Although the seasonal resort destination of Martha’s Vineyard is largely sequestered from the mainland, it is not spared from the scourge of addiction that spreads through communities like wildfire.
With the warm days of summer here set in sharp contrast with the gloomy days of the off-season, some Islanders turn to drugs and alcohol as an escape from the boredom or depression that is also widespread in our tiny Island community.
The documentary film “On Island” was created by the Public Good Projects (PGP), a public health nonprofit composed of experts in public health, media, and marketing that seeks to effect positive change through creating documentaries, advertising campaigns, and grassroots focus groups in individual communities.
The film was also made possible by the Tower Foundation, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, and Island donors. The Martha’s Vineyard Substance Use Disorder Coalition is also a major supporter of the film.
‘On Island,’ which premiered worldwide on Feb. 11, 2021, follows the story of several Islanders who have battled (and continue to battle) substance use, along with health professionals and first responders who have faced this issue head-on. The film illustrates how the unique Island community makes people more susceptible to falling into the throes of addiction. At the same time, many of the elements of our tight-knit home create a network of support for anyone who is struggling with substance use disorder.
Spencer De Langavant-Sahr, a graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, entered recovery three years ago.
Before then, he said in the film, his life was “literally contained to a space about this big,” gesturing with his hands; “it was my spoon, my drug, and my needle, that was it.”
De Langavant-Sahr said that once he started using drugs, his mother distanced herself from him, and he was largely operating on his own, with little support. He soon began to come to his own realizations. “I had gotten exactly what I wanted and more — nobody was there to tell me that my life was out of control, or that I am going to die,” De Langavant-Sahr said. “I had all the time to figure it out all by myself that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing.”
De Langavant-Sahr said in the film that many people who use drugs or alcohol on the Island are seeking an escape, whether it’s from boredom and isolation, from a traumatic experience, or from a difficult family life.
But he added that using drugs doesn’t provide relief of those feelings, it just suppresses them: “When you use out of boredom, out of depression, you don’t just put that depression away and that boredom away, you put your grief away, you put your happiness away, everything, and you are just left as, like a shell of your former self.”
While in Vineyard House, a safe-recovery nonprofit in Vineyard Haven, De Langavant-Sahr met his current girlfriend, Brianna Pantalone.
They weren’t allowed to date while in the sober house, but once they left, they had formed a close bond through their shared experiences, and continue to support each other while in recovery.
Another Island woman’s story shows how a traumatic experience brought on by substance use forced her to face the reality of addiction, and to drastically alter the course of her life.
When Kelly McCarron was 17 years old, she was the driver in an accident that killed her best friend, Jena Pothier. McCarron was celebrating the end of the year with Pothier, and was under the influence of alcohol when she tried to pass two cars and lost control.
When McCarron learned that her best friend had passed away as a result of the accident, she entered recovery, and eventually went on to give regular talks at the high school about how her experiences with alcohol changed her life. Now McCarron serves as program coordinator at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services’ Peer Recovery Support Center.
Two other Islanders the film focuses on are Tyler Paulson and Riley Dobel — roommates and coworkers at Tabor Tree & Land Co.
Dobel said in the film that he started experimenting with drugs at an early age, in part due to the pervasive drug culture that existed, and continues to exist, here. “You go to the high school here, and it’s kind of like a rite of passage,” Dobel said.
While in recovery, Dobel was hired by Dennis Redican, the late owner of Tabor Tree, who was a central pillar of the recovery community on Martha’s Vineyard.
Struggling with addiction himself, Redican made it a point to hire folks in recovery, and take them to the trees to find solace and satisfaction.
Tyler Paulson said that when he is up in the trees working, he feels an overwhelming sense of gratitude and pride, and even though he hates heights and is in a new and uncomfortable situation being suspended so high up, “it makes [him] focused.”
The film uses tree work as a metaphor for addiction, illustrating how such a new and anxiety-inducing experience like seeking help is only lessened by relying on the support of the belayer.
And with addiction touching the lives of everyone in one way or another, the film also highlights how substance use disorder affects friends, families, and loved ones.
In August 2018, beloved Island community member Joey Jones overdosed fatally on heroin.
David Jones, Joey’s brother, says in the film that he has seen countless people in his life die after being trapped by addiction. The closest he gets to Joey now is by playing the music that he loved so dearly throughout his life. “Joey was 27; it’s too soon. I miss him,” David said.
For longtime Islander, world-renowned surfcaster, and author Janet Messineo, her experience with drugs started early on, and her path of recovery has been long. “I was always trying to escape,” Messineo said in the film. Eventually, she had a dream where she overdosed, and made the realization that the drugs she was taking would eventually kill her.
When Messineo was 28, she “got addicted to surfcasting,” and the entire trajectory of her life changed.
“The minute I get out and I am standing in the surf, it’s like I hold my breath all winter and then I just exhale. I feel like I am the person I’m meant to be,” she said. After relapsing in her 50s, Messineo went in to see addiction specialist and longtime Island medical practitioner, Charles Silberstein. He prescribed her suboxone, and, she says, she hasn’t had a craving since that point, more than 15 years ago. “My life flourished. I started a guiding business, I wrote a book,” she said.
During the premiere and panel discussion for ‘On Island,’ the Rev. Chip Seadale said the whole idea of the film is to get as many people in the Island community involved in shifting our collective behavior to more healthy norms, and build a culture that works on reducing substance misuse, destigmatizes addiction, and prevents or delays first use among Island youth.
“I will always remember the tears of the older brother of young Joey Jones, who we lost at the tender age of 27, or the hope of young Brianna and Spencer falling in love and trying to make it, and trying to keep each other alive,” Seadale said. “Think about how alcohol or drug use has affected you. Is anyone really immune from this?”