“I Always Felt Like I Was Broken”
Replacing Addiction with Fitness Was the Fix He Needed
In fitness, a gradual increase in the intensity of your exercise program can lead to better results. A gradually intensifying life, on the other hand, only gets worse with time, often with grave consequences. In Steve Flintoff’s case, the progression of drug and alcohol addiction nearly led to his death. Learn how this 30-year-old recovering addict from Michigan turned things around using fitness to save his life.
Almost every transformation involves overcoming the hardship behind the physique we see in the Before picture, and that’s where the story really begins. What was your childhood like?
I always wanted to be the funny kid in the room, the class clown. It was all about “people pleasing”, which became a pattern later in life. I was always trying to make sure they liked me before I liked myself. I needed validation from other people to make sure I fit the mold. Without it, I didn’t feel fit for the world or comfortable in my own skin, if that makes sense.
So you feel like you acted up just to impress people?
I think it was more a rebellion thing. I don’t like being told what to do. Disobeying my parents was the “cool thing” to do. I saw myself as being socially accepted if I did that, because that’s what my friends were doing. I didn’t want to be the one out of the group that didn’t participate.
Would you say it came down to peer pressure?
It didn’t so much come from my peers, though. I think it was a self-imposed expectation, like this was how society wanted me to act. It wasn’t like the “You want to try this? C’mon man”, it was more “If I act this way I’ll be liked. I’ll fit in, and then I can be comfortable with who I am.” I was always trying to be somebody I wasn’t, because if you liked me you wouldn’t ask how I was feeling inside. I was repressing things.
How did that repression influence your life as you got older?
Well, I had really been into sports. I played soccer, team sports, basketball, baseball — I was huge into baseball. Growing up, I was always in the backyard playing catch, hitting wiffle ball, acting out Ken Griffey Jr. scenarios — hit the walk-off home run, or make the game-saving catch.
But in elementary school or middle school, I started to overeat. I think it was the first coping mechanism that I resorted to other than talking about how I felt. I didn’t want to talk about it because it’s pain — I don’t want to experience pain. It made me uncomfortable. So I ate, and put on a bunch of weight.
Did that become a problem for you?
It drastically affected my athleticism and my conditioning. My performance on the field suffered, and I didn’t make the travel team one year as a result. That was devastating to me, so I quit baseball after that. I was the kind of baseball player that the other coach would yell “Back up!”, so I had a lot of confidence in myself from playing baseball. When that was taken away from me I had to find something else. Even with football, my weight gain had an impact. I was a wide receiver in 6th grade and by 8th grade I was an offensive lineman.
How did those experiences translate going into adolescence?
I hit puberty, so I started to grow vertically instead of horizontally. This redistributed a lot of the weight that I’d gained, and girls started to like me. That gave me confidence in myself again. “Maybe if I start hitting the gym and working out, then maybe this would be something that would benefit me.” We did it for the girls, right? To get the girl, look good to the opposite sex.
But then I had my first beer at the age of 14. I had to chase it with a Pepsi, but we started drinking more, started drinking liquor. I thought this was the answer to everything. Drinking and being in an altered state of mind made me who I wanted to be, or at least so I thought at the time. Now that I’m sober I definitely don’t like being all of those things, but at the time it felt great.
What do you think it was about drinking that made it so enticing?
I’d always felt like I was broken, or that I was missing a certain piece. I was always searching for this piece, thinking if I found it I’d feel complete. That’s what I found with drugs and alcohol: They made me feel like I was fixed.
Obviously you weren’t, though. How long did that go on?
All through high school and beyond. I never got caught, it didn’t affect my academic performance. Then after high school, I went on to college and brought my habits with me. When I got to college, it was unfettered. I didn’t have to jump through hoops, I didn’t have a curfew. I could skip class if I wanted and not get in trouble. I could sleep in. I could drink on a Monday.
So things went from bad to worse?
Definitely. I basically focused on partying, and unlike high school I got caught — multiple underage drinking charges, disorderly conducts, fighting — but misdemeanors and a few nights in the drunk tank never deterred me. If anything, it had the opposite effect.
How bad did it have to get before you realized you needed to change?
I kept steadily descending for years. My sophomore year, I got angry while drunk and put my fist through a window. That severed all of the tendons in my fingers. I ended up needing two reconstructive surgeries, six months of physical therapy, and now have a permanently bent pinky finger. Things got even worse after that.
