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Addiction and recovery in Mesa County

For Gina Murillo, sobriety is the result of decades of struggle and support from her community. However, long-term sobriety is still out of reach for thousands of Mesa County residents.
Cullen Purser
Rocky Mountain PBS
For Gina Murillo, sobriety is the result of decades of struggle and support from her community. However, long-term sobriety is still out of reach for thousands of Mesa County residents. 

The second time Gina Murillo went to rehab, she was 16 years old. This wasn’t a voluntary visit.

“It took four cops to get me onto the gurney and they had to give me IV sedatives because my heart was literally about to explode,” Murillo said, “I was so amped up and so high on drugs, half of my lip was chewed off,”

Now 35 and almost four years sober, Murillo has worked as a youth mentor, become a Spotify artist under the moniker of “The Modern Day Monk,” and repeatedly made the dean’s list at Colorado Mesa University where she studied clinical psychology.

This change did not occur overnight. For Murillo, her sobriety is the result of decades of struggle and support from her community. However, long-term sobriety is still out of reach for thousands of Mesa County residents.

The scope of substance use in Mesa County

Addiction and alcoholism have proven to be an overwhelming challenge to Mesa County. Grand Junction and its surrounding area have what some say is an undeserved reputation among the rest of Colorado as a town with a drug problem. According to Mesa County Community Health Planner Brandon Gray, Grand Junction’s proximity to I-70 is one of the primary reasons for this reputation. as one of the largest population centers between Denver and Salt Lake City, Grand Junction is a popular area for drug traffickers, Gray said.

In 2022, the Western Colorado Drug Task Force seized over 207,000 grams of illegal substances. County surveys, though, found that the actual rate of addiction among Mesa County residents is comparable to the national average. ­

“It would appear that we fit in that average. We're similar to the rest of the population with respect to the rates of incidents,” said Dan Weller, the clinical director of Summit View Treatment Services.

The rising popularity and potency of opioids in the United States have shown that there is just as much of a need for community and rehabilitative support services as ever before. This issue has only been exacerbated by the introduction of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin.

“In general, the media tends to portray fentanyl as this substance that the person is accidentally ingesting, and there's truth to that,” Weller said. “However, the people that I serve, they're deliberately pursuing fentanyl and deliberately using fentanyl. They are looking to buy fentanyl and it's not an accidental ingestion. No, that's their drug of choice and it's scary. We haven't reached the peak of the fentanyl problem yet.”

“It is happening around you, whether you agree with it or not,” added Matt Fischer, the direction of prevention services at Colorado Health Network. “We're just trying to normalize that this is happening in communities, with someone that you know, and wouldn't you want them to get the services they need, rather than trying to not talk about it or shove it to the side? Wouldn't you want that for your community?”

Naloxone training has been a major initiative in Mesa County.
Photo: Colorado Health Network
Naloxone training has been a major initiative in Mesa County.

It takes a county to recover

While the rate of addiction in Mesa County is comparable to much of the United States, local leaders have made extra efforts to combat substance abuse. These initiatives cover a spectrum of addiction-related services, both proactive and reactive.

Mesa County’s Health Department is one of the many organizations that has undertaken the need to educate and support its residents, regardless of whether they are afflicted by addiction. The health department began this response by establishing The Mesa County Opioid Response Group.

“There were gaps found in the community when it came to things like treatment, recovery, and education around substances,” Gray said. “So, The Mesa County Opioid Response Group was brought together to address those gaps, to find them and then say, 'Hey, we have the resources, what can we do to work together and address that issue?'”

One of the most successful initiatives from this group has been training citizens of Mesa County how to use naloxone (often referred to as Narcan, the brand name), a medication that reverses opioid overdoses. The Mesa County Opioid Response Group has trained and distributed naloxone to more than 3,732 people between August 2022 and August 2023.

Colorado Health Network, a statewide organization that provides health-related resources, also provides free naloxone and training at their Grand Junction location. These programs have been increasingly popular across Mesa County and the nation, as one study shows that states with naloxone access laws saw a 14% decrease in opioid overdoses.

“I guarantee that everyone has someone in their network or they're around someone who uses and they just may not know it, so you always have to be ready for that,” Fischer said. “Whether you're at Walmart, or you're at a club, or you're at home or you're in your dorm, you just have to be ready with Narcan to respond to that.”

Naloxone training is a game-changer for active opioid overdose, but it only scratches the surface of Mesa County’s battle against addiction. Law enforcement agencies throughout the county have worked to curb substance abuse by considering alternatives to incarceration in the case of drug-related calls of service.

The Crisis Co-Response Program is a notable alternative that The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office recently adopted. This initiative sends mental health clinicians alongside deputies to respond to calls for service that can be de-escalated in hopes of decreasing incarceration.

This co-response team typically responds to calls for service that involve a mental health crisis, not necessarily reports of substance use. But because of the relationship between mental health and substance abuse, the co-response team is able to assist those struggling before addiction, during addiction and while in recovery or relapse.

