Ainge: 'I had to get help before I died'
Jets QB opens up about his ongoing battle with drug addiction and mental illness
OTL: NFL Painkiller Misuse
WELLESLEY, Mass. -- New York Jets backup quarterback Erik Ainge started using drugs when he was 12. It began with a bong hit, and it escalated from marijuana to prescription meds, alcohol, cocaine and heroin. By his senior year at Tennessee, he was addicted to painkillers, downing them by the handful.
This is the story of a professional athlete who lost control. Ainge fell into a self-destructive lifestyle that included multiple overdoses, drunk driving, extended stays in rehab and relapses, leaving his football career in shambles.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Ainge, the nephew of former basketball star and current Celtics GM Danny Ainge, started for Tennessee and became a fifth-round pick of the Jets in 2008. He wanted to do right by the family name, synonymous with success and clean living, but his behavior can be best described by the large tattoo on his back:
"Crazy White Boy."
Sadly, he has no recollection of getting that tattoo.
Ainge, 24, who also suffers from bipolar disorder, missed the entire 2010 season because he went on a two-week bender before training camp and landed in rehab, fearing for his life. That was almost nine months ago. He has remained clean since July 17, he said -- his longest stretch of sobriety since he was 11.
Trying to help others by raising awareness of addiction and mental illness, Ainge recounted his painful journey in an interview with ESPNNewYork.com.
His life, his words.
I'm a drug addict. I was in denial for a long time, but that's who I am. My addiction is with the hardest of hard drugs -- heroin, cocaine and alcohol. During my days of using, I was a really bad drug addict. I would've made Charlie Sheen look like Miss Daisy.
I always thought of myself as a good kid that liked to have fun. We use the term "rationalization" in therapy. I would rationalize my drug use, and make it seem a lot more normal than it was. But it wasn't, because I was using a lot of drugs at a young age.
It got worse in high school and even worse in college. By the time I was a senior in college, I was an addict. I played my whole senior season with a broken finger on my throwing hand. It was really badly broken. Just taking the snap, throwing the ball, handing it off, getting tackled -- everything that goes along with playing quarterback -- it was very painful.
Throughout that process, I became hooked on pain killers. I got them from the team doctor. I went through the prescriptions pretty fast. After he had been giving them to me for quite a while, he said he couldn't give them to me anymore.
I was hooked on them and I was playing football, and there was no way I was going to cancel my senior year by going to rehab. I started getting them from people, buying them, getting them off the street. I wasn't the only player on the team that was doing it, so we knew people. It wasn't, like, super sketchy or anything. We knew people who had them, and we were Tennessee football players, so they pretty much just gave them to us.
[When contacted by ESPNNewYork.com, a spokesman for the Tennessee football program declined to comment on Ainge's story of his time in Knoxville.]
After a point, it got so bad that I was in the throes of addiction pretty quickly. That led to ... one drug to the next drug to the next drug. Then I moved up to New York with a bunch of money, and it was where everything started falling apart.
My drug problem went from bad to worse. My rookie year, I failed a drug test for taking Adderall and got suspended four games. Adderall is like Ritalin, an amphetamine. I started taking Adderall back in high school, just to stay awake -- a lot of kids take it.
But most of my rookie year, it was painkillers -- and lots of them. I was taking 25 Percocets at a time. Five hours later, I'd do it again. Another eight hours, and I'd do it again. A drug dealer, a guy I knew, had them. There were other social, party drugs I would do, but I was addicted to painkillers.
I had a really bad stress fracture in my foot, but I think the reason it got so bad was because I was using so many drugs. I had no idea what was going on with my foot; I was completely out of it.
I was under the influence pretty much every day, every practice. I mean, I was a drug addict, so it's not like I stopped using drugs for any reason. Did the Jets know? I don't know. That's all they knew me as. I was a drug addict from the first day I stepped foot on the Hofstra campus [site of the team's training base until 2009].
Outside The Lines
The first scientific study of prescription painkiller use by retired NFL players shows higher rates of misuse than that of the general population, possibly due to use during playing days. OTL »
A few of my teammates knew, but it wasn't their business to tell anybody. They left it up to me. [Punter] Steve Weatherford helped me the most. He's my best friend on the team, and he encouraged me to get help when my drinking got out of control. He's a guy I partied with, but he was always under control and I always got out of control. He tried to comfort me, saying things like, "Let's do some sober, fun things."
