conviction, that a life lived sober could never compare to the chemical highs of drugs. I was wrong, and all I was doing was trying to kill the human spirit. My sobriety is a living amends to all the angels I single-handedly destroyed. I stay sober as an example to those who aspire for more, but are pulled deeper into the addiction cycle taking them further from their dreams and goals.

We are all connected through years of “I could have been,” “someday” and “they don’t understand.” If you are suffering, please don’t give up. You are not alone and there are great lights out there who have traveled down the same path. Together, we can become the wonderful people we were meant to be.