Heaney: Substance abuse all too common in ski towns (column) | VailDaily.com

Heaney: Substance abuse all too common in ski towns (column)

Jessica Heaney
Love in the Mountains

Our beautiful valley has an ugly problem. It's a curse all too common for ski towns and those that live in them — the prevalence and norm of substance abuse.

Ski culture has a nostalgia with that feel-good partying lifestyle. It's Disneyland with sweaters and snow — where adults come to play, to let go of responsibility and to find a sense of freedom. Ski hard, play hard (where some don't bother with that "ski hard" part). With restaurants strategically placed near most chairlifts, you're just one ride from your next beer.

Ski towns also attract risk takers and good ol' adrenaline junkies — those who take what they do to extremes. Escape into the backcountry of the Gore Range during the day and close down the bars while still in ski boots by night. I struggle to think of another sport that combines seeking a thrill with heavy partying quite like skiing and snowboarding.

While habits like binge drinking and regular substance use may be considered common in our valley, it isn't normal or healthy. Science overwhelming illustrates the devastating impact substances have on our brain, our health and our relationships.

True Impact

In my work, I get a first-row view of the devastating impact substance use and abuse has on relationships. I sit with couples who love each other, who have built families and lives together. But who are torn apart by the perils of substance abuse. I witness their pain. A pain they may otherwise not be able to show their friends, family or co-workers — in large part because they see so many around them facing similar issues.

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Often clients tell me they wonder if their or their partner's substance use is even a problem. Comparatively, their use may not be "as bad" as what they see their friend's or their colleague's use being. They tell me some version of, "At least she isn't passing out with a fifth a whiskey," or "It's just wine." And, "At least he doesn't hide his pot use from me, like other people we know." Then there are times when it just doesn't look like substance abuse because it's nightly scotch in a crystal glass or drinks at this week's fundraiser. It's more sophisticated that way.

Individuals also tell me what they often can't tell anyone else — that they're worried about their drinking, that they know it's a real problem and how they've lost control. They tell me they don't like smoking pot every day but it's the only way they can relax. They admit that they're too drunk, stoned or hungover to accomplish much of what they wanted to in their life.

They tell me how their reliance on substances has destroyed their relationships, from intimate partners to their connection with their children. Part of them sees the destruction, hoping they can stop using — at least stop using as often. While another part feels utterly ashamed and helpless. So, why not just keep using and binging?

New Conversation

We desperately need a new conversation about substance use. We need a conversation that is understanding and compassionate, not shaming or judgmental. We need to understand what the latest science on love, bonding, addiction and drugs tells us. We need to learn how to enjoy our mountains, our relationships and our lifestyle without self-destructing into regular substance use and abuse.

On Friday, April 20, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., I'm starting this needed conversation. I'm bringing in addiction and relationship expert Jim Thomas with the Colorado Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy. Together he and I will uncover the truth of how substances impact our ability to form healthy secure relationships.

We'll discuss the latest research findings while clarifying myths that surround ideas of addiction. This is a conversation we all need to be a part of. Whether you're an individual struggling, a loving family member, a physician or a clinician, you need to hear this. We all need to hear this and be a part of this conversation.

Learn more and register at http://www.jessicaheaney.com/event/.

I would love to hear from locals struggling with the impact of substance use. Please tell me about your experience and send me a note at Jessica@jessicaheaney.com.

And if you need help or support, please contact me.

Jessica Heaney is a certified emotionally focused therapist in Vail. She specializes in relationship dynamics, helping individuals and couples strengthen and repair their relationships. For more information, visit http://www.jessicaheaney.com.

By the Numbers

Every day over 8,000 people 12 and older try drugs for the first time and nearly 13,000 try alcohol.

Marijuana use by teenagers is up 21 percent since 2008.

90 percent of those who become addicted began using and drinking prior to the age of 18.

80 percent of individuals suffering from a substance use disorder struggle specifically with an alcohol use disorder.

Approximately 14.5 million adults aged 26 or older struggled with a substance use disorder.

Nearly 8 million American adults battled both a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder, or co-occurring disorders.

American men struggle with an alcohol use disorder double that of women, 10.8 million as compared to 5.8 million.

The majority of people struggling with marijuana addiction in 2014 were between the ages of 12 and 25. Yes, you can be addicted to pot.

Women are more rapidly developing addictions to prescription pain killers.

Source: American Addiction Centers