Party town: How an alcohol-centered culture is impacting the community’s mental health
Heavy substance use has been normalized in Summit County, but there are resources available to help those in recovery thrive
Jordan Cain was a teenager when he began drinking.
It started innocuous enough for the Longmont native, as is the case with many young people experimenting with alcohol in their high school years. But things didn’t stay that way.
He developed an alcohol use disorder, and soon he was drinking just to stop himself from going into withdrawal. At some point, he began using cocaine to stay awake. For 12 years, people in his life tried to talk to him about his addiction, but he would brush off their remarks.
“I was drinking very heavily. And I think for my generation, or at least the people I was hanging out with, it was just a normal amount,” Cain said. “… I did drop out of college. I was in a lot of trouble off and on the entire time with the law. I found myself in some pretty messed up relationships, where not only were alcohol and drugs being abused, but I myself was being abused.”
Cain said he didn’t think much of his first DUI. It never occurred to him that alcohol was really an issue, much less a debilitating disorder. Sure, there were problems, but he was still holding down a steady job.
It wasn’t until his second DUI about six months later when he took it as a sign from the universe, or the courts, that maybe it was time to take a deeper look at himself.
“I think that was kind of the point where I knew I was going to be facing jail time,” he said. “And I knew this might be the best chance I have at drying up — being away from toxic people, toxic environments and really using jail to my benefit as a first step in starting to be sober.”
Cain moved to Summit County after his release from jail. Today, he is more than 2 1/2 years sober.
Cain’s addiction isn’t unique. He’s just one of millions of Americans with a substance use disorder. What is special about his story, and others like him, is he found a way out.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention generally defines alcohol misuse as more than one drink per day on average for a woman and more than two per day for a man. The center further defines binge drinking as four or more drinks for a woman on a single occasion and five for a man.
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• Sept. 3 | Party town: How an alcohol-centered culture is impacting the community’s mental health
But in some circumstances, that misuse can be difficult to spot.
Steve Howes is a Michigan native who’s lived in Summit County for the past 15 years, and he’s currently eight months sober. He said growing up in a family with heavy drinkers played a major role in his addiction. Later in life, it was societal and professional norms.
“I just grew up around drinking,” Howes said. “Most of my aunts and uncles are all alcoholics. … That’s something I took up with them. They were allowing me to drink as a young teenager, and I drank heavily with them on the weekends and stuff. I guess at the time I thought it was normal.
“And since I work in the trades, every day after work you get home, you go out with the boys and you start to drink with them. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Tucker Limbruner grew up in Breckenridge and was exposed to heavy drinkers at a young age at his father’s restaurant. He started drinking in high school, picked up marijuana in college and later added cocaine to the mix, but he’s been sober for more than two years.
“When I was a kid, I thought it was kind of the norm for most people,” Limbruner said. “Living in Breckenridge, you are exposed to a vacation lifestyle at all times. … I kind of realized as I got older that it’s not really a vacation all the time.”
Unhealthy perceptions of alcohol and other substances, among numerous other factors, contribute to the more than 20 million Americans with a substance use disorder, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. More than 70% of that total have an alcohol use disorder.
Party in ski country
Some mountain towns have a higher percentage of heavy drinkers, according to a June 2020 Katz Amsterdam Foundation and FSG survey of eight communities, including Summit and Eagle counties. About 45% of adult respondents reported binge or heavy drinking in the 30 days prior to taking the survey, compared with a national benchmark of 18%.
That likely has something to do with a culture of heavy drinking and drug use that has pervaded the community. It’s no surprise that visitors coming to Summit County or other resort areas would include substances in their routine. They’re on vacation, so why not check out a local brewery or stop into a dispensary to see what all the fuss is about?
But experts say that blasé attitude often carries over to locals.
“I think any place that is a resort area where the economy is based on visitors and on tourists, we’re going to have that kind of culture,” said Jeanette Kintz, clinical director of Summit Women’s Recovery, a women’s outpatient addiction treatment center based in Dillon. “People come here on vacation, and they come here to have a good time. Alcohol is often a good part of that, and with the legalization of marijuana, it’s made Colorado more of a hot spot. …
“Then what happens is — and I hear this story all the time — people who move here for a season to work at the resort, and then they’ve been here 20 years and their substance use continued along the process. Some folks slow down, but it’s that work-hard, play-hard mentality.”
What work residents are doing may also play a part. Those working in accommodations and food services (16.9%) as well as the arts, entertainment and recreation (12.9%) industries are among the most likely to have a substance use disorder, according to a 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Tourism and outdoor recreation is far and away Summit County’s biggest industry, making up as much as 65% of the economy, according to a September 2020 community profile prepared by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Economic Development District.
Casey Donohoe, a mental health navigator with the Family & Intercultural Resource Center and part-time bartender at a locals’ watering hole in Breckenridge, said she frequently sees individuals with substance use disorders. She said people often come into the bar in search of human interaction, which she attributes to difficulties making friends in a transient community.
There are countless activities and events one can go to in Summit County to meet people, but you’ll find booze at most of them.
According to the Katz Amsterdam Foundation and FSG survey, 83% of Summit County residents agreed that alcohol is important to social life.
