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.
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.
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