“This is not easy for me.”Stories of the impact of drug and alcohol abuse
The discussion was emotional and intense.
Some 60 islanders gathered at the Block Island School to continue the discussion on drug and alcohol abuse on the island. Four members of the community spoke and audience members offered their own solutions to some of the issues facing the island.
The first presenter was long-time island resident Erica Tonner, who opened by saying “This is not easy for me.” She noted it had been 10 years since she and her husband lost their daughter Rachel, “who was 29 years old, our only daughter, our youngest child, and an alcoholic and heroin addict.” Tonner added, “She was also a Block Island School Salutatorian and on the Dean’s List at Boston University.”
Though Rachel’s friends were not addicts, nor were her two brothers, her mother said Rachel became addicted early on. By the age of 18, she began going to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), continuing during her first two years at BU, but eventually dropping out.
Rachel came out for a few summers to help her parents run a coffeehouse, but during the second season, Tonner noticed that Rachel “began to befriend people of a different character.” They learned one was addicted to heroin, to which Rachel was soon addicted herself. After that the family followed their daughter’s anguished trail — in and out of rehab for heroin abuse — until “finally she was arrested for possession.”
During that time, Tonner said, “We tried to practice tough love, and I can’t figure out if it was tougher on her or us.” Once released from the Adult Correctional Institute with the understanding that she’d go into treatment, Rachel just disappeared. “She never showed up here, went missing from Rhode Island, and for years we never knew where she was, though occasionally she would call to let us know she was okay,” Tonner said.
When she turned 29, Rachel called her family indicating she wanted to come home. However, on the way, Tonner said, “She went missing and we put out a missing person’s on her.” She was gone for a month when a New York detective called saying, “they had a Jane Doe in the morgue.”
Tonner said they learned Rachel “had been found dead in the bathroom of a restaurant.” Tonner’s husband Kurt and their sons went to New York to identify her and bring her home.
“They wouldn’t let me go, though I wish I had,” said Tonner, adding, “My baby girl. Daddy’s girl.”
Asking herself what she would have done differently, Tonner said, “I’d have kept her in rehab for more than two weeks at a time. We should have kept her there for five or six months.” Tonner advised other parents, “Beware of new friends and especially those with different kinds of character. Listen to your gut. Listen to your own friends. And don’t beat yourself up.”
All of us need help
The next speaker was counselor Sue Littlefield, who turned to Tonner and said, “Thank you, Erica. My heart is racing as a parent.” Having spoken to many adults and youngsters across the island, Littlefield said, “All of us need help.” She felt the island needed a specialist trained to work with substance abuse.
“For this generation [of young people], many of the parents have either done or are still doing alcohol and drugs,” Littlefield said. She summed up what she felt was a bad combination: “isolation and the capacity for young people to earn a lot of money.”
Littlefield added: “We need to know how we’re enabling young addicts and how to get them into treatment,” she said. With everyone wanting to help, “let’s create a culture about our children—a culture of collaboration.”
High risk factors
Police Chief Vincent Carlone said he’d become aware of “high risks here. I see young men and women from the island, who have good work ethics, yet get on a moped with no shoes, no helmet, early in the morning” on their way to work and way past midnight after they have been out, “doing the same thing.”
By themselves, Carlone felt these combinations were accidents waiting to happen, but if alcohol and drugs are added to the mix, the results can be deadly. “[Yet] no one will write out a statement here to the police to say what happened. To get witnesses here is impossible,” Carlone said — his frustration palpable.
“We’ll arrest a drug dealer and have numbers of people immediately coming forward to give him an impeccable character reference.” He urged parents “to call in immediately” and report the use of drugs whether by their friends’ children or their own. He noted the juvenile justice system really existed to “protect their children.”
The system can help channel “these kids into drug court and rehab court,” and once they get treatment and cleaned up, Carlone suggested that even “before 18, their records will be destroyed.”
We can shift the culture
Jill Seppa of the Prevention Task Force was the final speaker. She said her group began years ago “with Paul Riker and Emily Reeves working toward intervention.” Seppa identified “off-season boredom, significant levels of depression and a summer environment with excessive availability of alcohol and drugs” as factors contributing to a risky environment.
“We are fortunate to be a small community. We can shift the culture, move to a healthier environment, toward alcohol-free activities,” she said.
Seppa credited health teacher Vicki Carson with doing amazing things with students at all grade levels “to make them aware” of the dangers inherent in drug and alcohol consumptions. However, she believed the school curricula should place more emphasis on substance abuse. “We can teach them all the math and English, but what happens when they get into a drunk-driving accident?”
On a personal note, she added, “I’d like not to see us standing around another grave, wondering what we should do.”
Art, music and Internet options
Audience members offered suggestions: more activities through expanded use of community facilities, or of the Internet for engaging young people in exciting learning and multiple creative opportunities.
Others thought there should be stricter scrutiny of bars, especially at closing, which by law is at 1 a.m.
A young man in the audience decried the lack of a fitness center. Incredulous, he said, “Our fitness center is now a bar.” He asked, “Where is the music on Block Island? We need lots of art, music and we could learn from other communities. We should look and see what they are doing.”
To engage island youngsters, film maker Sue Hagedorn is asking those between the ages of 12 to 24 to contact her if interested in making a film about life on the island — good and bad.
The Prevention Task Force will meet next at 2:15 p.m. on June 5, with a speaker from the state helping the group initiate a needs assessment of the local community.
(See related story.)