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‘The disease is a motherf**ker’: How Isaac Vallie-Flagg fought his way to sobriety after a crippling drug addiction

Gallery Photo: UFC 156 photos
Isaac Vallie-Flagg
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Two years can seem like a lot of time or very little. For Isaac Vallie-Flagg, it’s a lifetime.

In January 2018, the former UFC fighter was arrested on suspicion of burglary near his home in Albuquerque, N.M. During his apprehension, police found drugs on him as well as multiple weapons including one firearm with a silencer on it. As police were putting him into the car with handcuffs on his wrists, Vallie-Flagg pleaded with them while admitting “I have a drug problem.” With candor in his voice, he then told the arresting officers “my life is f*cking not great.”

He went to jail that day and Vallie-Flagg’s downward spiral to rock bottom was nearly complete.

“I got out of jail, went to a treatment center for 10 days and I wasn’t ready to stop [using drugs],” Vallie-Flagg recounted when speaking to MMA Fighting. “It’s not that I wasn’t ready. I really wanted to stop. I just hadn’t been beaten up enough. It still took a little bit more.”

According to the 13-year MMA veteran, his battle against addiction has almost been a lifelong struggle that started when he was barely a teenager.

Like any disease, Vallie-Flagg, 42, was locked in a constant struggle, but the progression of his addiction reached a new tipping point in 2013 when he was preparing for a fight against Sam Stout in the UFC.

“I hurt my back and I ended up having surgery but I got a whole bunch of painkillers,” Vallie-Flagg explained. “I had dabbled in painkillers before because they were in the gym. Not that anybody knew about but other fighters had used them and fighters are always in pain. Constantly.

“Somebody had kind of turned me onto them and I started using them here and there, and then when I hurt my back, a doctor wrote me a prescription for a bunch of them. That’s what sent me down that road to being an addict.”

A cocktail of painkillers became Vallie-Flagg’s everyday routine. Even while preparing for fights in the UFC, he was quietly pumping his body full of opioids, just chasing that next euphoric feeling to kill the pain in both his body and mind.

“It started to get worse and worse,” Vallie-Flagg said. “If you’re not an addict, you’re not going to get the same euphoric feeling in your brain that a lot of people get. My wife is not an addict. She had oral surgery and got prescribed some pills and she didn’t like them.

“Me, as soon as I put it into my body, my brains kicks in and says ‘we like this’ and actually have a different chemical reaction than most normal people. It just keeps the cycle going. So progressively for me, it just got worse and worse. Being a fighter, I can deal with physical pain. I’m good at that. I’ve talked about it, I fought [Takanori] Gomi dope sick and all that kind of stuff.”

Once Vallie-Flagg had taken so many painkillers that his body began building up a tolerance, he was forced to graduate to more serious drugs.

“I was getting dope sick off oxycontin in the morning if I didn’t have them,” Vallie-Flagg explained. “Then eventually they took me off the oxycontin and that’s when somebody introduced me to heroin. Well, you should try this, it’s cheaper and it’s around more.

“Because thankfully we are starting to see the opioid crisis so doctors aren’t readily giving away the pills as they were, which is great, except when you’re addicted to them and you now need them.”

The heroin addiction haunted Vallie-Flagg as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. The arrest in 2018 should have served as a final wake-up call, but even that moment didn’t put him on a path to recovery.

“After the arrest and stuff, I got out of jail and kept using because I didn’t think I was ever going to be able to stop using the opiates,” Vallie-Flagg said. “I was kicking in jail and then got out and started using again for about another month where I hit a place where I was kind of like I don’t what to do anymore. I don’t have any answers.”

The constant drug use started to affect every relationship Vallie-Flagg had formed. His marriage began to suffer as a result and before long he was estranged from his entire family.

When he started to truly survey the damage his addiction caused to the people he loved the most, Vallie-Flagg finally realized it was time to seek out some help.

“My wife had told me I really couldn’t come home anymore. I wasn’t allowed to go over to my mom’s house,” Vallie-Flagg said. “I’ve always been the kind of person who is affected by family stuff more than consequences.

“When that stuff happened, and I really started burning bridges with friends and relationships with my family, again, it wasn’t like I had another big blow up. I just got out of the hospital and my family found out I was still using heroin. There wasn’t anything special. I had just been beat up by the disease enough to accept some help and call a treatment center.”

The detox process took a toll on Vallie-Flagg but that was only the first stop on a long road to recovery. Once he realized the kind of wreckage he left in his wake while he was using, Vallie-Flagg fully understood the destructive nature of addiction.

