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Let’s Talk About Mental Health: Choosing sobriety in a mountain town

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By Shannon Steele EBS COLUMNIST

How do you live sober in a mountain town when drinking is often celebrated in most outdoor sports and normalized in a resort town where the party never ends? 

Though Big Sky has the fastest lifts in America, Swifty is long enough to enjoy chairlift beers between runs. Beers are packed for the end of a big mountain bike ride, summit beers are hauled for hikes, and giant coolers full of seltzers and hoppy libations are stashed in the raft. Choose your favorite aprés spot for your sport—the options are endless with over 30 liquor licenses saturating Big Sky’s 120 square mile boundary.  

Around here, it can seem that every occasion is an occasion to drink. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way—just ask Big Sky resident Shaun McManus, who found sobriety after realizing what he wanted from life couldn’t be found in a beer can. 

“From the summer of 2010 to 2012 I lived in Big Sky, bartended at [the Yellowstone Club], snowboarded six days a week in the winter, and played hard in the summer…I lived the lifestyle,” McManus shared his story on Feb. 15. “In April of 2016, I was at pond skim, blacked out, got a DUI and woke up on suicide watch in Bozeman Deaconess with my dad sitting in the corner. That was the worst day of my life.”

According to a recent Community Health Assessment conducted by Gallatin County and other partners, excessive drinking in Big Sky increased from 27.3 percent in 2017 to 33.9 percent in 2020—much higher rates than in Montana and the U.S. In Big Sky, 48.5 percent of people report their life has been negatively affected by their own or someone else’s substance abuse. COVID-19 has made things worse.

It may seem like everyone in Big Sky is drinking. That’s just not true.

It took five months after his crisis for McManus to put down his drink. He is now sober, volunteers as a community Wellness Navigator and is founder of Coffee and Conversation, a space for those in recovery from substance use to gather, heal and grow.

Wellness Navigators are part of a new Community Support Network linking those in Big Sky with resources to address mental and behavioral health challenges, including alcoholism and addiction. Resources may include healthcare services, community wellness programs, healthful activities or social support services. 

Another Wellness Navigator, Suzy Sensbach, recounts: “I moved to Big Sky already sober and found a thriving sober community. There are many people here who embrace all the fun and adventure of Big Sky living without booze and are much better for it. 

“I stay sober by doing the work that is required for me to live life without needing to self-medicate,” adds Sensbach. “I stay sober by talking to other sober people and using healthy tools to cope when life gets challenging. And I stay sober by skiing, rafting, hiking, going to concerts, dinners and events all without a drink!”

Sensbach found sobriety through a 12-step program recommended by a friend.

To maintain sobriety, McManus invested in himself and accessed available resources and support: “Four years of therapy almost weekly, men’s groups and workshops, meditation, plant medicine, a support group of friends and family that will listen to me vent or spill my heart, and nights alone in reflection learning to deal with the darkness,” he said. 

“The work never stops, but it changes,” McManus reflected. “You go from a place of trying to hold on, to finding a place of calm. You get to even, and then you start to find some places of growth.

“Big Sky is a beautiful place to live and has so much to offer; life is beautiful and has so much to offer,” McManus stressed. “It is completely possible to live a fulfilling and happy sober life here.”

You are not alone and the resources are growing.

Shannon Steele is the behavioral health program officer at the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, and values a collaborative and community-centered approach to mental/behavioral health and wellness. She has a background in mind-body wellness and community health, and is also a certified yoga instructor and active volunteer. Community, wellness and the outdoors have always been pillars in Shannon’s life.

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