“I can say that a lot of the calls for service that we deal with have some type of mental health nexus into them,” said crisis co-response deputy for the Mesa County Sherriff’s Office, Derrick Strauch. “So what we can do instead of just jailing these people for crimes? We can get to the root of the problem, and try to solve those problems as they go.

According to co-responder and clinician with the Mesa County Behavioral Health Team, Dr. Pamela Shannahan, another advantage of the co-response program is the ability to check in on people in the days following a moment of crisis.

“Just doing that follow-up really builds those relationships, and we can see if things are escalating again or if they need some extra support,” Shannahan said.

For many people deep in the thralls of addiction, recovery may seem impossible. Aside from the extreme dependency fostered by hard drugs, many substance abusers think solutions such as rehab facilities are limited to those with money to afford them.

“A lot of times when somebody has a drug addiction, they may not be able to, or they may not want to seek help,” Fruita Police Department Lt. Nick Peck said. “So if they are arrested, they go into the court system, and that may be what forces them to look at getting treatment.”

Rather than incarcerating every person charged with substance use or possession, Mesa County can provide its residents with the choice to enter the Summit View Treatment Program, a comprehensive rehabilitation facility. This option is a privilege owed to continuous funding from Mesa County itself.

“We're very fortunate in Mesa County that way back in 2007, the county commissioners said they want to establish the Summit View Treatment Program, and ever since then have continued it and provided funding for it,” Weller said. “It's a blessing and a benefit to the community. We're fortunate, not all communities have that.”

The path to sobriety can be tricky and long-winded, but according to Murillo, it is far from impossible. In fact, this seemingly impossible task can become a profound, beautiful experience through the support found within these recovery communities.

“I made a real surrender. I was like, 'I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know how I'm gonna do this. I'm scared. I don't have anybody. I don't know what to do.' And I was just embraced. It was beautiful,” Murillo said. “My clean date is November 24, 2019.”

Sobriety on The Western Slope

Each instance of addiction is as unique as the person experiencing it, but there are several, varying facilities and organizations within Mesa County that offer treatment tailored to the individual. This is advantageous to residents of Mesa County, because as Weller explained, it is critical for people in recovery to be involved with as many recovery resources as possible, for as long as possible.

Accepting the many resources for sobriety that Mesa County has to offer may feel like an intimidating commitment, but in recovery, these support systems become an essential source of security and control.

“I was in three or four meetings every single day for the first 90 days. I could not, not be in a meeting. I was so scared of myself, I was so scared to be by myself, [but] when you're in a meeting, you're there for an hour and you're safe,” Murillo said.

Cullen Purser
Rocky Mountain PBS
Murillo says her job working as a youth mentor at her former group home has been cathartic.

With the help of multiple recovery services, Murillo was able to achieve sobriety and learn some essential skills to maintain it. This is a critical milestone in rehabilitation, for Murillo and anyone else struggling with substance abuse, but it is far from the end of the journey.

Murillo said she was still in a lot of emotional pain, even after a year of being clean. It became clear that, while effective for most of her recovery, the 12-step program was not enough support to help her cope with the distress lingering from her past.

“I finally surrendered and started going to therapy,” Murillo said.

Murillo said she was able to overcome much of her pain through a cathartic job working as a youth mentor at her former group home. Mentoring girls with similar childhoods showed Murillo a reflection of herself that she had been unable to see before.

Murillo said this reflection led her to therapy. More than two years later, she still asserts the benefits of seeing a therapist for a successful, long-term recovery.

Murillo noted that being able to fully experience these ups and downs without the haze of addiction is one of the best parts of recovery.

“It's really difficult sometimes, but I get to enjoy the contrast of life. I get to enjoy the happiness, the sorrow, the grieving, the anger, the gratitude, all of it. I get to experience all these different things in life, and when I was struggling with addiction and alcoholism, it was always the same thing. I knew what I was getting,” Murillo said.

Murillo said those struggling with addiction should never feel it’s too late to seek support.

“Regardless of what anybody has been through, or how far people have gone down, rock bottom stops when you put the shovel down. It doesn't have to go that far,” Murillo said. “You don't have to do it alone. There's help, and there's no shame in asking for help and seeking out solutions.”

Resources for Addiction & Recovery

  • Mesa County’s comprehensive list of treatment resources with direct links
  • Learn more about resources with Mesa County’s Health Department on August 31st, International Overdose Awareness Day.
  • The event calendar for S.AF.E (Sober AF Entertainment)
  • Western Colorado Health Network is located at 1001 Wellington Ave.
  • The Summit View Treatment Center Website
  • Website for Peer180, a local Recovery Community Organization

This story from Rocky Mountain PBS was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Jace DiCola worked as Rocky Mountain PBS' journalism intern in Western Colorado and can be reached at jacedicola@rmpbs.org.