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Leaving friends, family and community for treatment is hard, but some have little choice

Patients must travel hours for inpatient substance use care – if they can find it at all
Alexys Vidunas struggled to leave Durango for an inpatient substance use treatment facility, hindered by both physical and emotional blockades. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
May 1, 2023
Addiction has found its way to Southwest Colorado; robust treatment services have not
May 3, 2023
Leaving for treatment can be hard; coming back is an added burden
May 5, 2023
What does Southwest Colorado need to better address addiction?

In July 2019, Alexys Vidunas called an inpatient rehab facility and set up a time to check herself in. But a few days before she was supposed to leave, Vidunas realized she couldn’t handle leaving Durango.

The 23-year old had come to realize that she needed more care than this area had to offer. She had an exhaustive list of things she had tried to help her get sober.

But her lifestyle, one in which drinking had slowly grown to occupy a central role, aligned with the goings-on of her community in Durango.

She pointed to Snowdown, the city’s winter festival, as the defining example.

For a week each February, streets come to resemble the love child of a fraternity house and 20-year high school reunion. Fueled by craft brews and tequila, card-carrying adults don costumes of youths to participate in a raucous slate of activities.

For a few days, the town suspends the rules of decency, it seems.

It’s fun. And the event is a critical economic generator during the winter months.

But Snowdown is also an indicator of something about Durango that those in the recovery community know all too well.

The community can feel better equipped to normalize symptoms of a problem rather than address them.

In this series

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 following inpatient substance us 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.

For people like Kelly DiGiacomo, another Durango-area resident who has struggled with addiction, leaving – at least temporarily – was the only option.

Her addiction to sleeping pills, coupled at times with alcohol, had begun to disrupt her life in major ways. And although she was attending regular group therapy sessions and receiving help from Axis, the judicial system made it clear to DiGiacomo that the resources in the area were not working for her.

Regardless of how someone reaches the conclusion, once they have recognized that inpatient treatment is their only recourse and found a way to finance the often costly care, gaining access to it remains an outsized hurdle.

Transportation to the Front Range, where most rehabilitation facilities are located, can be expensive and unpleasant. For those in programs that allow some visitors, fear of social isolation can prevent would-be patients from seeking treatment. And for some, the anxiety of moving, leaving behind family, kids, pets and belongings, can be too much to bear.

It was exactly these barriers that prevented Vidunas from entering a program in July 2019. The list of interventions she had tried was long. She sought help from a primary care provider, Axis Health substance use treatment programs, Colorado Addiction Treatment Services, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, a psychiatrist and a therapist.

“I was just unable, even with all of that support, to really get where I needed to be, primarily because of how sick I was,” Vidunas said.

“One of the reasons you don't want to go anywhere else to seek resources is that this town is so great,” said Durango resident Alexys Vidunas. She had exhausted all addiction treatment options in Durango before going to an inpatient facility in 2019. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The journey to Colorado Springs, where she would ultimately attend an inpatient treatment facility, was not easy. Withdrawing from alcohol is not only painful, it can also be fatal.

Without a medical detox in the area, Vidunas had little choice but to detox upon arrival.

“Traveling eight hours, especially when you're ill, is so miserable,” she said. “... Just knowing that I would have had to do that was one of the barriers.”

In September 2019, Vidunas’ father drove her to a detox facility north of Colorado Springs. Without his help, she said, Vidunas would not have been able to get the help she needed.

DiGiacomo said her support system, a group of friends, was a necessary component for her as well.

She arrived home on March 7, 2018, from a brief stint in jail to find that someone she had met there previously had broken into her home and robbed her.

“Trying to pack up in that context was a nightmare,” she said. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

She talked with her landlord and negotiated a deal postponing most of her rent payments, and used an advance from the sale of her home to finance part of her $30,000 treatment.

DiGiacomo said goodbye to her high school-aged kids, and her friends put her on a plane to Denver.

“Having to just walk away from my life and just trust the process, trust that things were going to work out OK – it was awful,” she said.

Not for a lack of trying

Inpatient treatment is one of the most intensive approaches on the continuum of substance use disorder treatment. And it is not for everyone.

At Axis Health System, the outpatient treatment models are highly individualized to address each patient’s situation, said Haley Leonard-Saunders, senior director of development.

But for patients like DiGiacomo and Vidunas, those services were not enough. And after learning that the hard way, patients still struggle to access the treatment they need.

Jessica Newby, 36, is just one of millions of Americans whose opioid addiction started with a prescription. In 2005, at the height of the aggressive and deceitful opioid marketing campaigns by pharmaceutical companies, the 18-year old was prescribed Lortab for dental pain. The drug contains a combination of acetaminophen and hydrocodone, the most frequently prescribed opioid in the country, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

As her addiction grew, so did her menu of desired narcotics, and Newby started buying the pills off the street.

In 2010, she managed to make her way to Grand Junction to an inpatient facility. A friend of her mother’s, a stranger, drove her there. But her infant son developed serious medical problems while she was away, and Newby was unable to complete the program.

In 2015, she went to the doctors that were writing her prescriptions and told them she was serious about getting sober and asked for help. She wanted Buprenorphine, a weak opioid medication that partially stimulates opioid receptors. It can limit withdrawal symptoms and be used to treat opioid dependence.

But her doctors declined, and cut off her prescriptions cold-turkey. So Newby turned to heroin.

“I was trying to look for facilities, but there was absolutely nothing,” she said. “After about two months of trying, I completely gave up and just gave into my addiction.”

She said the outpatient resources helped put her in a recovery mindset – a critical step.

In 2016, Newby’s sister managed to get her into Peaceful Spirit Substance Abuse Treatment, a facility funded by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe which shuttered in 2018.

She has been sober since leaving the program and is now preparing to go back to school.

Newby’s story parallels the experience of DiGiacomo and Vidunas. All three women relied heavily on their community support systems to help them access the care they needed.

Without that support, they say, care might have been out of reach.

For those, such as Newby, DiGiacomo and Vidunas, who are able to access an inpatient treatment program, the benefits can be wondrous. But, as DiGiacomo learned after a relapse during the COVID-19 pandemic, continued support is critical.

And patients returning to Durango can face the same resource desert they left behind.

rschafir@durangoherald.com



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