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Party town: How an alcohol-centered culture is impacting the community’s mental health

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Patrons sit at a bar on Wednesday, Sept. 1, in Frisco. Despite bars being closed early on during the coronavirus pandemic, alcohol sales increased nationally between March and December 2020 compared with the prior three-year average.
Jeffrey Wilson/For the Summit Daily News

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.

Jordan Cain works out Tuesday, Aug. 31, at CrossFit Low Oxygen in Frisco as part of the Fit to Recover program, a weekly class meant to help connect people in recovery.
Joel Wexler/For the Summit Daily News

Normalizing addiction

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.

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.

Summit Women’s Recovery Clinical Director Jeanette Kintz is pictured Thursday, Sept. 2, at the women’s outpatient addiction treatment center based in Dillon.
Michael Yearout/For the Summit Daily News

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.”

Routines uprooted

A National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism surveillance report published earlier this year revealed that alcohol sales increased nationally between March…

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