Early on in his life, it was clear to Mike Mielke that the way he drank and did drugs differed from his peers.
“I would do the high-school parties and hang out and do the social activities, but then I would kind of take it a step further,” Mielke said. “I’d be doing stuff like drinking alone in my room, wanting more and wanting more.”
Slowly, he said, he began to center every aspect of his life around drinking and doing drugs. School fell by the wayside, jobs and relationships became a secondary priority to using.
When Mielke was in his early 20s, his brother died and Mielke “really went off the deep end.” Life became unmanageable, he said. His body became gaunt and his mind riven by bouts of alcohol-induced psychosis.
Mielke’s rock-bottom came in 2012, when Colorado’s overdose deaths hit 807 for the year. The number of deaths climbed to over 1,000 in 2017, but fell slightly to 974 last year.
Colorado’s growing battle against substance-use disorders largely has focused on treatment and prevention programs, said Marc Condojani, director of adult treatment and recovery at Colorado Office of Behavioral Health. There’s been a gap in research on recovery, he said, and a need for more programs and services that help people in recovery, including sober living, community activity and support organizations and employment programs.
That gap has been recognized by the interim Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders Study Committee. Lawmakers on the committee have prepared a bill for the upcoming session that asks for $7.6 million to bolster recovery services for next year. The committee was created in 2017, through a request by then-state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a longtime advocate for people with substance-use disorders who is now serving in the state Senate. Pettersen chairs the 10-member, bipartisan committee and is one of the sponsors of the proposed bill.
Colorado needs to strengthen the full continuum of care, from treatment and intervention to recovery, Pettersen said, or “we’re setting people up for failure and also wasting taxpayer dollars.”
“For instance, if someone somebody goes through treatment, and then is released and homeless, it is almost guaranteed they will not stay sober,” she said.
People need to be supported in the vulnerable time just after treatment or when they get sober. The bill includes up to $5 million for housing for people in recovery and $2 million for employment support every year beginning in 2020, with $4 million coming from the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund.
The proposed legislation comes on the heels of a recently released five-year plan that urges a greater focus on recovery in the state’s fight against substance abuse. The Colorado Office of Behavioral Health, Colorado Health Institute and Mental Health Colorado, in collaboration with the state substance abuse advisory committee and the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, all collaborated on the plan, which was commissioned by the state lawmakers.
The bill was already in the works before the plan was presented to the committee, according to Michael Davidson, head of communications for the Colorado Consortium. But, much of its research and some of its proposed strategy have been incorporated into the bill, he said.
Researchers surveyed 335 people in recovery, from 40 counties across Colorado, asking which supports worked well in their recovery and where any gaps exist. The authors then used the feedback to create the general recommendations of the report.
One key recommendation involves funding and strengthening data collection when people in recovery use hospitals, recovery programs, or other services. Doing so, Condojani said will help to target resources. The other two main recommendations call for focusing medical care — both for addiction and in general — on recovery by bringing recovery services and options into treatment programs and to doctors; and building community support to help people through recovery.
Andrés Guerrero, manager of the Prescription Drug Overdose Prevention Unit at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said he was glad to see attention paid to recovery as a critical means to address Colorado’s overdose deaths.
“We know that when folks are in recovery and they experience a relapse, that is a high-risk time,” Guerrero said.
When Mielke was 23, he started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He’s 30 now and said he has been sober for a little over six years.
“I can get sober, and that’s all well and good, but if I don’t help shape what it is my life is going to look like, I don’t have a chance,” he said.
For Mielke, finding a community helped him stay sober was invaluable. He said he found that support at The Phoenix, a gym and recovery community. He’s now the Denver district director of The Phoenix. The organization also contributed to the recently-released five-year plan.
“I would love to live in a world where there’s not the stigma, there’s not the negative connotation of what someone with a substance use disorder is… and [where] we do a lot more to support people who are struggling,” Mielke said.
The proposed legislation to fund recovery services will be reviewed by the Legislative Council next week. The next legislative session begins on Jan. 8.