One of the great things about being an addict or an alcoholic is …
Weird way to start off an article about recovery, with a sentence like that one. But as contradictory and antithetical as that statement is, there is a strain of positivity to it.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction — no matter the substance — just understand that there is someone who’s been exactly where you or your friend or family member is at any given moment. You can also have the peace of mind of knowing that this presently anonymous person — someone you’ve essentially “gone to different schools together” with — may very well be in a position to help you. Scratch the surface of any drug addict or alcoholic who has mastered the art of conquering their demons on a daily basis, and you will more than likely find someone who is very willing to help you vanquish your own.
You may have noticed that I didn’t say “former drug addict,” or “former alcoholic.” There’s no such thing. The saying “one day at a time” exists for a reason. All it takes is one bad day — one bad moment — and years of strength, sobriety, and pride can bring you right back to Day One.
If I may share with the class … I myself have a “difficult relationship with alcohol.” That was how I stated it the first few times I attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I equivocated right out of the gate. But then it dawned on me that there are varying degrees of alcoholism. For me, I’m a stress alcoholic. Just one tiny thing that didn’t sit right with me, and it was Shot City — even at 9 o’clock in the morning. After years of testing myself — thinking maybe I don’t have a problem with booze, beer, or wine — I finally climbed onto the ol’ sobriety station wagon, and it feels good. The only difficulty now is negotiating a world where 90 percent of it drinks alcohol. How does one maintain resolve and sense of self (not to mention the unintentional judgment we cast upon those who continue to drink socially)?
Again, just one bad day, and you’re at the back of the line again.
Apart from the many Alcoholics Anonymous meetings we can avail ourselves of around the Island, we’re fortunate to have guys like Brian Morris and Robert Cropper in our corner. Brian is the mental health and substance use disorder access coordinator at Island Health Care, and Robert is the director of recovery management services and peer recovery center supervisor at the Red House — “a safe place for those affected by and seeking help with their addiction, be it substance or behavioral.”
When I first sat down with these gentlemen, they were neck deep in their respective crises modes. While their professionalism and dedication to those in their charge would never allow them to divulge specifics, it was apparent that they both were compassionately anxious that a few clients who seemed ready to start their sobriety were in deflection mode. Something like, “I’ll be ready in a month or so …” coupled with a less than ideal living situation spells trouble with a capital T.
If you believe in subtle communication through body language, as I do, then watching these two tell me that their concern for those in crisis, or even those on the cusp of deciding to help themselves, runs very deep. More than that, they are genuinely afraid for those who might decide to take it upon themselves to engage in their own version of harm reduction.
Just to refamiliarize, harm reduction is essentially the anti-“Just Say No” method of helping addicts wean off substances logically. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, harm reduction emphasizes “engaging directly with people who use drugs to prevent overdose and infectious disease transmission; improving physical, mental, and social well-being; and offering low-barrier options for accessing healthcare services, including substance use and mental health disorder treatment.”
That’s essentially a soft-sell approach to letting folks know that they won’t have to go cold turkey if they genuinely want to grab the reins on their addiction. Resources, scientifically based ones, are available to help one end an unhealthy relationship with (insert your poison here).
However, engaging with Morris or Cropper is far from Step One when it comes to getting well. Very far. That first up-close-and-personal discussion is with that fine-looking person in the mirror. If you can’t first come to an agreement there, reaching out to Brian or Robert will be mere tokenism, and a waste of time for all concerned.
So before anything, that needs to happen. Sincerely and determinedly.
But going back to the idea of initiating harm reduction on your own. If there is an economic principle one can invoke — at all times, really, but especially here — it’s “let the buyer beware.”
Quite literally, your life can depend on it. George Carlin once said that there are “too many choices, America, and it’s not healthy.” And that was more than 30 years ago. It holds true for just about everything — from sneakers to soft drinks, as well as alcoholic beverages and street drugs. And now, with the many “advancements” in science and technology, you don’t even have to steal away to some back alley or bus station to acquire your vice of choice.
“There is this thing called ‘gas station heroin.’ Essentially, it’s something you can easily obtain online and — no kidding — at some gas stations and convenience stores (especially down South. Shocking, I know). Because it’s marketed as something that can elevate your mood, boost energy, reduce muscle inflammation, dwindle your appetite, and last but not least, help those struggling with opioid use disorder, those dependent on drugs and alcohol look at these convenient and relatively anonymous modes of harm reduction as bona fide quick fixes,” says Morris. “They’re cheap, they’re over-the-counter (or online or whatever), and, let’s face it, who wouldn’t be curious to try them?”
