“Every moment without drugs was agonizing. A long time ago I had given everything over to gymnastics, surrendering my heart and body to its torture and beauty. Gymnastics had been everything I wanted, and I had given it everything I had. But now I had a new love — a love I loved even more deeply than gymnastics. There was only room for one, so my beloved gymnastics had to go.”
-Excerpt from “Acrobaddict”
I shudder when I look back at those memories, remembering how I traded my gift of gymnastics for a lifetime of addiction and misery. Gymnastics was my first true love; the sport taught me discipline, perseverance and dedication. One could easily say I was addicted to my sport, but there is a difference between healthy addictions and dangerous ones.
Like most gymnasts, I had Olympic aspirations, but when I was 15 years old, darkness began to appear in the form of depression. I felt an incomprehensible freedom when I was flipping through the air, but when I wasn’t doing gymnastics, I felt a terrible emptiness.
Alcoholism was a powerful component in my family, but I felt focusing all my attention on practicing gymnastics would protect me from going down that road, fearing it would destroy my athletic potential. Unfortunately, the emptiness began to grow and I didn’t have the coping skills necessary to handle it.
My gymnastics began to crumble under the heavy weight of my inner despair. Once I realized my Olympic dreams were only going to be dreams, I started to believe I was a failure in life and that nothing could fix it.
Slowly, drugs began to take the same place my sport once held. My addiction began with experimentation during high school. Alcohol and recreational drug use made me feel safe, protected and cared for… it made me feel loved.
My addiction progressed fast, and by the time I was 19, I had already been homeless, in and out of mental institutions and rehabs and had several overdoses from alcohol, cocaine and prescription drugs. My addiction and the criminal behavior needed to maintain it had destroyed my self-esteem.
The drugs I was taking were no longer fulfilling. Heroin was the only drug I hadn’t tried yet, but I had taken prescription opiates, which gave me a taste and curiosity for it. Even though I had been warned in mental institutions by inpatient heroin addicts — repeating the same message: “DON’T EVER DO HEROIN… YOU WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO STOP!” — I still wanted to do it.
And so my heroin addiction began. For awhile, I lived as a functioning addict and believed I could use heroin recreationally, but there is no such thing as recreational heroin use. Once I began shooting heroin, the drug’s effects filled every crevice of insecurity, self-hatred and sadness the other drugs failed to fill. I believed I found the perfect solution for what ailed me, and I was never going to live without it. I chose heroin over love, friendships, family and food. I quickly lost my dreams and desire for a future and often said, “Who needs a life when you have heroin?”
I tried to get clean for nine years with frequent relapses. I went to rehabs, but the desire to use was one of the most powerful I’ve ever known. I was living in my own self-created hell, crawling to every high to create an external euphoria to trick myself into believing I was in heaven, but the truth was I was slowly dying.
I started thinking I was damned and that it was impossible for me to recover. It was humiliating and shameful to see others get sober when I couldn’t. Even though I wanted to give up, something inside of me kept trying. I wasn’t afraid of dying of heroin, but I was afraid of living with addiction.
I believe I was finally able to get clean because I continued fighting for my life. There are many roads to recovery and I had tried them all. For me, 12-step programs made the difference because I was around other people dealing with the same issue.
Once I finally began to maintain sobriety, my life blossomed. The dreams I buried in the past resurfaced and I went back to gymnastics. I stayed clean and ended up performing as an acrobat and contortionist on Broadway, at the Metropolitan Opera House and for Cirque du Soleil.
My life felt incredible in early recovery because I started to see its beauty, which I had previously dulled out with drugs. My self-esteem and desire to live slowly began to improve. I began to see how precious and beautiful life was without the thick veil of addiction.
While I still saw that beauty after several years clean, its newness washed away, and life began to happen. I had to re-learn many new coping mechanisms and treat my addiction daily.
I have the utmost respect for those in long-term recovery because they have been vigilant in treating their disease. The longer one stays clean, the easier it is to forget how bad the problem was, and the old voice begins to whisper, “You weren’t that bad, you can have just one — let’s do it just one more time.”
It’s very easy to slip back into old addiction patterns, which is why relapse is very prevalent in addiction. I can’t forget I have a chronic, life-threatening disease, which has no cure — only a daily reprieve.