Junior year, I broke the scaphoid bone in my right wrist. I was apprehensive about seeing a doctor about it for seven months. It was so bad I couldn’t even turn a doorknob, but I kept lifting and playing basketball. By the time I had it looked at it had healed incorrectly and was partially dead, so I had to have a 2-inch titanium screw inserted into the bone as well as a bone graft, followed by another six months of rehabilitation.
That’s a lot to deal with in an 18-month period. How did that affect you?
I fell into a depressive state. I couldn’t do the things I loved to do, and my esteem and confidence bottomed out. On top of the emotional pain, I had physical pain, and the best way I knew how to cope at the time was to abuse the painkillers I was prescribed, in addition to still drinking. I ended up in the ER a few times because I couldn’t breathe, and it turned out my liver was so inflamed that it was rubbing against my lungs. I was slowly overdosing.
My arm atrophied from being in a cast post-surgery, but I was afraid of doing more damage when I lifted. My performance and results took a hit, and my mood dropped even lower.
What finally put a stop to the downward spiral?
I hit rock bottom In graduate school. I had given up on going to the gym. At first, I focused on academics and my addictions. Pretty early on, though, my addictions became my sole focus. It wasn’t long before my academic performance suffered and, as it did, I turned to drugs even more in order to cope. I made it a few more terms before dropping out completely.
I remember sitting in class and looking out the window, and felt a tear stream down my face. I had reached a point where I asked myself, “Is this how you’re going to live the rest of your life?” I had never felt so hopeless. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to stop on my own.
I realized at that moment I had no control and was trapped in a prison of misery that I built myself — and nobody knew. The entire time, no one knew about my drug problem. I was always able to hide it from my family, friends, significant others, and teachers.
Were you able to reach out to anyone?
I was ready to ask for help, but didn’t know how to do it. It was probably the hardest but the best thing I’ve ever done. I reached out to one of the deans at my law school and came clean to him. My parents found out a few weeks later and helped me get the treatment I needed.
That was your first step in the right direction in a long time. What was your road to recovery like?
Once I fully detoxed, I got my appetite back and started to eat better. My therapist mentioned that recovering addicts who abused the same drugs I had been had found success using fitness as a coping mechanism, and he suggested that I start lifting weights.
I really clung on to that concept. I started hitting the gym consistently for the first time in maybe four or five years. I got immediate relief.
How did it feel to finally be exercising for yourself instead of others?
Working out gave me a feeling of purpose, self-worth, confidence, and identity that I didn’t have when I was using. Fitness made me feel healthy and alive again. What’s more, it gave me a whole new appreciation and perspective about my own health and well-being that I’d been missing. It wasn’t the endorphins, it wasn’t the physique, it was that what I was doing was making an investment in my life. Now, each time I set foot in a gym I channel all the energy of my addiction into my workout. I feel that it distances me from that miserable life I was living and hope to never return to.
You had worked out before. Did you feel like you had a good idea of what you were doing?
Absolutely not. When I was a kid, I would just ask the guy I wanted to look like at my gym what I should do. My thinking was if I did what he did — do the same lifts, eat the same foods, follow the same diet — then I would look like that. I was clueless. After college, I approached it how I knew — asked the guy at the gym, or I would use a program selector online and just use the same one over and over again.
Did you make much progress that way?
Only some, but mostly because I wasn’t consistent. Some visual change, some definition here and there, fat loss in the first-to-go areas.
What was it that got you out of that rut?
I wanted more than mediocre results. I felt like I was working too hard to not get the results I wanted. I started to question everything I was doing. Basically, I wanted to know how I could be better.
I started looking for a better program. I saw this ad for a holiday transformation challenge and thought “What do I have to lose if I do this? I do the program, I do the diet, maybe I get results.” But I had nothing to lose at that point because what I was already doing clearly wasn’t working.
Did you find what you were looking for?
Yeah. Everybody wants results, that’s what keeps us coming back. The biggest influence on my confidence and everything was the physical results, but on a deeper level I was looking for help, and I got it: Guidance, information, programs, with all of it laid out in a way I could actually understand it.
