Facing Nantucket's Drinking Problem

Maureen Searle •

To the editor: This is a letter I did not want to write, and I imagine that there are some on the island, maybe many, who feel that I write too much. But I do have an unusual perspective as someone who has been on the island since 1970, mostly visiting my family, and then full-time when my mother had her stroke. Those who know me know that I care deeply about the island and about its community. For me, alcoholism. or alcohol use disorder, as it is now referred to, is not a moral issue; rather, as someone trained in public health, I consider it both a behavioral health issue and a medical issue.

I feel the need to raise the alarm about alcoholism on the island. We have recently seen two high-profile cases involving drinking and driving. I am not an alcoholism expert; I will leave that to Dr. Lepore, so I cannot diagnose either individual as having alcohol use disorder. I had a family member with a drinking problem; it was a way to deal with anxiety and a very difficult family history. I had a cousin, whom I was very close to, who probably died of alcohol use disorder at age 47. She died of breast cancer, but we know now that the risk of breast cancer is substantially increased if one has a lifetime of drinking every day as she did. She probably had two or three Sam Adams every day, starting in college. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 42.

I am fully aware that most restaurants on the island could not survive if they did not have a liquor license. I dare say that most of their revenue depends, not on food, but on liquor sales. During the Covid pandemic, liquor stores were declared an essential service and allowed to stay open. Alcoholic beverages could even be home-delivered. Perhaps that practice still continues.

I don’t know if alcoholic beverages are too accessible on the small island of Nantucket, but it would be difficult for someone trying to abstain after years of drinking heavily. So much of social life includes alcohol consumption.

When Marianne Stanton was editor of the Nantucket Inquirer & Mirror, she questioned the practice of having open bars at key philanthropic events, most notably, Boys & Girls and the Pops Concert. She was candid about members of the community—albeit unnamed—who were very drunk and embarrassing themselves. She asked that the sponsors of these events reconsider the open bar. And I have to say that it is odd for Nantucket Cottage Hospital, the direct beneficiary of the funds raised during the Pops, to be encouraging the consumption of a substance linked to so many, very serious, health problems.

Obviously, I am not asking that people deny themselves the great pleasure of a glass of fine wine or craft beer. Or an expertly made cocktail. I rarely hear about drinking in moderation but that is what could be a rallying cry for Nantucket. Alcohol tends to kill slowly but it kills nonetheless. It can also ruin lives.

First, maybe through Fairwinds, the Nantucket community will have to acknowledge that it has a widespread drinking problem. We know from the Twelve Steps program that an alcoholic must first publicly admit that they are an alcoholic.

If anyone reading this letter can recognize their own problem or that of a family member and take action to help them, I will feel vindicated. And, in the meantime, I will continue to give to Fairwinds. And I will continue to give to A Safe Place in part because so much of family abuse is tied to drinking.

Maureen Searle

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