I suppose the most worthwhile way to begin this letter would be to say that, from the bottom of my heart, I am truly, deeply sorry. My family moved to West Ocean City during the summer of 2000 when I was just 7 years old. My older sister, my younger brother, and I all graduated from SDHS and have worked several-year tenures for some of Ocean City’s most prosperous businesses. I remember thinking that “Senior Week” was a time when elderly patrons flocked to the beach to celebrate retirement. I remember the silhouette of a stag that would challenge the sunset to the triumphant melody of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture every evening at Fager’s Island while I enjoyed root beer from a glass bottle. I remember the outrageous fun we would have every year at Ocean City Elementary on Field Day, the ACES days, the 100th day of school. I remember Shantytown. Now, at 23, those precious memories are some of the first things from which I draw solace when I find out that another one of my friends has died from a heroin overdose.
There have been about a half dozen casualties my age to heroin abuse this year alone. More than ever, I have seen my community bound tightly together by heartache, determined to defeat the monster that is wreaking havoc on our people. But this is exactly why I begin my letter with an apology; as a member of this community, I know that the first step I must take in contributing to the solution is taking personal responsibility for the part I’ve played in creating the problem.
The “monster” of which I speak is not heroin, it is not drug dealers, it is not the pharmaceutical companies; it is alcohol.
The crisis facing us is one we have unknowingly and unwillingly created over the course of many years. It is ingrained in the very culture through which our resort destinations thrive. As I have grown up, I have watched my home, particularly Ocean City, reap the benefits of a continuing, exponential growth in seasonal commerce. New bars and restaurants are opening every year, some garnering success, some closing their doors almost immediately to make way for their inevitable replacements. It seems that we are constantly looking for economic growth and that the most proven method of making money on the Eastern Shore is starting a business that provides one essential commodity: alcohol.
The growth in local businesses and its accompanying rewards have fallen largely into the hands of entrepreneurs who contribute to maintaining our updated version of a more “party-friendly” resort town. This trend, albeit understandable, caters directly to tourists and has taken a damaging toll on the local population. It is my belief that this sector of business and the behaviors it generates, referred to herein as “bar culture,” serve to romanticize potentially lethal substances and reckless activity, even in regards to heroin use.
It may seem brash to place the blame for widespread heroin dependency on bar culture, especially in a prime beach destination where one would have to be delusional not to expect tourism. Many of the most distinguished members of our society are the owners of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. My intention is neither to disregard nor discredit the efforts made by these men and women to invest in our local infrastructure and build thriving businesses. My intention is to put into perspective the inevitable effects of allowing such an infrastructure to overwhelm a region’s economy and infect its culture.
Alcoholic consumption is an integral part of some of the most beloved customs throughout the world; nonetheless, people will die from alcohol-related incidents today. At the time you read this letter, whoever you are, and at whatever given time on whatever given day that you read it, I can say with total confidence that someone has already died from alcohol consumption between the time you begin reading and the time you finish. That is the reality of alcohol’s potential dangers and that is the very thing we accept in exchange for high-volume tourism.
Almost every town and city in the United States has its own adaptation of bar culture. The concept that working people would want to alleviate their stresses with a legal intoxicant is not difficult to understand. Few of those working people, however, will leave the bar with an alcoholic addiction. The vast majority of bar patrons know their personal limits well enough that even those who get intoxicated will do so very infrequently.
Nonetheless, there are people, alcoholics, for whom indulgence in such pleasures would lead directly to a jail cell or a coffin. Whether the root of the issue is in an individual’s genetics, economic status, psychological issues, etc., are all to be taken into account, but the fact remains that alcohol creates a dangerous chemical imbalance for certain people. Allow me to compare the scenario to that of hospital patients who are administered opiate-based medicine: few of those patients will ever have another opioid in their bloodstreams or know the grueling physical torment of withdrawal. The vast majority, well over 90% according to recent statistics, will return home after being hospitalized without ever injecting heroin recreationally. This statistic might surprise anyone who is aware of how fiercely addictive heroin is and how close it is to such drugs as morphine in chemical makeup. Its ferocity accounts for the deaths of those who overdose, individuals who may very well have had their first taste of opiates while hospitalized or while treating an injury.
In both scenarios, there is a huge majority of the population that is able to sustain a productive livelihood after consumption and a small minority that is susceptible to addiction. The question that needs to be raised is this: what is it that separates those afflicted individuals from the general population? Why can’t some people cope with alcohol or opiate consumption while most people can? The answer lies in a person’s environment, and the role he/she plays in it.
Whether we’d like to accept it or not, Worcester County is a hotbed of environmental components that typically lead to addiction. Bar culture hasn’t just absorbed our economy, it has absorbed our identity. The percentage of residents with a DUI or DWI charge on their driving/criminal records is, in a word, astronomical. The entire Ocean City Police Department seems at times to have become nothing more than an alcohol-regulatory task force whose primary goal is to victimize tourists and locals alike in plain-clothed crusades through bars and liquor stores that end in excessive arrests and no social change. Yes, people should be stopped, tested, and detained if they are driving drunk, but a town that embraces bar culture as fervently as we do will be hard-pressed to find a major road without an intoxicated driver. There has been no movement to change these things about our area; on the contrary, we seem to embrace them.
