Recovery off the mainland’s a little different

By Courtney Naliboff

When home is an unbridged island, people in recovery turn to creative means to access support services

While life on one of Maine’s 15 unbridged islands can seem idyllic, the reality in geographic isolation, with a finite number of fellow islanders, can lead some residents to seek out drinking or drug use as a “common denominator.”

Debby Bates, 70, found this to be the case when she lived on Monhegan Island in the 1970s and early ’80s. At the time, Monhegan had just 81 year-round residents, and that’s now down to 45.

“The alcohol brought people together,” she says. “We were in our ’20s, and we drank with people of all ages, people older than my parents or my parents’ age. This was the common denominator that allowed people to like each other because you can’t choose on an island who is there. That eased the tension of having all these different personalities in this small little place.”

For Keith Ivers, 40, an insular sense of safety on Peaks Island fostered his drinking and substance use.

“The island was like a security blanket, like I could drink and use as much as I wanted because I was already home by being on the island,” he says. “By being out here, I felt like it removed so many possibilities for things to get in the way or hinder how much I used.”

“There is a culture of drinking and drugs,” says Nancy Hopkins-Davisson, 62, a lifelong resident of North Haven, an island in Penobscot Bay. “But, I think in general people kind of root for the person in recovery.”

Hopkins-Davisson says accessing the island’s regular 12-step program meetings has helped her in her recovery over the past 28 years, as has reading and researching. She finds her connection to the island and islanders an important source of support.

“For me, the more I opened up, in the beginning, the more I got back. And then I didn’t feel as isolated,” she says. “I had a really good reaction when I stopped drinking and just told people I stopped drinking.”

Hopkins-Davisson says that as someone who “grew up outside,” the island’s natural beauty provides the spiritual connection she needs in her recovery. “I feel like it really supports me. I love being outside, and kind of meditating outside and walking and working outside, and all times of the year. And I don’t really know how to explain it, but I just kind of feel like nature is my higher power.” Ivers, who owns Peaks Island Fuel Company, finds solace and support in his commute by boat to mainland meetings.

“On the weekends I go to earlymorning meetings, and there’s nothing more peaceful than watching the sun come up when you’re headed towards the city and then to get on your boat and drive away from the city and watch the lights fade when you head back out,” he says. “It’s amazing.”

The tight-knit Peaks community, including Ivers’ and his wife’s families, has been a surprising source of support as well, although Ivers chooses to attend mainland meetings rather than the one available on island.

“New in recovery, I was still pretty much ashamed of myself and I didn’t want to mix the two, then it turned into I liked being in town,” says Ivers, who has been in recovery for two years. He quickly learned that he wasn’t alone in his recovery.

“As soon as I got off the island to a couple meetings, I bumped into these people and it gave me a safety net. I wasn’t alone,” he says. “Ever since people have found out that I’ve been in recovery I haven’t had anything but support. I haven’t been shamed by one person.”

In addition to the support islanders receive from their communities and the soothing natural beauty surrounding them, several organizations exist to connect
islanders to recovery services.

Maine Seacoast Mission, based in Bar Harbor, which has offered medical, educational and spiritual support to island communities since 1905 – including access to counselors who work with addiction issues – is one such organization.

With telemedicine equipment, including a specialized examination camera and other diagnostic devices, the
mission allows people to see primary-care doctors and counselors.

“I do work with Acadia Family Center, which is in Southwest Harbor, and MDI (Mount Desert Island) Behavioral Health, and both of those work with addiction issues,” says Sharon Daley, a registered nurse and the mission’s director of island health. Daley is available for family members and patients to talk to, has assisted physicians with drug-testing patients taking suboxone – a medication prescribed for people in recovery from opioid use – and has hosted counseling sessions aboard the Sunbeam V, the mission’s 75- foot vessel, currently in dry dock for repairs.

Vinalhaven – Maine’s most populous unbridged island, about a 75-minute ferry ride to Rockland across West Penobscot Bay – created its own organization to address a growing problem with
opioid addiction, Our Island CARES (CommunityAwareness-Recovery-Education-Support).

“It was founded in 2016 by Jeannie Conway and Annette Cash, who worked at the ferry terminal,” says Phil Crossman, who chairs the CARES board. “They knew that drugs were coming into the island, they knew in what fashion they were getting here, how they were getting picked up.”

Crossman says the founders had no interest in prosecution or punitive action – they wanted to focus on the need to address a problem that was becoming more and more critical for the community. CARES offers a weekly recovery group and hopes, with the addition of an Island Institute fellow, to offer more opportunities for people in recovery, including employment opportunities, as well as substance use prevention education.

Dr. Kendra Emery, Pen Bay Medical Center’s Community Health medical director in Rockport, said that while there isn’t yet island specific data about access to recovery services, she assumes
that the rural nature of an island community makes it harder to access resources for psychosocial and emotional support. “The same factors play a role in rural communities in Maine and throughout the United States,” she says. Despite the challenges of recovery in an isolated community, separated from the mainland and the more abundant services there, and with less anonymity than in a larger community, Yvonne Thomas, a member of the CARES board and the Island Institute’s education specialist, sees some advantages to being in recovery on an island. “Islands can and will be more and more great places for people in recovery because so much of what addiction is is that it’s a disease of isolation. And even though we live in very isolated communities, you can’t really be an isolated individual in an island community,” she says. On islands, community members rely on each other for things as varied as moving cars on and off the ferry, picking up items from the mainland, and watching each others’ children in times of need.

Emery agrees with Ivers’ and Davisson’s assertion that connecting and being open with family, friends and neighbors can be a vital support for islanders in recovery.“As someone from rural Maine, I have seen firsthand the strength and power of community that provides an unmatched fabric of integrated support,” she says.

Thomas agrees: “Community is part of the cure.”

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