Convenience is the operative word here. Procuring them at a gas station or a Quickie Mart? I mean, why incur a co-payment (let alone an out-of-pocket expense) by going to the doctor when the guy in the Molly Hatchet T shirt and the “F___ You” hat can sell you something that can get you well easily? Whether it’s safe is another story. The fact that these legally obtained substances are less traceable to their point of origin should tell you something. The “masterminds” behind these drugs (and I use that term derisively) know just enough about chemistry to alter the composition of the drug so that it cannot be connected back to a point of origin by the authorities (the FDA). Additionally, this intentional mutation of the chemical structure allows the drug to evade urine tests. Another indication that these “wonder drugs” are suspect.
“It’s all part of somebody’s idea of harm reduction,” says Morris. “I sent to Eric Adams [a local therapist] the other day an article about vending machines in New York now that, on the one hand you can get fentanyl test strips so you can test your drugs and see if fentanyl is in them before you use them. That’s actually a good way to reduce harm. You can also get Narcan spray. So if somebody overdoses, you administer and reverse the effects. But, and I’m not sure how I feel about this yet, but I’ll just throw it out there, you can buy needles, and there are places to go where use is sanctioned. So you can shoot up right in front of people, which I feel OK about. But, as we’re now seeing, unsupervised harm reduction, like the ones we’re speaking of, can wear so many different — and destructive — masks.”
For instance, “naturally occurring substances” are making their way into the hands of people that are using. There is this fairly widespread misperception that just because it’s identified as “Naturally Occurring” it’s less dangerous than a drug or compound that is synthesized in a lab. Opium, for example, is “natural.” But opium is the main ingredient in pharmaceutical pain meds such as Percocet and Vicodin. And I think we know how those and their pharmacological brethren can wreak havoc to someone with a predisposition to addiction.
“You know, it’s like I can appreciate someone’s desire to want to use something that is ‘naturally occurring’ to get them off another drug. But it absolutely must be supervised. Even something like ketamine or any other psychedelic therapy, these just have to be supervised sessions.
“These modes of healing can be very helpful with trauma with addiction, but just going out and doing it yourself? Not a good idea,” states Cropper.
And then there’s the folks who really have no interest in getting well. Or, if they do, they are terrified of being dopesick. So they seek out anything that will ween them off of whatever their monkey is. Enter Xylazine, which is a veterinary anesthesia — horse tranquilizer. You might automatically assume it’s an opioid. It isn’t. Xylazine is an adulterant, which means it’s essentially a “secret mixer.” Speaking in boozy terms, it’d be like adding grain alcohol to a vodka and tonic without telling the person who’ll be drinking it.
So now that we’ve sufficiently scared you about the possibility of yet another ingestible demon making its way to our fair Island, how do we as a community negotiate helping someone — once they’ve acknowledged their need to get well — get the comprehensive, medically supervised assistance they require?
“People come to me or this program at Community Services, or go to Brian — people at their rock bottom, and they’re like, ‘I am willing to do anything not to feel this way anymore,’” says Cropper. “And, you know, you praise God, when people like that come through. But what ends up happening is you have a lot of people continually coming back, because they have a very hard time getting through even three months of sobriety. So I advise them. I use whatever we have available. I’ll say to them, ‘If you require medication-assisted treatment, do that, get a therapist, use the recovery coach, and just work it as hard as you possibly can.’”
But the will has to be there. Even that sentence — that sentiment — can’t touch the agonizing journey to the ultimate conclusion that “I can do this.”
OK. It’s been established that the decision to get well has to come from the person struggling. They’ve reached out to someone like Cropper or Morris for help.
“We have the great luxury of being able to operate under an MOU [memorandum of understanding], which has been in existence since 2016,” Morris says. “When we need a bed, Gosnold in Falmouth or AdCare in Worcester, they have agreed to make their first bed available to our people, which is why it works, because the window of opportunity is so tiny for some of these people. There might be only five minutes when somebody’s going to say, ‘Finally, I’ll go.’ You’ve got to act fast. You can’t wait til next Thursday.”