What does it mean when we think of the moniker “drunk bus” as a term of endearment for our public transit? Why do our local hospitals refuse to release statistics regarding heroin abuse? Why is there not a single halfway house in Worcester County, the county with the highest concentration of opioid users in the entire state? How is it that the Town of Ocean City can afford a construction project that involves painting a water tower to look like a giant beach ball, but newspapers like this one have to reach out for donations to help build a hospice? Unanswered, these questions are an indictment of our representatives, our leaders, and most scathingly, us, the citizens of this county for our drastic misplacement of priorities. To answer them, we must each look inwardly and personally consider what we can do to help, something that is much easier said than done.
Despite what may be said about its various excesses, Worcester County has the potential to be one of America’s foremost resort destinations for reasons that have nothing to do with alcohol. The landscape is unlike any other I have seen in person, a concentration of everything one could desire from nature: lush, green fields, nutrient-rich soil, moisture in the air, a myriad of luminous foliage, all conveniently set beside the world’s second largest ocean, within reasonable proximity to almost every major city on the East Coast. In addition to our idyllic ecosystem, we boast expertise in agriculture, farming, hunting, fishing, carpentry, maritime science, mechanics and plenty of other industries. Our public schools have top-tier teachers, our students have access to accredited community colleges and nationally ranking universities just one county over. SDHS alone has a sports program that produces celebrity athletes and a children’s theatre program that puts on a production for thousands and thousands of children each year.
There is one more thing that absolutely needs to be addressed: the system to which we seem to have adjusted so comfortably will not last. This is not a suggestion of possibility; this is a statement of undeniable fact. Ocean City is not St. Augustine. There is only so much room for continued expansion of vacation appeal until we run out of space, out of ideas, and out of employees. More often than I care to remember, I have found myself in the middle of a conversation with people my age about “escaping” from Ocean City, about the fear of “getting sucked into the way things are around here” and ending up “stuck in Worcester County.” This sentiment permeates through the hearts and minds of my generation; we feel as though the place where we grew up and have always called home has no room for people with creative aspirations, no room for inventors, no room for unique personalities and cultural growth. We feel as if our only hope of cultivating a lifestyle and a future that doesn’t involve serving food and drinks is to move away and start anew. Quite frankly, we are doing just that in larger and larger quantities all the time. The brightest minds and most ambitious innovators that our area ever produces will be chased away to places where there exist opportunities for them to contribute something meaningful to the world. Eventually, if our infrastructure does not change, there will only be a handful of locals left to fend for themselves every summer against more and more touristic clientele.
The workforce that is the very backbone of every prosperous business in Ocean City is comprised largely of people who share the exact feelings I’ve expressed. Some of us leave, usually to a city or more densely populated town. Those of us who stay here are feeling more and more hopeless about what our environment is becoming. The way most of us cope with that hopelessness is to numb our pains with the same alcohol that has monopolized our economy and cornered us into working in an unpromising, unfulfilling industry. Heroin is just another coping mechanism; the rise of heroin use in Worcester County is the result of a higher demand by tourists for bar culture and the need for locals to at least momentarily escape from a routine that is constantly catering to those tourists.
In summation, what we have referred to as a “heroin crisis” up until now should be rephrased to our “addiction crisis,” and should apply to all addictive substances, especially alcohol. This problem is much broader than the effects of one drug, and its solution will require involvement and cooperation from our entire community. By no means should we close down all our bars and liquor stores; in no way, shape, or form do I wish to champion a microcosmic revival of the Prohibition Era (those who know their history are aware of what happened the last time alcohol was outlawed). As I previously stated, my intention is neither to disregard nor to discredit the people who make their living through ownership and propriety of these businesses. Furthermore, I recognize the initiative these men and women have taken in countering the rise in heroin use. There is no one person to blame for the effects bar culture has taken on our area; for every bar owner in Ocean City, there are dozens if not hundreds of local people willing to visit his/her establishment for a few libations. We are all to blame for the collective mistreatment of our environment and the self-destructive misuse of our resources. Therefore, it is up to all of us to make more of an effort to fight addiction on the political scale and to resist it in our personal lives.
Admitting our shortcomings as citizens of a resort community is the first and arguably the most challenging stage in defeating the sickness of addiction. But the transition of which I speak is not beyond us; a more positive atmosphere and a more diverse infrastructure are both within our grasp. We are capable of making the efforts necessary to recreate our community. We are courageous enough to stand boldly against adversity. A proposal for shifting our focus away from bar culture would undoubtedly enrage certain people. Nonetheless, an interest in profit over progress is what has led to the exploitation of our area. Money is only as strong as the faith that people place behind it, so placing our faith behind our homes, our families, our friends, and ourselves, will empower us and inspire us more than any amount of money ever could. It is time now to begin a process of healing our sickness and to prove true the words of someone whose wisdom I have always admired: “The more deeply we have felt relentless and unbearable agony, the more capable we are of experiencing truly unadulterated joy.” Thank you and God bless you.
Your friend and neighbor,