I disappeared in the spring of '09. I was at the McLean detox center [in Belmont, Mass.], in rehab for more than a month. By that point, my drug problem had gotten so bad that I think pretty much everybody knew something was going on. I told the Jets' higher-ups where I was going.
If I hadn't gone to get that help, I really think my job would've been in jeopardy. That wasn't necessarily the reason I went to rehab, but I was pushing my luck with the Jets. I would miss appointments with Coach Cav [quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh], who was taking his own free time to teach me. I missed workouts like I was a 10-year veteran, and that's not my style. I'm a hardworking person, but my drug problem had gotten so bad that my work started to suffer.
I got out of rehab and I lasted three or four months, but I started drinking, socially. About four months after I started drinking, I was a hard-core alcoholic. I thought I was a drug addict and didn't have an alcohol problem. I didn't listen to what the people were telling me in my Narcotics Anonymous meetings. They said alcohol is a drug, and I just didn't listen to them.
Throughout my drinking days, I made some big mistakes. I was driving under the influence almost every night, so I moved into a place I couldn't afford just because it was closer to the bars [in Morristown, N.J.] -- and it was a nice place to bring women.
I don't feel lucky that I never hurt myself; that was never a big concern. The big concern was that I'd get in an accident and hurt somebody else. If I hurt somebody driving under the influence, I don't think I would've been able to live with myself.
Did I ever think about killing myself? Let's put it this way: I've overdosed several times and had to be taken to the hospital. I don't know if you'd call that suicidal or not, but any time you overdose on drugs, you have to step back and think about why that's happening. The last time it happened was before I went to rehab the first time [in 2009]. It was heroin.
At that point, I was using a lot of heroin. You talk about an expensive habit. I remember I used to go to the ATM and take out hundreds of dollars at a time. Fortunately, I never had to steal -- that's very common for addicts -- but I lied to people and destroyed relationships.
I made a lot of poor life decisions. I got a roommate, a friend from back home in Oregon -- big mistake. He moved in with me [in New Jersey], and he was a really bad influence. Between the two of us, we were sleeping with a lot of women from the clubs and bars, and it was a recipe for disaster.
I was getting drug-tested three or four times a week [by the NFL], but I continued to drink daily through the spring of 2010 and into the summer. That's when I relapsed with hard drugs. In July, I went on a two-week bender.
I went to Tennessee to visit friends, and I had some trouble with the law. It never got reported because the cops were Tennessee fans, and they saw how bad a shape I was in. It was so bad that I don't even want to talk about it. I was cuffed, but instead of busting me, the cops called somebody in town that knew me.
Two days later, I was up in Boston at rehab. I had to get help before I died.
I went to two different rehab centers in the Boston area, and a halfway house -- a total of almost four months as an inpatient. I was able to remain clean the whole time. The first few weeks were kind of like nails on a chalkboard for me, but I stuck it out.
For the first time, I was prescribed bipolar medication, which seems to be working. I have what's called rapid cycling bipolar disorder, so I'm up and down and all over the place even when I'm on my medication. That's a daily battle in itself. That was diagnosed by doctors in '09. I've had it for a long time, but I never told anybody about it.
I've had problems since high school, being manic and being very depressed. I'd get manic a lot and go get tattoos. Suffice it to say that I have a lot of tattoos -- big ones, in fact. The most recent one I got says "Crazy White Boy" in huge letters across my back. I wasn't under the influence, but I don't even remember getting the tattoo.
The Road Ahead
WELLESLEY, Mass. -- What's next for Erik Ainge? The backup QB, who spent last season on the reserve/did not report list, remains the property of the New York Jets, per the four-year, $1.9M contract he signed as a rookie. Realistically, it's a long shot that he'll ever suit up for them again. The Jets declined to comment on Ainge's future.
Citing the confidentiality of the league's steroid and substance-abuse policy, the Jets also wouldn't comment on any aspect of Ainge's drug and alcohol abuse. They wouldn't say whether they have attempted to reach out to him since he was released from rehab this past fall.
