When Jake "The Snake" Roberts dragged a lumpy cloth sack into the wrestling ring, many opponents fearfully trembled while the audience cheered since everyone realized it held a monstrous python named Damian. For years, Roberts' achievements in the ring — highlighted by his finishing move, the "DDT" — propelled his career to lofty heights while he silently struggled with debilitating addictions.
Decades later, the wrestling icon descended into a physical and emotional abyss until a wrestler he had once mentored helped him regain control of his life and health.
"I've been there — through the addictions and pains — and believe my experiences help me connect to veterans going through similar situations," Roberts said during a recent interview. "Many of these troops returning from their service overseas are having problems and just maybe my story, my resurrection, can give them some hope."
Roberts explained a history of concussions is one form of injury he has the misfortune of sharing with many veterans. Concussions are a type of traumatic brain injury, and the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center reported there were "nearly 414,000 TBIs among U.S. service members worldwide between 2000 and late 2019."
The center added, "TBI can include a range of comorbidities, from headaches, irritability and sleep disorders to memory problems, slower thinking and depression. These symptoms often lead to long-term mental and physical health problems that impair veterans' employment and family relationships, and their reintegration into their communities."
"Back in my day of wrestling, they didn't pay any attention to concussions," Roberts said. "I wrestled for 35 years and probably had 120 concussions or maybe more. We were hit with real metal chairs because they were just a tool of the ring. Let me tell you, I gave and received a lot of punishment in the ring."
He continued, "And that takes its toll on your mind and body. Pretty soon, you start looking for things to help with the pain, and that's where the addiction really begins to take shape, and it has consequences for the entire family."
For decades, Roberts embraced drugs and alcohol as an emotional crutch, searching for "that next great thing" that would make him feel even better than before in an effort to suppress the unyielding discomfort.
"I was an adrenaline junkie like so many wrestlers," the WWE Hall of Famer said. "Many people who serve in the military are adrenaline junkies as well, and when they leave that structure and are away from the service, they look for something to replace that adrenaline that was lost."
An article on the Department of Veterans Affairs website explains that from "the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 1 in 10 returning veterans seen in VA have a problem with alcohol or others drugs."
The website of the National Veterans Foundation also reveals some alarming realities regarding the challenges faced by many veterans:
"Prescription drug abuse is on the rise among veterans because many are treated with powerful narcotic pain medications for injuries. Over time, veterans can become dependent on these drugs and eventually an addiction can develop. Alcohol abuse and addiction is also more common among the military population while some other substances are used far less frequently and are far less of an issue."
For many years, Roberts has supported members of the military by visiting bases such as Fort Polk, Louisiana; Robins Air Force Base, Georgia; and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, growing in his respect for their service to the country and the sacrifices they have made.
"They really beat themselves up during their service just like I did in the ring and it catches up to you," he said. "I had reached a point that I was down and out and was addicted to cocaine and alcohol; I had not felt good about myself in 20 years."
Living on the brink of despair and hopelessness, his life changed for the better through the assistance of a wrestler he once mentored — Diamond Dallas Page. His friend moved him to Atlanta and introduced him to a fitness program recently branded DDPY, which resulted in noticeable improvements.
"I finally began to like myself — I was spitting out positive words instead of negative ones," Roberts said. "The exercises got my blood moving and I began to feel better. You do it for a week and you see yourself doing things you couldn't do before."
He added, "When I do the program, it gives me that spark that I need as an adrenaline junkie and, just like that, your body starts to change; you lose weight and you begin to feel good about yourself!"
His transformation and recovery have been captured in the documentary "The Resurrection of Jake the Snake." The tumultuous experiences that defined many years of his life culminated in defeat of his most difficult opponent — addiction. Now, he hopes to share his story far and wide, confident it may inspire the recovery of veterans facing similar struggles.
"There was a lady who came up to me and thanked me for sharing my story," he explained. "Although her husband had died two years earlier, she said that my movie inspired him to put down the bottle, and he didn't drink for the seven years prior to his death. She said it was the best seven years of their entire marriage."
He concluded, "My life has been full of ups and downs, fights and bouts, but it feels good knowing that it can show others, especially veterans, that there is hope for their own recovery."
Veterans seeking crisis assistance and resources can contact the Veterans Crisis Line toll free at 877-273-8255.
Jeremy P. mick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.