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Whenever news breaks that a famous athlete is struggling with addiction, most people shake their heads and wonder, how can that happen? In our culture, athletes are revered as heroes and role models. Their skills, their power, and even sometimes their looks all help them gain fame and prestige, both on and off the field or court. So the fact that these “perfect” people can deal with substance use disorder often comes as a surprise.
But I’m never a bit surprised by news like this. Why? Because I’ve been there.
Famous athletes like Darryl Strawberry, Michael Phelps, Andre Agassi, and the great Lawrence Taylor have struggled with addiction. The use of performance-enhancing drugs or painkillers, the partying that comes with fortune and fame, and the adjustment period involved in life after an exciting sports career all can put athletes at risk of addiction.
Many sports are mental games. So why would these professional athletes who have worked so hard to get to this place in their career put substances in their body that affect thinking, as well as their physical performance? The answer is that everyone one of us is human and therefore impressionable. No one is immune. We can all fall prey to a very clever and insidious disease that can take over your life from the very first time you try drugs.
I was well into my twenties—a “late bloomer” compared to friends—when drugs took over my life. From a very young age, baseball was my life and my identity. I played all through grade school and middle school, in the playground by myself practicing pitching before school and in high school on the varsity team. Baseball was my escape from a terrible home life where, after my father died, my mother had become an emotional wreck and my younger brother had descended into mental illness. My mother had kept my brother and I in the dark about his death—we didn’t even attend the funeral—and without the support of a once-loving family, I developed a knot in my stomach that never went away.
Baseball in high school kept me very busy and gave me the motivation to apply to college with the hopes that I could continue playing. I had my eye on the major leagues. I tried out and made it on to the team at the University of Miami. I ended up transferring to the University of Tampa, and spent the next three years as a starting pitcher. As an athlete, I was very careful about what I put into my body, and that included drugs. I was completely averse to any sort of drug, even Tylenol, as I did not want to do anything to change my body chemistry.
After college I played professional baseball in the Dominican Republic before an arm surgery ended my career. Mourning the loss of baseball, and coincidentally the loss of my first love relationship at the same time, I felt lost. I suddenly found myself completely alone, without the thrill of competition and the high that comes with playing and being respected as an accomplished athlete. A friend happened to offer me cocaine one day, and after repeated pressure to try it, my prior resolve weakened. Right away, I loved the way it made me feel. The drug instantaneously relieved the knot in my stomach and I was left with the thought, “where have you been all my life?”
It’s amazing to think that that the first snort of cocaine would cause an addiction that lasted 24 years, ruined every relationship I had, and causing me to almost lose the two most precious gifts in my life: My daughters.
Now, I’m so grateful that I’ve found recovery. But I mourn for all those who never got the chance.
I’m not the only athlete with a story like this. The athletes I mentioned earlier are just a few of the superstars who’ve been drawn in by addiction, who’ve turned to substances to solve some sort of problem or numb some kind of pain. Even the great Lawrence Taylor once said, “coke was the only bright spot in my future.”
Drug addiction can happen to anyone—even those in our society who we perceive as the happiest, richest, and most successful. When we start to understand the real risk factors and reasons for addiction, we’ll get closer to improving both prevention and treatment efforts.
Alan Charles is a motivational speaker and writer who has been in recovery for 10 years. He speaks all over the U.S. in schools, businesses, and other environments where people are interested in hearing the truth about addiction. His memoir is called Walking Out the Other Side: An Addict’s Journey from Loneliness to Life.