If you Google about fitness you get as much misinformation as you do information. I needed more than just what to do, I wanted to know why I should lift a certain way. Before that challenge, all I was doing was googling at random and getting nowhere. I had to dig deeper, pull back a couple of layers, and get educated.
Were you more confident after that?
Yeah. I mean, you see somebody’s before and after transformation and it makes you believe you can do it — and when you don’t, it’s a huge letdown. You become this huge skeptic, and believe it’s impossible. But on this site, it was just regular people with kids and jobs. If I could see everyday people doing it that gave me some hope that the program could help me, too. What do they know that I don’t? And that info was all there. It made it all clear.
How did that information influence your lifestyle?
I saw first-hand what better food choices and consistency could do for my visible results. That was the first time I actually paired a diet with a proper program. Before, I was eating inconsistently and following the same program over and over, and just not getting results. When I put the two together it was incredible. The challenge made you take these photos every week, and I could see right in front of me improvement from week to week. That was such a good feeling, to know what I was doing was working. That just makes you work harder.
Is that still working for you?
Yes and no. No, in the sense that when you hit a plateau — my results stopped for a while. But in the past, I wouldn’t know what to do or how to break through, and that would discourage me. My esteem would drop. But results aren’t just visual, and that’s something that I’ve learned in this process. Although visual results are great and the most impactful on my confidence, looking back at where I was — I’m consistently hitting the gym six to seven days a week, I’m eating really well, and before I wasn’t. Those are results for me, too.
So yes, it’s working for me in that regard. I now know how to back up or break out if I get stuck. I can also be content if the visual results aren’t there for a time, because I know about consistency, getting your macros for the day, etc. What I’ve gotten out of it is knowledge and a mindset that I didn’t have before. For someone like me, mindset is everything. If I have good vision, I can make good choices, and the right mindset gives me that.
So even when you feel like your progress is stalling, you’re still comfortable in your skin now?
Yes. Even though I may not always be shredded, I am where I want to be. When I used to let it get to me it would pull me out of the present moment. It’s a condition, right? Being shredded or getting bigger arms is a condition, and that’s black or white thinking: “If I’m not shredded, I can’t be happy. If I’m not making progress, I can’t be happy.” That’s how I viewed things before, basing my self-worth on a condition not on my present state of being. I learned how to be patient and trust in the process.
What I like about the process is it’s my process — not your process, not anyone else’s — it’s my own, individual process, and that shaped me to be a more well-rounded person. No matter what, I know I’m going to be alright because I know how to stay that way.
Having been through so much and ultimately overcome it, what message would you pass along to others who’ve had similar experiences and may be reading this now?
First, I want to say please know that if you’re struggling with similar issues to mine you aren’t alone. There’s a better way. It’s difficult, but not impossible. You just have to want it for yourself. With regard to fitness: Fall in love with it. It’s not about looking a certain way or lifting a certain amount of weight, it’s an investment in your health.
We all struggle in life, but take those failures as learning experiences. Analyze it. “How can I be better? How did I come up short?” Just because you failed doesn’t make you a failure, it’s a learning experience or life lesson, and that’s individual to you. Use that as motivation. “But what if I fail?” So what? Try again. I still combat thoughts of self-doubt and feeling like a failure on a daily basis, but it’s practice. It’s only failure if you quit trying. The important thing is you get back up.
I can’t thank you enough for sharing so much of your journey with my readers and me.
I’m just really humbled to be able to share my story. I know there are thousands of people who struggle with what I’ve gone through on a daily basis. The best thing I heard when walking into a recovery meeting for the first time was “I’m 30 years sober today.” That was the best form of hope that I’d ever gotten, at the moment I needed it most. If I can give someone else the same kind of hope, I’m going to take the opportunity to do that. I’m very grateful for that.
Following his success with Jim Stoppani’s Holiday Challenge using the HIIT 100 program, Steve has gone on to complete other programs like Back and Fourth, Super-Man, Daily Grind, and Super Shredded 8. You can follow his continuing progress on Instagram, and he can be found sharing his story, training tips, and insights in the JYM Army Facebook group. He’s also discovered a love for baking, and has been featured on Dr. Stoppani’s site for his protein powder recipes using Pro JYM.
For more on Dieting 101, which taught Steve how to design a fat-loss diet specific to his needs and goals, plus articles and videos from one of the world’s foremost experts on sports nutrition, supplementation, and training, check out JimStoppani.com