Jessica Newby left an inpatient substance use treatment program in early 2017 after more than a decade of opioid dependence. So when she emerged sober and prepared to stay that way, she had to make some changes.
“I disconnected my phone, I got a new phone number and I dug deep into the outpatient (treatment),” she said.
She attended group therapy at Axis Health System once a week in addition to weekly individual sessions.
Although it had taken Newby years to find a program that would accept her, the lifelong resident of Durango and Bayfield was lucky enough to find treatment at a now-defunct facility in Ignacio.
But among those who seek inpatient treatment, few are able to stay in the Four Corners. And those who do leave must work with vigor upon return to change their social landscape and build a support system – if they return at all.
Sunday: Why is it hard to leave the area to seek inpatient substance use treatment? Patients who did so say that leaving was an immense hardship, complicating their recovery journey.
Wednesday: What challenges do people face upon returning to Southwest Colorado after inpatient substance use treatment? Often, they struggle to find support. They say having an inpatient treatment facility could foster the growth of a larger sober community.
Friday: What does this region have and what does it need? Action is underway to determine if an inpatient facility is viable.
Those who do come back say they were able to stay sober only after immense work and the support of the sober community in the region. But they also say the limited resources in Southwest Colorado inhibit sober lifestyles.
Newby’s recourse – to change her phone number, disconnect from her old community and dig deep into her support network – is a common way to navigate recovery after leaving inpatient treatment.
Many treatment facilities focus on integrating patients into new, sober communities. In some cases, patients start working or attend recovery meetings outside the facility.
“For the people that lived in Denver, they were given an opportunity to get acquainted with a sober community,” said Kelly DiGiacomo, who spent three months at an inpatient facility to treat a sleeping pill addiction in 2018. “I had to come six hours back home and do that all by myself again.”
DiGiacomo began attending recovery meetings in Denver. She even started to work again toward the end of her stay at the facility.
“I still had to come back to Durango to face all of those ghosts and my fear because people in my own community weren’t able to see the progress,” she said.
Although resources do exist in the area – there are sober community events and relatively frequent recovery meetings – some find that returning to the area is too difficult, whether because of insufficient resources, the proximity of triggers or the social stigma of addiction in a small community.
This was the case for Tate Reaves.
She moved away from Durango for good in December 2016 to attend a treatment facility in Denver.
Reaves’ life in Durango had disintegrated. Her drinking habit devolved into a problem, consecrated by a 2013 New Year’s Eve arrest for driving under the influence.
She was a teacher at the Riverhouse Children’s Center at the time, but quit shortly after.
“Part of being in a small town is that it’s kind of embarrassing,” Reaves said. “One of the district attorney’s kids was in the room next to mine.”
Nearly four years after her DUI, Reaves faced two choices: go to prison or attend inpatient treatment. She found a facility that would allow her to stay with her infant daughter – no easy task, she said – and left Durango for good.
“They help you integrate back into society. You get a job, and you are able to come back and stay sober and have that support system still, which I needed,” Reaves said. “That was one reason I ended up not going back – I had to integrate into Denver because that’s where my rehab was.”
Despite a desire to return to Durango, where her son lives, Reaves said that financial burden and the strain the move could put on her sobriety were insurmountable.
She never moved back, and returns to the city only to visit her son.
As a student at Fort Lewis College, Alexys Vidunas partook in the typical activities of a young Durangoan. She spent lazy afternoons in ski boots at the Purgatory Resort bar and hiked to the high peaks of the San Juan Mountains, often celebrating a successful summit with a beer.
“My life remained pretty normal through all of it, and people didn’t really notice how much I was suffering from not being able to stop drinking,” she said.
In 2019, Vidunas went to an inpatient treatment facility in Colorado Springs.
“They were pushing me not to return to Durango because it is known in Colorado as being a drinking town,” she said of her support system at the facility. “... I came back knowing it was a risk.”
But, with her family waiting in the Four Corners, she was determined to return despite the lingering uncertainty of what her life would look like without the typical slate of drinking-related activities.
“You don’t know what to expect your life to be like in the next month, especially when you’re an addict and trying to change that,” she said.
Some make the choice to return to the region, but not to their old life.
Like Newby, DiGiacomo cut off most of her social ties. She began a masters program and, because she was studying counseling and learning about sobriety, she thought she could get away without having a sober community. So she didn’t seek one.
But when the isolation of COVID-19 began to hit her, DiGiacomo relapsed on her old coping mechanism of sleeping pills and alcohol.
“Not only did I have the tools from treatment, I had the tools from becoming a counselor,” she said. “But I didn’t have community – I didn’t have a sober community.”
Facebook, Vidunas says, has been a lifeline to her sober community.
“Ultimately, it really is technology that brings the recovery world from where you recover to where you’re going to be staying,” she said.
She still chats regularly with her roommate from the treatment facility. The technology is part of a carefully constructed support network upon which Vidunas relies as she dances a delicate social shuffle to avoid past triggers.
She no longer spends lazy afternoons at Purgatory and abstains from summit beers.
She and Newby said this region would benefit from the kind of sober living facility into which rehab programs often shuttle patients. Such facilities promote a sober lifestyle and put patients in a living space that helps hold them accountable.
In lieu of such offerings, Newby said she has turned to her family and the outpatient opportunities. She has three children, ages 5, 13 and 14.
“We are very open about addiction. We talk about it like a normal conversation. We are healthy and not toxic anymore,” she said. “... They’ve learned it’s a real disease and we have to be open about it.”
But not everyone has a safety net as robust as those built by Vidunas, DiGiacomo or Newby.
And so, in their capacity as advocates with lived experience, they are calling for more resources in the area.
The process is cyclical, DiGiacomo says.
The proliferation of sober living, inpatient treatment and expanded outpatient services would also grow the size and support for the region’s sober community, in turn growing the demand for such services.
“Maybe if we had an inpatient facility in Durango, more people would be willing to get sober and more people would be willing to demand sobriety in this community,” she said. “It’s kind of a Catch-22.”