Erik Striegel proves drug recovery is possible

Striegel keeps his Drug Court completion certificate framed in his living room as a reminder of what he’s accomplished beating drug addiction. Jen Hill Photo

RANGELY | Fourteen years ago this spring Erik Striegel, then a regular drug user, decided it was time to get his life in order by definitively and permanently walking away from his addiction. With the help of family and the local drug court he managed to do just that.

Striegel, who grew up in Rangely, graduating in 1987, began using marijuana as a middle schooler. By 10th grade he had graduated to harder drugs, namely cocaine. “Everyone I was hanging out with was doing it back then,” he said, “I was a total pot head.” Eventually, needing a bigger, longer lasting high Striegel turned to meth. He was drawn to meth as an economical way to increase his high.

“It cost about the same as cocaine but lasted three times longer. It worked for about a year or so, then it just took over,” he said.

As Striegel’s drug use continued into his 30’s he began avoiding his family, an impact he described as the worst part of the drug use.

“It’s hard because you know you were doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing,” he said.

By 2004, Striegel found himself in legal trouble, a consequence of the drug use he is now extremely grateful for. “If it wasn’t for Roy Kinney (his arresting officer) I wouldn’t be alive right now,” he said.

Following his arrest Striegel was sentenced to 90 days in jail to “get his head straight.” During his stint in the county jail Striegel experienced a profound moment watching the children at the nearby elementary school play during their recess time.

“They were out there playing and I was stuck in jail. I realized I didn’t want to be in jail anymore,” he said.  After serving the 90 days Striegel was sent to court-mandated rehabilitation where his revelations continued. A counselor at the program told him that if he was still having fun doing drugs, he was going to keep using no matter what. Striegel said he looked around him and understood at that moment that it was time to stop.

“You have to want to get clean for yourself. Not your parents, not your wife, you have to want it,” he said, describing the important role personal responsibility must play in any recovery process. “You’ve got to quit blaming other people for your problems. It ain’t the cop’s or the judge’s fault. As soon as you quit blaming everyone, that’s part of recovery, too.”

After getting clean and returning to the community Striegel realized he was going to have to find a new crowd.

“You cannot hang out with the same people you did drugs with and stay clean,” he said. Seemingly innocent objects like light bulbs and Gatorade became triggers and daily reminders of his drug use. Striegel had to work not only to stay clean but to prove to everyone else that he could do it.

“In a small town like Rangely, everyone knows. That’s both good and bad,” he said. “But once you’re clean, you don’t have to look over your shoulder anymore,” he said.

Striegel’s biggest regret of his recovery experience is that he wasn’t able to go to the judge who ordered his rehab and tell him it worked. Sadly, the judge passed away while Striegel was still in recovery. He credits the drug court program for helping him access the tools he needed, first with the ninety days in jail to get clean, followed by rehab. Striegel lamented the downfall of the program. “Now you just go to jail,” he said. 

He also acknowledged that without the support of his family, specifically his mom, he wouldn’t have been able to complete the program. “My mom drove me to Meeker whenever I needed to check in. The kids that couldn’t get a ride up there had a real hard time,” he said.

Mike Flannery, a former substance abuse counselor in Rio Blanco County, who now works in Craig, also saw value in the program.

“Drug court is for people who are high-risk and in high need of services. Participants meet with the judge and discuss compliance (drug testing, treatment probation, employment, stability, etc.). It is built on a foundation of sanctions and incentives. Participants are given various incentives for doing well and sanctions for non-compliance. Incentives and sanctions can vary depending on what the infraction or accomplishment is. It differs from normal supervision because behaviors are addressed on a more immediate basis (incentives and sanctions), where normal supervision may take weeks or months to address certain behaviors. Drug courts are now known as problem solving courts,” he said.

According to Flannery, Rio Blanco County lost its drug court program due to budget cuts and low numbers. “The problem with Rio Blanco County,” he said, “is numbers. As a treatment provider, to maintain a presence anywhere sadly takes money. So if it is not possible to pay for an office, utilities, etc., then you cannot make a living by being there. Rio Blanco is historically up and down with the need for services, so when the need is not there, treatment providers go elsewhere, and the judicial district has to make cuts.”

As with many rural communities, local treatment options are limited. Mind Springs, with locations in both Rangely and Meeker, offers a variety of drug and alcohol recovery. Details for those groups can be found on their website, mindspringshealth.org.

Last week the USDA unveiled a new website geared at helping rural communities respond to the opioid crisis. According to the website, which can be found at https://www.usda.gov/topics/opioids, the rates of drug overdose deaths are rising in rural areas, surpassing rates in urban areas. The website says, “For many rural counties already operating on slim budgets and struggling to attract new businesses or maintain existing employers, the consequences of this issue for rural communities are very real.”

Information for three grants aimed at helping rural American communities deal with addiction can also be found on the new website. The grants include funding for facilities, telemedicine and education efforts.

The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that more than 63,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016. More than half of those deaths involved opioids, including prescription drugs and heroin.