TORRINGTON – They wore purple shirts and held a banner as they marched northward out of town. They were employees. Clients. Friends. Family.
They were spreading a message to anyone curious enough to stop and look: It’s recovery month. We’re here to help you.
“We have such a stigma,” said Tracie Patrick, talking about addiction and mental illness. “It’s easier to say, ‘Hey, I need help. I broke my arm.’ But, ‘Hey, I need help, I think I’m gonna kill myself.’ Or ‘I really don’t feel right.’ Everybody keeps it all inside. And we don’t want them to do that.”
In 2014, Wyoming released survey data about mental health. From 2007 to 2010, Goshen was the highest ranked county in the state for adults reporting they rarely get the social or emotional support they need.
During that same period, eight percent of Goshen County residents reported their mental health was not good for at least 14 of the past 30 days.
“Sometimes small towns are even worse,” said Patrick, a customer service specialist at Peak Wellness Center. “Say you’re a principal of a school. You don’t want to walk in here and, knowing that even though there’s the confidentiality laws, you’re going to know somebody in there and they’re going to know where you work and what you do. And a lot of people don’t want to do that.
“People will not ask for help.”
On Sept. 7, people rallied at Peak Wellness for a cookout and speeches, aimed at normalizing the process of recovery. A few days earlier, Mayor Randy Adams had issued a proclamation designating September as National Recovery Month in Torrington.
The proclamation acknowledged that one in 17 adults live with mental illness – including depression and bipolar disorder – and one-quarter of adults experience mental health problems yearly.
“We want people to know that mental health and substance use challenges are nothing to be ashamed of,” said regional clinic director Maggie Loghry. “There’s not one of us in this parking lot that on some level haven’t been affected by mental health challenges or substance use disorders.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse describes treatment as changing deeply rooted behaviors. There is not usually a cure for addiction, but there is management of the addictive impulses on a person’s brain. That allows them to take control of their lives again.
The event afforded the opportunity for those in long-term recovery to share their stories.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my recovery. It’s not all rainbows and peaches and butterflies. Life still happens,” said a 34-year-old man from Cheyenne who requested to remain anonymous. “I’ve been through a divorce since I’ve been clean and sober. I’ve been homeless since I’ve been clean and sober.”
But he said he “prayed my ass off” and began a 12-step program. He said his parents, whom he treated poorly earlier in life, asked him to come live with them. He came back home and started a new career.
His message to family members of addicts was to not give up hope.
“You never know when we’re going to make it. I’ve got a life today that I never dreamt possible when I got clean.”
The speakers also included Laura Griffith, the executive director of Recover Wyoming. Her entire staff is in recovery.
“Ninety percent of the board of directors are in recovery,” she said. “It’s lived experience. It’s our experience helping other people.”
Lakeview Health found that alcohol dependence in Wyoming constituted the highest number of unmet treatment needs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 210 deaths in Wyoming annually stem from excessive drinking, and that excessive alcohol use costs $1.91 per drink in crime, health costs, and lost productivity.
Just last month, LendingTree announced its findings that Wyoming was one of only six states to see an increase in drunk driving fatalities over nearly two decades.
Joseph Coykendall, a certified peer specialist with Gateway Foundation Corrections, referred to his recovery as “a 40-year research project.”
He’s been battling addiction since age 11.
“I came from a broken family. At about the age of eight or nine, my mom left my dad for the last time because of his drinking and his abuse,” Coykendall said. “He came back from Vietnam a total alcoholic. Very abusive. I remember moving as a kid all over Wyoming, escaping from him.”
His mom took the family to California – and to her alcoholic family. At age 21, Coykendall was standing in front of a judge who told him, “You just turned 21 and you got your third DUI.”
He said he did a year in the Orange County jail. His dad died in that year.
In 2002, Coykendall got a fifth DUI. He introduced himself to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Then his sister died. She lost her own son and turned to alcohol, which led to liver failure. Coykendall couldn’t deal with the trauma and relapsed.
“I started drinking again and kind of isolating and hiding it from people,” he said. “Coming home and drinking myself silly every night. I backed myself into a corner and ended up getting a DUI in Laramie.”
The end of September will mark two years of his sobriety.
“I hang tight to AA.”
Now working in the prison, Coykendall gets to share his experience with inmates. By talking openly, he believes he has created accountability for himself.
“In an inmate’s eyes, everyone’s a cop. And they don’t trust you,” he said. “I know this because I was an inmate in the California prisons once. ‘I don’t trust you, I’m not going to share anything with you. I’m going to give you the tough guy pose and act like everything’s okay when inside I’m a broken kid.’”
He tells the prisoners, “I’m a knucklehead. If I can do it, you guys definitely can.”