Aspen offers a way out for addicts of heroin, other drugs
Editor’s note: This is the second story in a two-part series that looks at heroin use in the Roaring Fork Valley and options that addicts have for treatment. Monday’s story looked at signs of increasing heroin use in the valley.
“John” said cocaine and heroin were “the single-most important relationship in my life” while he was a teenager in Aspen. The former addict said the urge for the drugs was all-consuming, even though he knew he probably wouldn’t live to see his 20th birthday if he continued that lifestyle.
He was a heavy user for nine months and shooting up one substance or another 40 times per day. He overdosed, developed medical issues and failed to comply with conditions of felony probation while a juvenile. He felt like he wanted to die, he said, but that was overridden by the urge for more heroin and cocaine.
“It’s a desperate place. You can’t live with it or without it,” said John, who agreed to talk on the condition his real name wasn’t used. The head of a treatment facility verified his story.
John sought help for his addictions after overdosing on cocaine. The recovery process was brutal because of the withdrawals.
“It’s like the flu times a thousand,” he said. Along with myriad physical ailments, there were “intense feelings of hopelessness and despair.”
He was clean and sober for 42 days before a major relapse.
“I didn’t feel better; I felt worse,” he said of life without drugs. “I didn’t have solutions to my problems anymore.”
Desperation led to treatment
But he credits the relapse with saving his life. Desperation made him more serious about reaching out for help. He’s now clean and helps other addicts who are entering treatment. The key is to be motivational, he said, but also to have the courage to tell the truth to addicts about how they are ruining their lives and how there is a way out.
“When you start enabling people, you’re digging their grave,” John said. “I think people respond better to hope than anything else.”
John said being a junkie isn’t an easy way to live, and getting clean is challenging. Relapses are common before a person is successful in recovery.
“The statistics are bleak any way you look at it,” he said.
People seeking treatment for heroin addiction are particularly vulnerable to overdosing if they relapse. Bob Ferguson, founder and owner of Jaywalker Lodge, a treatment center in Carbondale, said opiate users build a high tolerance over time. Many of them get “dope sick” — using the drug just to get through the day rather than to get high, he said. They typically lose that tolerance in as little as one week during recovery. If they relapse, the amount of heroin they were using before is suddenly toxic to them, he said.
“That’s why you see so many overdoses,” Ferguson said.
Valley offers many resources
Fortunately for addicts in the Roaring Fork Valley who are looking to get clean, there are plenty of resources. Ferguson said the number of addiction-recovery resources has soared in the valley in the past five years. He said the opportunities per capita are impressive in the Roaring Fork Valley. Rural areas typically don’t have as many programs as cities.
The Aspen area is well-known for its party atmosphere. It should be better known for its treatment opportunities, Ferguson said. He started Jaywalker Lodge 10 years ago because he felt it could be successful in the beautiful setting of the Colorado mountains and in a supportive community such as Carbondale.
Jaywalker Lodge offers a 90-day residential treatment program as well as continued help in transitional living such as helping clients develop job skills and integrate into the community. The center also provides outpatient therapy to help through the recovery process.
Heroin and other opiate addicts aren’t treated separately from alcoholics or people reliant on other drugs. An addict is an addict when it comes to treatment, Ferguson said.
About 80 percent of Jaywalker’s clients come from outside the Roaring Fork Valley. It’s not a crisis center. The clients have detoxed but tend to have had trouble staying clean.
No shame in needing treatment
Ferguson also is on the board of directors of A Way Out, an Aspen-based nonprofit organization created in 2007 to help residents seek treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. It has helped hundreds of individuals and their families find the right treatment program for them and, in some cases, has provided grants to help pay for the treatment.
A Way Out CEO Elizabeth Means said she believes the focus should be on adolescents and young adults.
“They have a life ahead of them,” she said.
The organization takes referrals and typically has one of its counselors work with a client to see what type of treatment program would be best for them.
“If we help them get into a treatment center, it needs to be the right one,” Means said.
She said she believes the Roaring Fork Valley is making progress in treating addictions. People are realizing that addiction is a disease that needs to be treated rather than a flaw they should be ashamed of.
“We want to bring addiction out of the closet as a shaming thing,” Means said.
More than a detox facility in Aspen
Referrals to A Way Out sometimes come from Mind Springs Health, which operates the Aspen detoxification facility. After a person goes through detox and expresses an interest in seeking further help, counselors with the Aspen Detox and Drug Testing Center will perform an evaluation to see if they truly are ready for treatment.
The two-bed detox facility was opened in February 2013. The clients must volunteer to stay in the facility. They are monitored every two to four hours based on a withdrawal scale for their specific addictions, said Aspen Detox and Drug Testing Supervisor Janelle Duhon.
She said 76 percent of the 83 people admitted for substance abuse during the first half of 2015 were men and 24 percent were women. About 12 percent were homeless.
Some clients of the Aspen detox center don’t want to seek further treatment.
“They’re afraid to lose their job or their housing,” Duhon said.
When counselors are convinced the clients are ready for a change and have insurance or financial means to pay, they will be directed to a local facility, such as Jaywalker Lodge, Harmony Foundation or Harvest Farm. In an effort to get people in the right program, the Aspen detox center also utilizes three facilities outside Colorado.
Duhon said her team is dedicated to helping people in the community get help for their addictions. She believes her team has a higher rate of clients in treatment within 90 days of discharge than the national average.
“We are not just detoxing clients and discharging,” Duhon said. “We push the detox. We want to see our clients succeed.”
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