Drug and alcohol abuse on Martha’s Vineyard is more prevalent than it is in most of the rest of the country. According to the 2004 Health Report, 31 percent of full-time adult Vineyarders — more than twice the national average — met the definition of excessive drinking as defined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Among younger Vineyarders, the number was even higher. Our community has one of the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths in the nation, and teens in the high school have rates of cannabis use a third higher than that of average American teens. And things have only gotten worse in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen large, nationwide increases (including, anecdotally, on the Vineyard) in the use of alcohol and many other drugs, along with plummeting access to in-person treatment programs and 12-step meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous.
The good news is that Martha’s Vineyard has extraordinary resources for addressing drug and alcohol addiction. Martha’s Vineyard Hospital has a 24-hour/day Substance Use Disorder treatment team, and the Island has an exceptionally vital 12-step community: before the pandemic, when most meetings went virtual, there were some 65 recovery meetings on-Island each week. (This included multiple meetings available to family members, such as Al-Anon and now Adult Children of Alcoholics and dysfunctional families.) Vineyard House, which costs a fraction of what most treatment programs cost, is a unique and impactful residence for our neighbors in early recovery, and the New Paths Program at the Island Counseling Center (ICC) is an intensive outpatient program for Islanders in recovery. ICC also offers crisis intervention services and a clinic that provides medication assisted treatment such as Suboxone and Vivitrol. In collaboration with the hospital, M.V. Community Services (ICC’s parent organization) runs the Peer Support Recovery Support Center, a.k.a. “The Red House,” described as “a home for those trying to figure out a new way of life.”
When the Martha’s Vineyard Youth Task Force created a campaign to reduce underage drinking, the rate of alcohol use fell below national and statewide averages for teens. And in 2016 a grassroots group of concerned citizens created the Martha’s Vineyard Substance Disorder Coalition which produced a remarkable film about Island substance use called “On Island.” (See it here: onislandmv.org/). Additionally, the coalition initiated negotiations with three off-Island detox facilities to give Islanders easier access to detox facilities (since there are none here), and it began recruitment and training of a cadre of recovery coaches — trained professionals who guide and support individuals in the recovery process, helping to prevent relapse. There are likely very few communities of our size that have created the array of innovative services and solutions that we have.
When putting together this series of personal stories by Islanders about their experiences with substance use, a question arose as to whether the stories should only be written anonymously. While anonymity must be everyone’s personal choice, my own view is that it is often overrated. As the great researcher Brené Brown famously said, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” The stigma and shame that substance use is steeped in all too often leads users to keep their problem a secret and to avoid treatment — a combination that is all too often lethal. What’s more, the idea that substance abuse is a moral weakness is, from a scientific perspective, simply wrong. While loving, connected, safe childhoods, healthy peers, lack of access to substances, and sober parents all help to prevent substance use disorders, there is one factor that leads to SUDs more than all of the others put together: genetics. Substance Use Disorders are genetically-linked illnesses with a behavioral component, just like other chronic relapsing illnesses like Diabetes and Hypertension.
Two years ago, I wrote about my own family experience with SUDs. (See bit.ly/mysudstory.)
It wasn’t an easy decision to tell that story. My family SUD issues were secrets that I had been trained to keep from an early age. Those secrets were painful and led me to avoid getting the help that I needed as a child of an alcoholic and drug addict. When the essay about my family was published, I received an outpouring of love and support, and several people approached me to talk about their own similar stories. For me, that experience was transformative and healing. I hope that this series will be another body blow to stigma and that the people who have written the following essays (whether anonymously or not) feel the same comfort and relief that I did in telling my story. I suspect that everyone who reads this series will think of themselves, their family members, friends, or neighbors, and hearts will open.
Dr. Charles Silberstein is a psychiatrist at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and Island Counseling Center, where he is the medical director. He is board-certified in general, addiction, and geriatric psychiatry. He writes regularly about issues Islanders have with mental health.
Laura Roosevelt is a poet and journalist who writes regularly for Arts & Ideas magazine and Edible Vineyard. She currently curates the MV Times Poets Corner.