Morris continues, “So Robert and I will get on the phone, do the sort of ‘secret handshake/wink’ over the phone, and the person we are calling on behalf of moves to the top of the list — usually within 24 hours. And you have no idea what a difference that makes. We also do what’s called a ‘warm handoff’ — get on the boat with the person who’s heading off, talk, build a little rapport, or just remain silent. That’s fine, too. The important thing is they get in the car on the other side that’s been sent for them. Because, as we know, there’s a package store on the other side. And if we’re not with them, you know, things can go sideways. Being an addict, I know from whence I speak.”
But then what?
A person goes through their time in detox, they’re feeling strong, feeling good about themselves. But they are heading back to the same environment where all their past behaviors and associates are. Eventually their past rears its ugly head, and can drag someone right back to where they don’t want to be. Of course, there’s Vineyard House, a safe and structured living environment for folks in the early stages of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. There’s also the Red House Peer Recovery Support Center, a place to go for support, structured activities, and general camaraderie. Both are absolutely vital to the Vineyard’s recovery community. They literally are lifelines for many on the Island who struggle with addiction.
But they are not treatment facilities — something that both Cropper and Morris feel we should have to help ease someone back into their familiar living environment. The off-Island detox facilities are Step One; Vineyard House and the Red House are both very necessary modes of sobriety maintenance. But what lies between the two?
“Well, most people come back from detox having been there anywhere from seven to 12 days. There are houses associated with places like AdCare and Gosnold where you can do a medically supervised transitioning visit for a 28- or maybe 60-day stay, but there’s nothing like that here. And that’s what we’re beginning to look at — to see the feasibility of having a place like that on Martha’s Vineyard. Because that would make all the difference in the world — to have 28 more days of eating, drinking, and thinking about recovery, as opposed to just getting back on the boat and trying to re-establish your newfound sobriety in the very environment you weren’t sober in,” says Morris.
“Sure, It sounds like a holding cell of sorts. But what a brilliant idea. We’ve got to make that happen, man.”
When asked if they had a timeline as to when something like this could happen, both Cropper and Morris emphasized that this was merely a deep consideration. A compassionate hope.
“We’ve been visiting places off-Island to see what their model looks like. We have the person who is currently the coordinator for the Substance Use Disorder Coalition, who is working up a plan. He’s an ex-engineer, so this is right up his alley. We just need to come up with a plan that we can present to the community. Call in the folks from Vineyard House, the Red House — it has to be a collaborative effort if it’s going to happen at all,” Cropper adds.
“We have so many angels on this Island who are always willing to open not only their hearts to folks who are struggling, but their homes. But there’s only so many times a year that I can call someone like Karen or Lisa and ask them to put someone up for the night,” says Morris.
Cropper interjects, “And the folks at the Vineyard House and the Red House — you wanna talk angels?”
“Ultimately,” says Morris, “what matters most is what’s in the best interests of the particular patient. We always say you are not alone, and you’re not. I’ve never seen a recovery community like this. And that’s why I’ve chosen to live here. It’s remarkable how loving and compassionate and open-minded we are.”
As our conversation was ending, the word “NIMBYism” came up. Truth be told, I asked if it was a thing here on the Island. They both corroborated my wonder in the affirmative. It isn’t an attitude you would automatically associate with anyone on the Vineyard, but it does exist. We’ve all seen our community rally behind people with troubles. Be it disease, accident, death in the family — Vineyarders have a tendency to show love to those in crisis. Sadly, stigma creates this emotional barrier that a lot of times intercepts those “better angels of our nature.” Understanding that addiction isn’t merely about people who are just “that way,” who should be dismissed as lowlife stoners or drunks. These souls are suffering. Many are enduring legacy burdens and demons that even the strongest among us couldn’t conquer without help.
It’s incumbent upon us to understand that fact. And whatever we can do to support these people in crisis, as well as those in positions of guidance and counseling, should be looked upon as not only a Golden Rule action, but a fortification of our community — one person at a time.
Brian Morris and Robert Cropper are only two of the many counselors on the Island you can contact to find out how you can become someone who is a part of this much-needed, comprehensive solution. Respectively, their emails are firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. You can also reach out to the people at Vineyard House at 508-693-8580, or the Red House Peer Recovery Support Center at 508-693-2900.