Ann Jantz
Rock Springs Rocket Miner

ROCK SPRINGS — Aaron Webb knows the signs of addiction. He has been an alcoholic for a large part of his adult life. The 33-year-old Rock Springs resident estimates he drank for about 25 years. His relationship with the bottle was tight.

“It was a necessity. I had to have it,” Webb said of his drinking. “When I look back, I see I was a slave to the bottle, always wondering how I was going to hide it.”

The signs of his problem came on gradually; the symptoms manifested themselves after Webb finished high school. The first sign was constant anxiety — racing heart and clammy hands were there continually. To stop that anxiety, Webb made frequent trips to the liquor store and bar to get that drink, to stop the anxiety.

Webb said his family did not pick up on the signs for a very long time.

“I got very good at hiding it, so I think people really did not know the extent of the problem,” he said. “Eventually, I was full-throttle with the drinking and then there was no way to hide it.”

Addiction in Wyoming

Webb’s case is not unusual in Wyoming. According to the Center for Addiction Recovery website, alcohol abuse is by far the biggest substance abuse problem in the state. It is followed by marijuana, methamphetamine and prescription painkillers such as OxyContin or Vicodin.

State legislators met in April to discuss the state’s problem with addiction, particularly opioid or painkiller addiction.

Gov. Matt Mead’s Policy Advisor Michelle Panos provided opioid statistics:

In 2004-05 Wyoming recorded five opioid deaths.

In 2014-15, 115 deaths were recorded.

Chief Deputy Attorney General John Knepper noted heroin use is the challenge in all this, with Wyoming seeing a 33 percent increase in heroin use over the last year. Knepper said heroin use is often preceded by an abuse of prescription opioids, which he defined as a “gateway” to heroin.

The Center for Addiction Recovery website gives two reasons why Wyoming, along with other northwestern states, has addiction issues: small population centers and cold weather. These two factors lead to long periods of isolation, which in turn can “increase the likelihood of mental illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder.”

The website also notes Wyoming’s wide open spaces, valued by many who live here, creates issues when it comes to dealing with addictions.

“Wyoming has a very small population that is relatively spread out, and addiction treatment centers typically are usually available in areas where there is enough demand,” according to the website.

“Therefore people suffering from addiction in small towns often have to travel far to find a local 12-step meeting to attend, let alone find an addiction rehab facility that is suitable for their needs.”

Cassandra Crumpton, a community prevention professional with the Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming in Rock Springs, said alcohol abuse is very high across Wyoming. She described drinking alcohol as a culturally accepted pastime and abuse is often dismissed.

“You can see that here in Sweetwater County. DUIs are common,” she said. “It happens all the time.”

As for all substance addictions, the statistics ebb and flow as one form of substance abuse becomes more popular than another and the statistics change from year to year. Crumpton said the statistics “are never super consistent.”

Aaron Webb almost lost everything during his years as an alcoholic. He now hopes to prevent others from doing the same by taking care of himself and sharing his story.
Aaron Webb almost lost everything during his years as an alcoholic. He now hopes to prevent others from doing the same by taking care of himself and sharing his story.

The signs

Dr. Elina Chernyak is the director of addiction medicine at Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County. She defines substance addiction as a medical disease that affects one out of eight or 10 people nationwide, irrespective of where they are born. It is a health crisis that affects all it touches.

“The problem is not only here in Wyoming. It is nationwide, all over the world.”

The biggest risk factor a person faces in the substance addiction battle is genetics. Chernyak said families who have members who were or are substance abusers are at greater risk.

Youngsters are also at great risk, she added.

“The brain doesn’t develop until age 24,” Chernyak said. “So if someone below the age of 24 begins drinking or taking drugs, the larger the risk is for this person to develop an addiction.”

She lists the signs of addiction: shame of using drugs or drinking, guilt, a steady progression of the disease and ever-accumulating negative consequences. It’s not a matter of upbringing but a disease model, according to Chernyak.

If a person suspects a family member or friend has a substance addiction, it is important the person does not try to address the problem. Instead, that person should suggest medical treatment, Chernyak said.

“You can’t address a substance abuse problem with willpower,” she said.

Webb said some other signs of addiction are isolation, unwillingness to communicate and loss of trust. His counselor advised him that communication was a key factor to his recovery; everything should be an open book, Webb said.

“Once communication and trust stop, it is a huge red flag,” he said. “This is what hurt my wife the most.”

Stop addiction before it starts

Know the signs

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc., lists the signs of addiction as:

  • Loss of control: Drinking or drugging more than a person wants to, despite telling themselves they wouldn’t do it this time.
  • Neglecting other activities: Spending less time on favorite activities, school or work.
  • Risk taking: More likely to take serious risks to obtain that fix.
  • Relationship issues: Acting out against those closest to them, particularly if someone is attempting to address their substance problems; complaints from coworkers, friends and classmates.
  • Secrecy: Going out of one’s way to hide the addiction; unexplained injuries or accidents.
  • Changing appearance: Serious changes or deterioration in hygiene or physical appearance.
  • Family history: A family history of addiction can dramatically increase the predisposition to addiction.
  • Tolerance: The body adapts to the addiction over time, requiring more to have the same reaction.
  • Withdrawal: As the effects of use wear off, the person may experience symptoms such as sweating, nausea, insomnia, depression, irritability and fatigue, and will abuse again to get rid of the symptoms.
  • Continued use: Despite negative consequences, a person will continue to use.

Source: National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc. at ncadd.org, provided by Portia Peterson, quality management program manager with the Wyoming Department of Health

The best way to avoid substance addiction is to stop it before it starts.

For Chernyak, it’s simple: Never try it.

People should not experiment with drugs,” she said. “Whether it’s alcohol or drugs, if you don’t try it, you’re not predisposing your system to the substance.”

PsychCentral, a website committed to the drug use conversation, offers the following five steps to stop addiction before it starts:

Because many people turn to drinking and drugs as a way to deal with stress and tension in their lives, coping methods such as exercise and meditation are important ways to help eliminate the urge to try drinking and drugs.

Substance abusers are often people who “are attempting to self-medicate
for their psychological issues.” A mental health car professional is better equipped to treat these issues and provide effective and long-lasting ways to overcome feelings of depression.

Life can become so over whelming a person does not enjoy or take part in maintaining strong relationships and a healthy balance between physical and mental activities.

Finding that balance and creating strong relationships helps a person gain the stability needed to substance free.

Passion about something motivates a person to stay healthy physically and emotionally. “If you care deeply enough about the people and activities in you life, you are less likely to jeopardize them by experimenting with drugs,” according to the website.

Studies have shown the tendency toward addiction is linked to your genes, so extra precaution is needed if you are aware of family members who have struggled with addiction.

A continuing struggle

For Webb, sober now for two years, four months and 10 days, the addiction still gnaws at him. When life gets tough, the bottle sings its siren song in an attempt to draw him back to that calming liquor.

He stays strong through open communication with his family and friends and he refuses to become isolated by his problems.

Part of getting better, for him, has been staying active. He also has organized a group called Motivation Don’t Die in an effort to let people know addiction is a real problem that can affect anyone and there are ways to avoid it.

“People think drinking or taking drugs is fun and games and so harmless,” Webb said. “Everyone needs to know addiction is possible and it happens to a lot of people. They need to keep their eyes open.”

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Rock Springs Rocket-Miner

Published six days a week by Rock Springs Newspapers, Inc., the Rocket-Miner serves is the main source of news and community information for Sweetwater County and western Wyoming.