CADILLAC — When Tony Hoffman was a teen growing up in California during the 1990s, he seemed to have everything under control.
He was an athlete who excelled at most sports including baseball, soccer, BMX biking, and skateboarding. Although he was good at those sports, his true love was basketball. He dreamed of going to the University of Michigan to play where the Fab Five did and then in the NBA.
In spite of his size, Hoffman was a star point guard, but underneath his outward confidence was a lot of inner struggles.
He had social anxiety. Eventually, that led to depression and suicidal thoughts. While basketball was his first love, he also competed at a high level when it came to BMX biking. So much so that he found himself on the cover of a magazine while he was still in high school.
In a few short years, however, those mental issues, drug use, and other crimes led to him spending four years in prison. That story, as well as his story of redemption, were what he told area students Wednesday morning and afternoon.
Hoffman is a former BMX champion who shared the story of his journey from opioid addiction, homelessness, and prison to getting sober, coaching the Olympic BMX team and traveling the country to spread his message of recovery from the disease of addiction. That message was heard by more than 1,000 local students Wednesday from Cadillac, Pine River, Manton, Mesick, Cadillac Innovational High School, McBain, Lake City, Marion, and Northern Michigan Christian.
The 34-year-old spoke for roughly an hour Wednesday morning in Cadillac and then held a brief question and answer period. He also allowed students to come up and talk with him after the assembly.
It is those conversations that Hoffman said make the more than 200 days of travel worth it.
“The Q and A and this after part is more important to me than the speech. The speech is how I develop a level of relevance, trust, and it gives them an opportunity to ask questions from their own perspectives,‘ he said.
He said it is not uncommon for students to come up after his speech and open up to him about a struggle they are dealing with. Hoffman said it is then he helps to get them connected to a local resource. He said that type of interaction happens after his speeches all the time.
When it comes to what the students take from his day in the Cadillac area, Hoffman said he wants them to understand they are not alone and talking about their problems is the best thing they can do. During his speech, he compared keeping things inside to a bottle of soda. When the bottle is shaken and keeps getting shaken it eventually will explode to release the pressure.
The same can be true with people if the struggles and problems in their life are kept inside them and they don’t talk about them. He said for that reason, he tends to focus on more mental health issues during his speeches because drug use can be a coping method for the issues they are not dealing with.
He said six months ago his speech didn’t delve as deep into issues with mental health as it does now. He also said he has told kids that if they would have seen him talk 10 years ago there would have been no mention of anxiety or depression.
“I still didn’t understand it. I had four years of sobriety when I first started speaking. Even in the first four years I still didn’t have enough time and work I had done to understand myself and my past,‘ he said. “I would say mental health started to become a thing for me in 2017. It is reaching a point now where I’m speaking very little about drugs, so to speak, and more about why. Why are they doing this?‘
He said in his experience it is not the high that is so great, but rather the high is a coping mechanism. It is a way to escape the real issue. It ultimately progresses because whatever substance they are using only works for so long before it fails to cover up the feelings they are trying to escape.
Many groups helped to make Hoffman’s visit to the Cadillac area happen including the Cadillac Area Community Foundation. CACF Executive Director Doreen Lanc said rates of anxiety disorders, as well as depression, seem to be increasing among young people today. She also said students need to realize that alcohol, vaping, and opioids are not the cure. The goal of having Hoffman come was to impact the students by hearing an actual story of hitting bottom to recovery.
Hoffman also said he hopes students who heard him speak Wednesday understand everyone struggles sometimes.
“Everybody experiences something and what you are experiencing is not insignificant; it is significant, but it is not so significant that no one understands,‘ he said. “We work through things and grow when we talk about stuff and if we don’t talk about it we will find things to change how we behave.‘
For more information about Hoffman go to www.tonyhoffmanspeaking.com.