“What got to me was when my brain cleared, realizing how much damage I had done to my family and my friends,” Vallie-Flagg said. “It’s hard being around addicts. You don’t know when the shoe is going to drop or if they’ve actually got it this time. That kind of thing. A lot of people dismissed me and I started building relationships slowly.

“I’m still in the process of repairing a lot of those relationships. There’s a lot of shame with the way I acted when I was using. It’s an ongoing slow process. Some people might never forgive me and that’s understandable. Nothing against them. That disease is a motherf*cker and watching it annihilate people is a hard thing to do.”

While addiction is not uncommon by any means, Vallie-Flagg does his best to help people understand the nature of the disease from somebody who has lived through the worst of it.

“It’s not like cancer or another disease, where they slowly die. You’re watching them slowly die when they’re running through your life like a tornado,” Vallie-Flagg said. “I was doing a lot of shady sh*t with people and Albuquerque is a small town. People are hearing about it. Unfortunately, it affected people in the gym a little bit at Jackson’s. It’s one of those diseases where not everybody looks at you with compassion.

“There are really undesirable [traits]. We have a huge problem with opioids in Albuquerque. There’s a lot of really bad stuff that happens and it annihilates relationships. People do really sh*tty things to get their drugs. It’s a rough deal. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. That’s just the way it is. The disease is a motherf*cker.”

It’s now been over two years that Vallie-Flagg has been clean and sober.

He’s certainly proud of that achievement but the fight is never truly finished when it comes to addiction. Thankfully, Vallie-Flagg says the people in his life are holding him accountable and he’s approaching his sobriety with a commonly heard phrase amongst addicts — one day at a time.

“I couldn’t stop getting high on a daily basis. So any 24-hour period that I stayed sober was a big deal,” Vallie-Flagg said. “I put a few of them together now and it really is a miracle. I didn’t see a way out of what I was doing with my life.

“I wanted to stop for a while. I didn’t enjoy hurting people or doing that stuff. I try not to pat myself on the back because there’s still a lot more work to do. It’s a lifetime process.”

Because he found a way out, Vallie-Flagg is now sharing his story with more people in hopes that he can help others avoid the same pitfalls that nearly ruined his life.

Addiction can be a vicious cycle and Vallie-Flagg knows that better than most.

“Heroin and stuff like that, it’s one of the best feelings in the world. When you get high on heroin, the thing that you do is you chase that euphoric feeling,” Vallie-Flagg explained. “In recovery and being sober, it’s not the quick fix of getting high but you get that slow burn satisfaction of what your life should be like without a drug.”

In years past, addiction was almost a taboo word that no one wanted to talk about thanks in large part to either shame or embarrassment. Vallie-Flagg notes how much the conversations around addiction have changed so dramatically in recent years, which is why he’s using whatever platform available to him to talk about recovery.

“There’s a lot of people publicly coming out as recovering addicts or dealing with addiction,” Vallie-Flagg said. “Big names like Eminem and for me it was seeing other fighters. It helped me to see that. Although it’s not a great thing, there are a lot of people who struggle with it. It’s not the shame-based sh*t that we deal with or shameful that another person deals with when they’re married to a junkie or their kid’s a junkie.

“Communication is the key and as long as we’re communicating about whatever the disease is and what people go through, it’s not going to make it any easier but it helps to kill the stigma and helps people reach out for help, whether it’s a family member or the person themselves seeking out help.”

In addition to his outreach, Vallie-Flagg also restarted his fight career after inking a contract with BKFC that’s helping him make up for lost time.

Thus far, he’s 3-0 in bare-knuckle competition with plans to fight as soon as BKFC begins promoting shows again in the aftermath of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. More importantly, Vallie-Flagg is much happier in sobriety than he ever was on drugs, which is something he couldn’t have predicted saying a couple of years ago.

“There’s a saying that recovery gives me everything alcohol and drugs promised me. That’s been the truth for me,” Vallie-Flagg said. “It’s not that my life is perfect. I mean life is life but I have ways of dealing with things that I used to just get high over.

“I was lucky enough that my wife got educated on the disease and she stuck around and initially she wasn’t going to do that. The court stuff all got dismissed except for a few charges and those ended up being dismissed after I finished up a program so I don’t have any legal stuff going on anymore. Above that, the one thing recovery gives you is the ability to deal with stuff that I wasn’t dealing with before. It helps with everything.”

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