Wrestling Champ Kurt Angle Reveals Truth About Vicodin Addiction
During a good part of his 20-year career in the public spotlight, former Olympic champion and professional wrestler Kurt Angle secretly battled an addiction to Vicodin, a condition later complicated by a co-occurring dependency on alcohol.
At the depths of his addiction, Angle was taking 65 extra-strength Vicodin in a single day, all to counteract pain from a series of injuries sustained throughout his athletic career. Eventually Angle began to mix his pain pills with alcohol to enhance their effects even further.
After falling prey to this deadly habit, his life began to spin out of control. From 2007 to 2013, Angle was arrested and charged with a DUI on five separate occasions, and it was only after the final incident that he agreed to enter a drug rehab center to seek treatment for his substance use disorder.
A few years earlier, Angle had tried to beat his addiction through self-detox, locking himself in his home for 10 days where he had no access to Vicodin or any other drug. Not surprisingly, this do-it-yourself approach failed to produce lasting results, unlike his stint in rehab that has been followed by three years of uninterrupted sobriety.
Understanding the Sports/Pain Pill Connection
Angle first came to the public’s attention at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, when he won a gold medal as a member of the U.S. freestyle wrestling team. During the Olympic trials, Angle fractured multiple vertebrae in his neck, but he fought through the pain and wrestled in the Games anyway, helped by a shot of Novocain and by his first Vicodin prescription.
Like most people with a legal prescription, Angle used opioid painkillers responsibly at first. But following the end of his amateur career, he chose to pursue a career in professional wrestling, setting himself up for a lifetime of bumps, bruises, sprains, lacerations, concussions and broken bones. Professional wrestling is more exhibition than competition, but participants still suffer an inordinate number of authentic injuries, at least as many as athletes who compete in more “serious” sports.
Because of the tremendous strain wrestlers place on their bodies, they frequently turn to drugs of all types to self-medicate. Not just prescription opioids to kill the constant pain, but other drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine that can give them a boost of energy as long weeks on the road pursuing a violent profession start to take their toll.
Angle claims to have been clean and sober for the last three years, but many other wrestlers haven’t been as fortunate. Up to five dozen professional wrestlers or ex-wrestlers have died prematurely over the last two decades, some from drug overdoses and several others after suffering the physical effects of prolonged drug abuse. A few were driven to suicide by their substance use problems, which have sometimes included steroid abuse in addition to other types of drug addiction.
Given this unusually high fatality rate, the number of wrestlers or ex-wrestlers addicted to prescription painkillers, stimulants and/or alcohol must be astronomical. This is the wrestling profession’s dirty little secret that is not so secret or little anymore, thanks to the publicity the premature deaths have received in the media.
But wrestling is not the only form of sports entertainment experiencing drug- and painkiller-related problems. While peer-reviewed studies to prove it are lacking, prescription pain pill addiction is undoubtedly running rampant in other contact sports like football, boxing, hockey and mixed martial arts.
The evidence for this is largely anecdotal, since pro sports leagues or governing bodies aren’t inclined to disclose information that might reveal how many of their players have been forced to enter drug rehab for addiction. But the temptation to self-medicate among athletes must be overwhelming: painful injuries are a part of the job description, yet well-paid professional athletes are expected to perform regardless of how much pain they might be experiencing.
Preventing More Tragedies
Angle’s story of runaway opioid painkiller abuse can be viewed as a cautionary tale, or as a sign that previous cautionary tales aren’t making as big of an impression on athletes as they should. Angle’s story is especially harrowing because his drug dependency eventually escalated into serial intoxicated driving, which could have easily ended his life or the lives of others.
The pressure on athletes to perform and to “play through the pain” is ubiquitous, and drugs are undoubtedly one reason why so many are seemingly able to pull it off. But too often their successes are only temporary; in the end the shortcuts will inevitably catch up with them, leaving them hurting and addicted — and often, tragically, too proud or too much in denial to ask for help.
After battling addiction for more than a decade, Angle did eventually find the courage to admit his life was spiraling out of control and to seek addiction recovery. That is something other athletes could learn from, and it’s something coaches, team owners and league executives would be wise to pay attention to as well. Smarter and more proactive drug policies might be needed to protect athletes from their own worst instincts, making sports safer off the field in the process.