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Community profile: Rifle woman embarks on winding road to recovery

Janet Souza looks off in the distance while on her balcony Thanksgiving eve.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Janet Souza sat up in her futon on Thanksgiving eve and stared blankly out a sliding-door window overlooking the mountains flanking Rifle’s south end.

The afternoon was relatively breezeless, and a few clouds partially blotched an otherwise bluebird day.

Yet even in the peace of the moment, Souza felt the shadow of addiction.



“It’s hard to get out of the bottle,” she said. “It always seems like it’s capped when you’re in there and you can’t get back out.”

Souza, wearing a soft woolen sweater, was resting. Her plan for Thanksgiving was to grab a ride to a church in Glenwood Springs so she could serve meals to the homeless. Service to others is important to the 70-year-old former cook, who has struggled with substances for years, most recently alcohol. Meanwhile, her 20s and 30s were consumed by methamphetamine addiction.



“It’s just boredom,” Souza said of what fueled her drinking. “I’d be pissed off at somebody, or, if I was having a really, really good day, then I deserve to drink.”

“That was always an excuse. I missed so many days of my life.”

A LONG TRIP

Souza’s mother wanted to hide the shame. So one day, she decided to pack the family car and drive across the country from Souza’s hometown of Fair Lawn, New Jersey.

“I got pregnant when I was 15,” Souza said. “So, my mom moved us to California.”

“She hid me from my relatives out there. I’d stay in my bedroom all Christmas Day.”

After Souza gave birth, her mother gave her a puppy, and her daughter was put up for adoption. Souza later reconnected with her daughter and still sometimes talks with her on the phone.

At 51, Souza ended up in Colorado to be closer with her son, James. The last time she spoke with him was about a year ago.

In the meantime, Souza eventually found herself living on a fixed income in a Silt apartment complex offered by the Garfield County Housing Authority.

Her drinking continued; home and life became a mess, she said.

“That stuff will tear you up,” she said. “I would hallucinate so bad I thought there was an old lady and a young girl sitting on my couch when I went into my apartment.”

Someone had to eventually tell her they were just pillows.

AN AWAKENING

Souza had about $200 to her name. She wasn’t living in Silt anymore, and she owed more than $700 in back rent to the housing authority.

Meanwhile, she had just gotten kicked out of her motel room when she was discovered drunk and unconscious in Centennial Park, a place she used to take her dogs, Jypsy and Missy, both of which died some time ago.

“I passed out in the park, and thank God somebody called somebody to bring me to the hospital,” Souza said. “I could have been dead.”

Whenever someone falls victim to these types of circumstances in Garfield County, various mental health and intervention specialists respond with the ultimate goal of rehabilitating the individual. In Souza’s case, she initially woke up to a representative from Aspen Hope Center, a nonprofit offering a variety of mental health and intervention services.

Souza also met Gabe Cohen, a former drug and alcohol user turned peer support specialist and martial arts black belt. Earlier in 2021, he opened Discovery Cafe, a full-service program that supports homeless, addicted and disenfranchised individuals, according to its webpage. It’s run out of a modest classroom on the Colorado Mountain College Rifle campus.

“She reminds me of a wounded little bird that needs to be held gently and loved on,” Cohen said. “She needs healing.”

Janet Souza sits inside her Rifle Apartment on Thanksgiving eve.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Using emergency vouchers, Cohen set up Souza in another motel. He also purchased her enough groceries to get through the weekend. Soon, Cohen was bringing her to Alcoholics Anonymous, church and, finally, Discovery Cafe.

Cohen said Souza might be 70, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to seek recovery.

“Janet’s lived through so much trauma,” he said. “She suffered a lot, and she hasn’t been on her prescribed meds for a long time, and she struggles with alcoholism, but she is a smart woman, a sweet woman, a loving, caring woman.”

ROAD ON THE ROCKS

Souza couldn’t believe the atmosphere when she stepped into Discovery Cafe.

“I walked into a room that was totally peaceful to me,” she said, tears building in her eyes. “Just a few days before that, I ended up waking up in the hospital, not knowing how I got there.”

Earlier this fall, Cohen also persuaded Souza to apply for an apartment at Maxwell Heights, an affordable housing complex for seniors.

Though she still owed the housing authority back rent, Cohen loaned her enough money to defray the debt using funds from the Cafe’s account. And though Souza lives on a minimal, fixed income, she’s already paid back most of the loan.

“That’s important to me,” Cohen said. “She is a woman of integrity.”

But Souza isn’t in the clear yet. On Tuesday, Souza admitted to falling off the wagon,

Janet Souza shows a page in an art book she admires while inside her Rifle apartment on Thanksgiving eve.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

At first, she was scared to tell Cohen about her relapse. But when she did, Cohen gave her nothing but love and support.

“Relapsing is a part of recovery,” he said. “We brush the dust off our shoulders, and we press on. This shows the plight and struggle are real. But it also shows triumph.”

For Souza, she’s still moving forward.

“I talked to Gabe this morning, and he’s very happy with me,” she said Friday. “I have a lot of support from people that I thought were going to deny me.”

There are several resources throughout the Colorado and Roaring Fork valleys that offer assistance for mental health needs and addiction. This includes places like Discovery Cafe, Mind Springs Health, Aspen Hope Center and others.

Discovery Cafe

• Call director Gabe Cohen at 719-650-5978.

• Email the center at gabe@discoverycafe.org.

• Discovery Cafe is located at 3695 Airport Road in Rifle.

Mind Springs Health

• Call the Aspen location at 970-920-5555.

• Call the Glenwood Springs location at 970-945-2583.

Aspen Hope Center

• Call the Aspen office at 970-925-5858.

• Call the Glenwood Springs office at 970-945-3728.

• Call the Eagle office at 970-306-4673.

Alcoholics Anonymous

A variety of meetings are available online and in person. Final local meeting times at COAADistrict14.org, or call 970-245-9649 for more information or help.

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or rerku@postindependent.com.


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