Tony Hoffman sailed into Elting Gymnasium at SUNY New Paltz on an unmistakable high, but it wasn’t one that came from a pipe or a needle. The world-renowned BMX coach and opioid awareness speaker had earlier captivated a thousand ninth graders with his story of overcoming addiction so thoroughly that he was able to compete in the Rio Olympics. He didn’t have quite that many members of the general public for his second gig of the day, but the room hung on his words of damnation and redemption with palpable interest. His presence in Ulster County was thanks to efforts made through RYAN (Raising Awareness About Narcotics), a group created to honor the struggle and memory of Ryan Kelder, who died from his addiction in 2015. Support came from most school districts in the county, hence the mass rally of those at a particularly impressionable age.
Hoffman’s message is a simple one: opioid addiction is not about moral failing or mental weakness, but something which can strike anyone. “Once you go through that door, you can’t go back out again,” and it’s after a substance is tried that the user learns if they have the propensity for addiction.
Hoffman wishes to dispel the stigma which marginalizes those who struggle with opioid dependence. He spoke of a time when he was homeless, hopeless and willing to use gutter water for cooking his heroin just to get a fix. No one seeing him in that state, he said, would have believed he came from a stable and well-off family, or that ten years later he’d be a champion athlete and coach, and motivational speaker and head of his own nonprofit mentoring organization, the Freewheel Project.
The message that addiction is genetic rather than a failing of character is rooted in science. Dr. Steven M. Melemis, writing on his site addicitionandrecovery.org, puts the genetic factor at about 50 percent, comparable to that of many other adult-onset diseases such as diabetes. Hoffman suffered from social anxiety and depression, and learned in his teens that drugs like alcohol and marijuana could lessen the impact of those conditions. “I didn’t want to wake up and feel what it was like to be me,” despite already being a nationally-celebrated athlete. He struggled with suicidal thoughts and constant emotional pain. He likened the experience to that of NBA athlete Kevin Love, whose anxiety and depression led to a panic attack so severe in 2017 that he left in the middle of a game.
In time, Hoffman was offered other drugs including Oxycontin, which at the time seemed safe to him and his friends “because doctors prescribed it.” Lawsuits over marketing which obscured the addiction potential of this opioid are now reaching a fever pitch, but this was just after the turn of the century, when the drug was considered a miraculous painkiller. His life was already stressed in nearly unimaginable ways: he’d been offered a six-figure network administrator income before he graduated high school, but the company started falling apart soon after due to malfeasance at the top. At the same time, his engagement was broken off. The new drug, which seemed perhaps safer than others he’d tried due to the marketing, came at just the right time to set up housekeeping in his life. “Instantly, my anxiety was gone,” he recalled. “This is the answer I’ve been looking for since I was 12 years old,” he thought at the time.
He learned about withdrawal pains only later. During one episode he sat shivering from uncontrollable chills in a scalding hot bathtub, begging his mother to call his dealer. The physical pain of stopping opioid is high, and the user knows that one more fix will make it go away immediately. The desire to avoid that fate can drive people to do “anything” to get more, Hoffman said, and for him resulted in his eventually being kicked out of his parents’ home. “We were heroin addicts, but had no idea,” he said, but in time he learned that heroin was much cheaper, and more effective.
After one successful rehabilitation Hoffman found himself in the hospital for a severe infection, and was given fentanyl for the pain. This powerful opioid got him back to using, and is the focus of one of his key points: medical professionals do not ask about addiction when taking medical histories, as they do allergies and cancer and heart disease.
For Hoffman, there was a spiritual experience which helped him change his life, and it was followed by something of an enforced intervention. Having been paroled for a home invasion three years earlier to feed his habit, Hoffman was jailed for a parole violation and had no choice but to get the poison out of his system. However, he warned, that’s not enough for most addicts. What’s needed to stay clean is to change habits, friends and lifestyle on every level, and it was that extremely difficult process which he choose to undergo while behind bars. He resolved to return to BMX racing and compete in the Olympics, become a motivational speaker and to start a nonprofit.
Not boastful, the BMX coach instead projected the profound difficulty of anyone achieving what he did with existing levels of support. He credits much of what he’s accomplished to a relationship with his deity, but if he’s able to succeed in warning other young people off his path, he may be able to have a much wider impact through his words alone.