Ainge said he hasn't given much thought to what he'll do if his football career is over. "I love sports, so it would be hard for me to do something not sports-related," he said. "But I'm not at that stage yet. If I project too much into the future, all that does is cause problems."
Ainge said the lockout has impacted his aftercare because he can't secure insurance through the league to cover his therapy sessions. He said he called the league and was told that, because he was in the substance-abuse program, he couldn't continue to receive medical coverage.
Every player has the opportunity to receive insurance without interruption through COBRA, a league spokesman said. If a player exercises his COBRA rights by mid-May, he will experience no break in coverage and any treatment he receives before his election will be covered, according to the spokesman.
A player also can use his league-funded health reimbursement account, if he has one, to pay the costly insurance premiums. Once a player is vested with three credited seasons, the league puts $75,000 into the HRA account.
But Ainge has only two credited seasons; he didn't get credit for last season because he was in drug rehab and didn't report.
-- Rich Cimini
It gets easier over time. The first three months were harder than the next three months. I'm doing better now, but it's still very tough. When you get in bad moods or when a friend says something that hurts your feelings, my initial reaction has always been to use more drugs and numb the pain and block out what's really going on in my life.
I don't have my No. 1 coping mechanism anymore. I'm doing all this sober and I'm dealing with it like a normal person, and I'm just not used to that. It's been tough. I created a lot of problems for myself throughout my drinking and using days. I'm suffering the consequences now, and I have to do all that sober.
I learned how to be more spiritual than I was before. When you're laying there and you're sick and you're throwing up and you're all alone, it's easier to reach out to God than it was before. That has helped me out through the recovery process.
A normal day for me consists of therapy with my psychiatrist and/or NA or AA meetings. Five nights a week, I go to meetings. I had four recovery groups, but I can't afford them anymore because of the NFL lockout.
The lockout has caused a lot of problems for me. My substance-abuse insurance through the NFL and CIGNA got canceled as a result of the lockout. If I were a normal player -- let's say I had a broken leg and I was in the hospital -- they'd have forms they would've sent me to continue receiving insurance through the NFL. Since I'm a drug addict in the drug program, my insurance just got canceled, and I didn't like that.
My family has been great. When I went back to rehab, some of them were like, "Here we go again." But they never gave up on me. My uncle Danny took me in from the halfway house to live with his family until I decide on what to do from here, which has been huge. He's someone I look up to. When I was a kid, he and Dan Majerle [former Phoenix Suns teammates] used to wear rubber bands on their wrist. They used to give them to me when they couldn't wear them anymore.
At 24, I still wear those rubber bands on my wrist. My uncle has been a pretty big influence on me, especially from a spiritual standpoint. He's the bishop at the Mormon Church in Wellesley, Mass. I see what kind of man he is, and that's what I want to be someday. Danny Ainge will always be a positive name, but I can make Erik Ainge a positive name again if I make the right decisions from here on out.
As far as my future in football, it remains uncertain. After eight months, I'm just trying to stay clean and be a better person. It's not like I'm fine and I'm cured and I'm ready to go, gung-ho, back at it. I want this to be the last time that I ever have to try to get clean, and I'm going slowly.
I still have a lot of work to do, but I am proud of being eight months sober. I've never been sober or clean for this long since I was 11. The best part is being able to help other people. That makes it easier for me to stay clean, knowing I can help other people. I've been going to some high schools in the Boston area, telling my story and relaying my message. If I can help one kid, it would be worth it.
I'm showing people that love me that I am changing for the better through my actions, and I'm starting to make amends to those people I've wronged. The Jets will be one of those people because I wasn't trustworthy. I should've been there for them, and I wasn't. It's a long, hard process, asking for forgiveness, but I plan on doing it -- for them and for myself.
The reason I decided to speak so openly about this is because I want to bring awareness to mental health and the disease of addiction. Kids and athletes need to know it's OK to ask for help and to talk to somebody about what's going on in their lives. I was afraid to talk before, but through my NA program and God, I'm not afraid to ask for help or talk openly anymore.
I still have fear, but I'm not afraid.
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