Saffron Restaurants reservation The Fourth Wave of the Fentanyl Crisis Crashes in Colorado – Sterling Journal-Advocate

The Fourth Wave of the Fentanyl Crisis Crashes in Colorado – Sterling Journal-Advocate

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Sharon Chadwick sits at her desk at Integrity Mechanical in Denver, Colorado. Chadwick works full-time as an office administrator. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Chadwick.)

As a fan of MC Escher, Sharon Chadwick was looking forward to visiting Denver’s Museum of Illusions for her birthday weekend. The office administrator also said she would like to hike to Red Rocks for a picnic this summer. To many, these adventures may seem ordinary. But for Chadwick, the anticipation is a night and day difference from her “cold, lonely and depressed” feelings not so long ago. Chadwick struggled with an addiction to one of the most devastating drugs causing a steady rise in overdose deaths: fentanyl.

“I feel like it definitely has a stronger hold on people than any other drug has ever had,” Chadwick said. “With fentanyl it was very different. It’s almost like you’re in the backseat of your own brain. And the driver’s like, ‘Drugs, drugs, drugs.’ And until you sober up, you are not consciously aware of the turmoil you have caused.”

The synthetic opioid is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, making it extremely addictive and potentially fatal, even in doses as small as two milligrams. Overdoses have increased nationally and statewide as more than half of Denver’s 522 drug deaths in 2023 involved fentanyl. But those who use the drug don’t always do so voluntarily. In recent years it has increasingly become mixed with other illegal party drugs and has adulterated the majority of the drug supply on the streets. Fentanyl can be produced cheaply, fueling the “fourth wave” of the opioid crisis, because it is often mixed with stimulants like cocaine and meth. Adam Kimber, executive director of Untethered Recovery, said the increase is partly due to the low cost of the high, as users can often get a pill for just a few dollars.

“It’s so addictive that if they put just a little bit of fentanyl in a Xanax, even though the Xanax really isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do, they would stay addicted and come back to the dealer,” Kimber said. “So we have people who come in for the first time, we give them an analysis test. And they swear they have never used fentanyl, and they test positive for fentanyl.”

As is the case with many opioids, someone using fentanyl has usually taken other substances beforehand and escalated their use. Substance abuse of any drug is often a symptom of deeper causes, such as physical or emotional pain.

“It is important to note that fentanyl, like alcoholism or any addiction, are all symptoms. So there are underlying issues that drive someone to use fentanyl,” Kimber said. “For one person it can be a trauma; he or she has gone through a traumatic event or experience and is trying to mask that trauma.”

Chadwick said she never wanted to try or use drugs. However, trauma in her childhood and adult life led her to abuse prescription painkillers with her now ex-husband. This escalated to meth and a six-year cycle of addiction. During this point in her life, Chadwick experienced homelessness, lost custody of her children, and overdosed on heroin. These experiences led her to get sober. She had been sober for several years, but began experiencing symptoms of relapse without realizing it.

“I didn’t realize how depressed and miserable I was. And then my mother died. And it was actually the tipping point,” Chadwick said. “Then I happened to have a relapse with my ex-husband. So I hung out with him when he got out of prison, and he introduced me to fentanyl.”

Chadwick said using fentanyl caused her to do things she had never done with any other drug — such as stealing purses from cars — and put her in frightening situations. In a moment of clarity, she decided to get clean and seek treatment. For many addicts, this is just the first in a long list of external barriers to a sober life.

“When you’re labeled a fentanyl addict, it kind of pathologizes that person, and that person takes on that label, and then they have to live with that,” Kimber said. “They don’t want to come in and get a diagnosis.”

According to Kimber and Chadwick, fear of judgment for not staying sober can keep people from seeking treatment and prevent them from getting their lives back on track. Chadwick said she experienced this to some extent before moving to Denver.

“Montrose, where I’m from, is a pretty small town. I just have a bias about who I am there, especially because in Montrose County, the sheriff’s department posts your arrest warrants and your charges on Facebook,” Chadwick said. “So everyone in Montrose knows everything I ever did to get in trouble because it was spread on Facebook.”

According to Chadwick, there were multiple barriers to getting sober while living with the stigma in her hometown. It wasn’t until she moved to Denver that she was able to find a supportive community for her recovery.

“I just felt like I had the freedom to be who I am and not let the stigma of what people expect, what they’ve heard, or who they think I am hold me back. And I also have the choice to decide whether it is anyone’s business that I struggle with addiction. I don’t have to wear that everywhere,” Chadwick said. “I feel like there has to be someone on the other side to help you get out.”

Several studies have shown how important human connection and a supportive community are for lasting recovery from addiction. This became especially apparent during the COVID-19 lockdowns, when social isolation and stress exacerbated drug use and overdoses. Colorado ranks among the worst states in the country for mental health and addiction, with just under 20% of residents living with some form of mental illness. Although the state is launching harm reduction programs to combat the problem, there is still a shortage of addiction treatment services.

“The opposite of addiction is connection. And so so many people try to do it on their own, and they just can’t,” Kimber said. “The stigma comes from lack of education, from ignorance. Thinking is really hard, so it’s just easier to judge, right? So I would say: be curious, ask questions about someone, instead of judging.”

Sharon Chadwick, her friends Marisa Sandoval and Christina Gomez pose for a photo.  For Chadwick, one of the most important parts of her sobriety journey is making sure her sober life is fulfilling.  (Photo courtesy of Sharon Chadwick)
Sharon Chadwick, her friends Marisa Sandoval and Christina Gomez pose for a photo. For Chadwick, one of the most important parts of her sobriety journey is making sure her sober life is fulfilling. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Chadwick)

For Chadwick, staying connected to her family and community is one of the most important parts of her recovery, and of what she does when she’s not working or in her intensive outpatient program.

“I think that’s one of the biggest parts of sobriety,” she said. “In my opinion, you should consistently work on making your life sober, better than getting high. You have to keep reminding yourself, “This is why I’m sober.”

In her spare time, Chadwick visits her children, hikes, enjoys the outdoors and works on her painting skills. She still doesn’t know what her schedule will look like in a few months once she completes her intensive outpatient program, but she is hopeful for herself and others.

“If I can get sober, anyone can get sober. And they are the gifts of sobriety, so that you slowly but surely regain everything you thought you had lost forever. Such as your children, the job you want, or owning your own home. People go from being homeless to achieving what they’ve always wanted. And it’s just about finding your tribe and staying true to yourself.”