When Darin Valdez was working as a sobriety counselor a few years ago, a young man walked into his downtown Denver office crying and yelling. Then he asked Valdez for a sheet of paper.
The man disappeared into the basement of the Sobriety House with the paper, and after about an hour, Valdez assumed he had left for the day.
“I went downstairs and he was wrapping this green paper around the coffee straws that we had down there. And I looked over his shoulder, and he had a whole bouquet of these paper origami lilies,” Valdez said. “And I looked at his face, and he was calm and he was smiling and I thought, ‘that’s what we need.”’
The origami encounter that day is one of many reasons Valdez recently created Colorado Artists in Recovery, which provides creative expression workshops for people in recovery from drug addiction and other mental health issues. Isolation, depression and death from overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic pushed Valdez to speed up his plan of launching the new organization in January.
“I’m heavily involved with the recovery community, and I’m going to a celebration of life every other week,” he said, referring to the dozens of funerals he’s attended during the pandemic.
Through his work as a former recovery counselor, Valdez has noticed a trend: Many people in recovery often struggle with social anxiety and find it challenging to ask for help, so they turn to art or musical instruments to help them move through their recovery from addiction and other mental health challenges.
“Some of them would bring in their musical instruments, and they would play those, and that would be the only way they could really calm down,” Valdez said of clients at Sobriety House, where he formerly worked, a Denver-based treatment center offering affordable services to people seeking lifelong sobriety.
Many life experiences have led Valdez on a path toward creating Colorado Artists in Recovery, a free Denver-based workshop supporting people who are at least 24 hours into their recovery. Their friends, family members and other loved ones are also invited to join the six-week program.
“There are people recovering from a lot of things,” said Valdez, who is seven years sober. “We try to keep it to recovery from substance misuse, but we have found the community — our community — has so many people in it that are struggling with inclusion, community and discovery of their true selves.”
In his first year, as executive director and founder of Colorado Artists in Recovery, Valdez has provided 15 six-week workshops to anyone in recovery seeking a community with similar experiences. He hires teachers, who are also in recovery to lead courses, each typically offered to 10-12 students at a time.
During a recent workshop, seven students were in a music class led by Wil Snyder, a pianist who plays 13 other instruments.
“When I teach people music, I’m teaching them music. But when I teach these classes, I’m teaching people to get in touch with themselves, and to push through their fears, and to learn how music and the practice of music can help you heal in different ways,” Snyder said.
“Sobriety sometimes just isn’t enough,” he said. “It wasn’t for me. I needed something else, and having a community of creative people just was the thing I needed.”
During a recent workshop, Snyer acknowledged that fear may arise while students are practicing the skills they learn in class, while at home on their own.
People sometimes throw up their own emotional barriers to learning music, he said. “I’m not good enough. I can’t do this. I don’t have talent. What are people thinking about me?’”
The same emotions can pop up for people while they’re in recovery, he added. Learning how to overcome emotional hurdles during a music class can help people manage those same emotions when they arise during sobriety, Snyder said.
When Shannon Green joined Colorado Artists in Recovery six weeks ago, she was at a “really low point” in life, but seeking community after the end of a romantic relationship. Through the recovery workshop, she has been facing childhood trauma, while also working to curb an emotional eating habit, she said. Others in the course also encouraged her to seek mental health counseling, she said.
“I am better than what I used to be, because looking back at my past journals that I used to write, they were just so sad compared to what I’m feeling today,” she said, just before the workshop began on a Monday night earlier this month.
“The struggles that I had before, I wouldn’t say they resolved as of yet,” she said. “Basically, 19-plus years of doing the same thing over and over — that takes some time getting over that.”
Harrison Edwards, a musician for 15 years, had to leave Texas, his home state, to begin his recovery. Many of his friends back home were struggling with substance use disorders and alcohol was present at most of the music jobs he was hired for.
“Drinking was a part of my job,” he said. “It was something that I did at work. I did it every day.
“And that was the primary way that I met musicians and did the creative things that I do. That all got tied together — the work that I did, my creative goals and drinking and doing drugs,” he said. “So I’m looking for outlets and ways to continue to do the things that are most special to me, and to meet like-minded people is super important, especially in recovery.”
The nonprofit Caring for Denver Foundation is helping to fund Colorado Artists in Recovery and a few other programs working to address substance use and mental health issues through arts and creative expression. For example, Caring for Denver is also helping to fund Art from Ashes, a program that has engaged almost 14,000 young people in Colorado over the past 16 years. Art from Ashes works with youth who have experienced abuse, poverty and other hardships.
Valdez hopes to offer 18 workshops next year, including dance, creative writing, singing and meditation. Valdez is also asking community members to donate money, musical instruments and other art supplies to the nonprofit.
“What we’re looking for help with is finding a place to call home, somewhere where people can always go and they’ll know we’ll be there,” he said. Community members willing to provide a long-term space for the group are asked to contact Valdez, the founder and executive director.
On Oct. 25, students in the current workshop will perform in a recital, to celebrate the end of their Colorado Artists in Recovery experience. The free event is not open to the public but loved ones are encouraged to join.
“We are doing this because we want them to see how many people are just like them,” Valdez said. “This really helps change the stigma around recovery, and gives them an opportunity to shine … It is a simple evening, but my hope is that it will encourage them to keep trudging along their journey to freedom from addiction.”
Four workshop participants interviewed earlier this month, including Dusty Rose and Spencer Thompson, said they hope to continue their music education and plan to keep in touch with classmates after the program ends.
“The whole reason that this program exists is because people were in a dark place, and it’s taking people from that shadowside that we all have, and teaching them how to find their light,” Rose said.
The workshops’ value often extends beyond students wrestling their demons. Sometimes group teachers get help, too.
Snyder, the current workshop’s piano teacher, said he had been struggling with his mental health earlier this month and was close to checking into a psychiatric facility.
“I didn’t do it because I knew I had this (class) coming up,” he said earlier this month. “Honestly, just talking with a few people and being here and sharing this story, I feel infinitely better again.”