Hate Month: Breaking the Silence
As March, mild in weather, but brutal in stress factors, draws to a close, I find myself impelled to end what has been almost a year-long absence from writing about my life on Nantucket. That isn’t to say that I have been withdrawn from living; rather I’ve withdrawn from writing about it. My shift has been from an observer to a participant, and that’s been a good (and unusual) thing for me. Over the past year I’ve been involved with two community groups: The Behavioral Health Task Force, and the Affordable Housing Trust Fund Committee. Many islanders may not know that either of these organizations exist, but most know of the issues they have been created to address.
After writing about the housing crisis in September of 2014, Anne Kuzspa, of Housing Nantucket, encouraged me to put in application papers for the Town’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund Committee, which was established years ago to address the need for affordable housing. But around that time, in 2008, the economic crash saw prices drop in rents and sales. People lost their homes to foreclosure, and left the island in droves to find work and housing elsewhere. I even lowered the rent on my cottage at my tenant’s request. With a plummeting economy, it didn’t look like we had a housing crisis back then, and as the Town struggled for its own financial footing, jobs were lost and departments were compressed. Our municipal housing coordinator seemed unnecessary, and the position was no longer funded.
But Nantucket remained Nantucket, and in the next few years, people continued to be drawn here. Investors took advantage of the rock-bottom home prices, and gobbled up bargains, flipping them quickly for profit as the market began to heal itself. The seasonal economy burst back into action, attracting the new billionaires, and islanders lapped up the ensuing construction and service work with relish. Owners of properties that had been traditionally occupied year ‘round jumped to cash in on the growing trend, selling to second-home seekers who wanted any piece of the island they could afford, or renting seasonally to make more money. As the demand for workers increased, the supply of housing decreased, and foreign laborers, willing to work for less and live in conditions many of us would find intolerable, came to Nantucket, and stayed, because let’s face it: this is still an amazing place to live, and there is opportunity here that is still lacking elsewhere.
Even long-time island families were putting up with living conditions that cause tremendous stress, far beyond the traditional Nantucket Shuffle. There weren’t places to shuffle to, and that’s what I first wrote about in 2014. Families were stuffing themselves into expensive basements and sheds for the summer, and paying outrageous amounts of money for winter rentals, if they could find them. I put in my papers for a seat on the AHTF committee in April of 2015, and was appointed in June, to find that the committee was essentially a fund without funding. But now that the word is out, and the community is rallying around the need for housing at last, we’re hoping that initiatives pass at Saturday’s Town Meeting to get the ball rolling. It won’t be easy to tackle this issue, but with gaining momentum, it’s a start.
The other issue that’s received my time and attention over the past year is behavioral health, and specifically addiction. I was asked to join the Behavioral Health Task Force, a consortium of local healthcare providers, therapists, existing organizations such as ASAP, A Safe Place, NCH, and Family & Children’s Services, NPD, church leaders, as well as at large members with experience with recovery groups. Over my 30-plus years as a year ‘round resident of Nantucket, I’ve been aware that services in the area of behavioral health have been both lacking and under-utilized. We’ve seen blocks of suicides in young people, and then older males, the pervasive problem of alcoholism, and now opiate abuse and dependence at an alarming rate. This deadly problem is sweeping the nation, with a well-documented concentration in Massachusetts, and Nantucket is not immune.
So what are we doing about it? First and foremost: education, and conversation. ASAP and the Task Force continue to sponsor public educational events and forums. FCS has free, walk-in therapy groups that cover a lot of bases, from anxiety and depression in teens, to guided meditation, and substance abuse connected to trauma. In order to deal with these issues effectively, we must pull them out of the shadow of denial, fear, pride, and shame, to discuss not only the scope of the problem, but also how to best address it.
It is heartbreaking, and frustrating, and I know too many friends and families who suffer firsthand … parents of kids I have known since they were tiny are desperate for help. Kids have parents who are physically and emotionally absent. We grieve for friends who didn’t survive. Addiction is a disease of the brain, not a moral failing, and it can be treated successfully, given the right knowledge and resources. Overdoses and deaths happen far too often here, and navigating rehab options can be difficult from across Nantucket Sound. Stress is a contributing factor, and over the past few years, I have seen stress building in our community. The pressure of the seasonal economy seems explosive at times. I used to love the freedom of summers out here, and I endured the winter months. Now it feels like the opposite.
Nantucket has done so much for me, and it is a privilege to be of service to the community, in the small ways I am able. My life on this island, and the family I have raised here, has been a gift. I love the islanders who have been here for generations; they have taught me the real beauty of Nantucket, and the young families that have joined us over the years. I learned the true meaning of community here, where friends often feel more like family. I want all of us to be happy, and healthy, and stable, mentally, physically, economically, and spiritually. I am not alone in this, and there are people on the front lines, working hard to make this happen, but they need support from the rest of us.
I urge everyone to support the housing initiatives, including zoning changes, up for vote this weekend, and the efforts of the Behavioral Health Task Force, one of which is a free workshop on addiction, April 9th & 10th, led by Janina Kean, BS, MSN, APRN, an expert and spokesperson on substance abuse. It’s sponsored by ASAP and the Community School; for more information, or to register (required), go to www.communityschool.org. Ask questions, talk to your kids, and reach out to your neighbors. We are not alone, and as an extended island family, we care. It may not be a conversation we want to have, but it is one we need to have, in order to step back from the abyss we are facing. To borrow a slogan from recovery, “Together We Can Make It.”