A group of residents on Vinalhaven is working to start a community conversation about addiction.

VINALHAVEN, Maine ― Small communities talk, there’s no getting around it.

You know your neighbors, and you talk to them, about the weather, about work, about kids ― about your other neighbors. It’s the way of life in many of Maine’s small towns.

But some conversations are harder than others to start in these communities. Conversations about addiction are some of the hardest.

Residents of Vinalhaven, an island 15 miles off the coast of Rockland, know this difficulty well. While some residents say people in the community are aware that addiction to opiates and alcohol is a problem on the island, it’s a problem that is seldom discussed in a productive way.

“It’s been more of an uncomfortable conversation [on Vinalhaven] than in most places because it’s such a small community,” said Annie Gross, a Vinalhaven native who is in recovery from substance use disorder. “I feel like it’s more isolating [here] because there are people here who are struggling, and it’s kind of a new concept not only to realize they’re struggling, but to talk about it.”

During the past six months, however, a community group on Vinalhaven has been trying to break down the stigma surrounding addiction, start having productive conversations and provide support for those among them who are battling addiction.

The group, Our Island C.A.R.E.S. (Community, Addiction, Recovery, Education, Support), is still working out growing pains, but through meetings, conversations and community events, its members hope to change the dialogue around addiction.

“I’m looking forward to having the rumors [surrounding addiction] dissipate and just pick up with a healthier start and work together,” said Dorothy Jeffers, a member of Our Island C.A.R.E.S.

A struggle seldom discussed

With about 1,200 residents, Vinalhaven boasts the largest year-round population of Maine’s 15 island communities. A part of Knox County, Vinalhaven is located in a region of Maine where substance abuse among residents is significantly higher than the rest of the state, according to a 2016 report from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

While substance abuse data is not broken down by profession, people familiar with Maine’s fishing industry and addiction say the rate of substance use is higher in fishing communities ― which make up a large portion of coastal Knox County.

“The problem of drug addiction, and probably alcohol, too, is disproportionately worse, much disproportionately worse in fishing communities,” Dr. Ira Mandel of the Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition said. “It’s sort of, amongst many fishermen, accepted as part of the job.”

A family doctor first, in recent years Mandel has worked in Knox County treating substance use disorder. He attributes the high rates of substance use in fishing communities to the hard physical labor fishermen endure, but also to generational addiction that has morphed over time from alcoholism to opioid addiction.

With the fishing industry serving as the year-round backbone to Vinalhaven’s economy, residents have witnessed this trend in substance use.

Our Island C.A.R.E.S. chairman and Vinalhaven selectman Phil Crossman said alcoholism has always been an issue on the island. Though, when he was growing up, Crossman said, “Abuse wasn’t recognized as a problem.”

But during the past 20 years, especially in the last three or four years as the opioid crisis has worsened, Crossman said it’s becoming clear that addiction on Vinalhaven can’t be ignored.

“The number of people who have problems with addiction, and who are working on the water in particular, is clear to all of us,” Crossman said. “We’ve lost a few people out here ourselves to overdoses.”

It was in January 2017 that the idea of a community group focused on addiction was first explored on Vinalhaven. Two women who worked at the island’s ferry terminal were seeing day in and day out the toll drug addiction was taking on their neighbors.

They knew it was time for some kind of community action.

“I’ve watched every day, young people, older people, go across the ferry boat. [They would] run across on one boat and back on the next. Watching them go from over 200 pounds to just over 100 pounds,” Annette Cash said. “It’s not just ruining the lives of the people who are doing the drugs, but the families, too.”

Over three days in early June, a group of about 10 women from Vinalhaven and neighboring North Haven participated in recovery coach training in order to become people in their island communities who have the skillset to help those battling addiction.

Every training participant had a story about how addiction impacted their lives: a daughter lost to overdose, a front row seat to a husband or boyfriend’s struggle, having to help adult children raise their own children because addiction made them unable.

Personal stakes

Several of the women participating in the training were there for reasons that were more personal. They know what it’s like to be trapped by an addiction. They know the feeling of hitting bottom.

Now in recovery, they want to help.

“I’m still friends with a lot of people who are using,” Gross said. “I want them to realize it doesn’t have to be like that.”

Following her return to Vinalhaven after completing detox on the mainland a couple of years ago, Gross relapsed. She was home, where she felt safe and was “being taken care of as much as I could be and I still couldn’t stop,” she said.

Achieving a year of sobriety in February, Gross said she hopes more informed conversations start to happen on the island about addiction, which wasn’t the case when she was struggling.

“It was really difficult because over here, everyone knew that I was struggling, but there weren’t a lot of people who reached out to me outside of my family,” Gross said.

Starting the dialogue and providing support

Mandel, of the Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition, facilitated the recovery coach training session after being asked by Our Island C.A.R.E.S. to host an on-island session.

Vinalhaven’s medical clinic offers a suboxone program for people in recovery who want to pursue medication-assisted treatment. The clinic also offers counseling, according to the clinic’s executive director Dinah Moyer.

Recovery coaches are not licensed mental health professionals in Maine. They’re all volunteers who have gone through training to learn about addiction, recovery and how to best provide support for people in recovery.

“They’re someone that you can call, talk to [and] open up about things,” Mandel said. “They’re sympathetic, supportive and they know what resources are out there.”

With a core focus of of Our Island C.A.R.E.S. being to provide support for those in recovery, Crossman said having trained recovery coaches in the community was a “natural choice.”

Later this month, the group will be hosting a walk to raise awareness about substance use and a wellness fair. The hope is to get the community not only to learn more about the group, but to be a catalyst for productive and informative conversations about addiction.

“We need to keep trying to remove the community stigma until it’s gone,” Crossman said. “It represents a significant obstacle to overcoming addiction.”

Vinalhaven is far from alone in its struggle to talk about addiction. But where there’s a willingness to start a conversation, some see hope.

“It’s not just here, there are people everywhere who are in denial about drugs,” Gross said. “The more that someone can learn about [addiction] even if they don’t experience it, the better.”

To find help near you for addiction, call 211 or visit 211maine.org.

Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.