“In the beginning, it’s tough,” Howes said about trying to get sober. “You’re constantly around it. You walk down Main Street, and at every restaurant people are sitting outside drinking. Anytime you go rafting, you’re in a raft with a cooler full of beer. You go skiing and everybody goes drinking afterward. Every festival here everyone is drunk. It’s in your face. You can’t get away from it.”
A National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism surveillance report published earlier this year revealed that alcohol sales increased nationally between March and December 2020 compared with the prior three-year average. Likewise, marijuana sales in Colorado increased by more than $443 million in 2020 and crossed the $2 billion plateau for the first time.
“Over the years, one of the things I hear often about the reasons people drink are boredom and structure,” addiction counselor Susanne Neal said. “COVID took away everybody’s structure — going to work, the time placement of everything during the day. … Routines were pretty much uprooted where people didn’t have to do anything, and isolation, feeling depressed, some of those mental health issues really reared their head.”
But the impact of the pandemic on substance use disorders will likely take some time to unravel.
Data provided by the Summit County Coroner’s Office shows there hasn’t been a major increase in substance-related deaths, with 10 last year compared with an average of 9.8 over the past decade. Also last year, there was a 1% decrease in the number of clients enrolling in the Family & Intercultural Resource Center’s Mental Health Navigation program who listed a substance use disorder as their primary reason.
“I had a few clients who admitted because they were out of work, didn’t have anything to do and were getting paid unemployment, it’s kind of the idle hands thing where they increased their alcohol and drug use,” Donohoe said. “… The uptick, for me at least, wasn’t as big as I thought it was going to be.”
But as things begin to return to normal, some experts believe there could be a surge of community members seeking help.
“We don’t know yet what it’s going to look like going into winter,” Kintz said. “… My guess is we’ll start to see more people seeking treatment.”
Road to recovery
It’s never easy to tell when someone will recognize they have a problem and seek help.
“That’s the confusing part to people,” Neal said. “… If they’re going to work, still holding a job, still married, haven’t lost their kids, haven’t got a DUI — it’s very hard to wrap your head around having a problem.”
Substance use disorders can manifest in myriad impacts on a user’s life, and often it takes some sort of inciting incident for someone to seek treatment.
What: The Longevity Project with speaker Kevin Hines, a suicide attempt survivor and mental health advocate
When: 6-8 p.m. Sept. 21
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For Cain, it was his second DUI, 75 days in jail and severing ties with old friends that helped him get clean. Howes was driving home drunk from a friend’s birthday party, ran from the police and woke up on a stranger’s lawn to the sound of police sirens approaching. Limbruner’s family staged an intervention, and he shipped off to in-patient rehab that night.
All three are on the road to recovery, and if there’s one commonality, it’s the fact that, sooner or later, they decided to ask for help.
“It’s OK to not be OK, as they say,” Limbruner said. “I know some people are really scared to reach out. They don’t want to feel weak; they don’t want to feel vulnerable, especially with people they don’t know. But to reach out is probably the strongest thing anybody can do. I didn’t get help until I asked.”
Treatment certainly won’t look the same for everyone, but there are plenty of resources in the community to help out. There are numerous therapists, support options at the Summit Community Care Clinic, active Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups, and other resources that mental health navigators at Building Hope Summit County and the Family & Intercultural Resource Center can guide residents toward.
For those facing financial barriers to treatment, Building Hope offers mental health scholarships, which allow community members up to 12 free therapy sessions.
Any type of professional treatment can help, but those in recovery said having a network of sober friends can be incredibly helpful, as well. Cain, Howes and Limbruner all take part in Fit to Recover, a weekly class at CrossFit Low Oxygen in Frisco meant to help connect people in recovery with others who know what they’re going through.
Building Hope also offers substance-free events, which feature fun and free activities where community members can meet new people and speak openly about mental health issues.
Those in recovery say taking that first step is what’s important.
“If a person is thinking that alcohol is an issue for them, they’re 90% of the way there toward taking that first step,” Cain said. “That’s what it was for me. I’d been told by so many people during that decade-plus, ‘Stop, stop doing this.’ Even so much as getting in trouble all the time because of my addiction and the way I was behaving. That wasn’t enough. What it took was for me to say, ‘This is enough.’
“For anybody thinking that they have a problem with it, or maybe questioning it, they’re so close. They’re almost there. And they can do it, and it’s possible. It’s so possible.”
Call 911 in an emergency
Family & Intercultural Resource Center: 970-262-3888, SummitFIRC.org
Fit to Recover: 443-480-0218, CrossFitLowOxygen.com
Mind Springs Health: 970-668-3478, MindSpringsHealth.org
Summit Community Care Clinic: 970-668-4040, SummitClinic.org
Summit Recovery (Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, Alateen): SummitRecovery.org.
Alcoholics Anonymous: 970-245-9649, 888-333-9649, District17ColoradoAA.org
Colorado Crisis Services: 844-493-8255, ColoradoCrisisServices.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness High Country: 970-718-2828, NAMIHighCountryCo.org
Safe2Tell: 877-542-7233, Safe2Tell.org
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