Each day in the territory, the toll of alcoholism mounts: increased violent crime, lost productivity, broken families, failed relationships, domestic violence, lost jobs, depression, homelessness, and even suicide.
In keeping with the Source’s commitment to a better community through awareness and true story telling, we bring you a tale of two alcoholics. Sadly, the harrowing journeys endured by both Kevin and Victor are not unique to men in the West Indies, where drinking is firmly entrenched in the culture.
Kevin is 48; Victor, 65. Nearly 20 years separate them. Despite the generational differences, they share some fundamental characteristics. Both are alcoholics born and raised on St. Thomas; both were quickly brought to their knees by crack cocaine, and both have been clean and sober for more than a decade.
And both were offered their first drink by men far older, when they were way too young.
"I used to go to the country to visit my grandmother," Kevin says, noting his parents were never married. When he got there, "my father would let me sip."
"He would say, ‘It’s good for the worms, or it’ll chill him out,’ Kevin remembers, adding, "I was very hyper." He was 6 or 7.
Kevin’s father died from alcoholism. He got caught in a blizzard and froze to death somewhere in the states, where he had landed after following a woman with whom he had other children. "She had left because of his drinking," Kevin says.
Victor was introduced to his first drink at age 12 while working after school at the Rosenblum distillery, once located between the USO on the Waterfront and Market Square on St. Thomas.
It was "Hitler" and "Tanya Man," "seasoned rummers"—the euphemism for alcoholics in those days—who encouraged the young man. "Come, come," the men told the pre-teen, "you gotta dilute this (with malt)."
Victor got a little wobbly and nauseated the first time. "But to hang like I was a part of the gang, I pushed through it."
But Victor says there were other things going on in his life then that contributed to his eventual fall into destructive drinking.
"I learned to swim" and became a very good swimmer, Victor says. That coupled with his distillery job that paid $15 a week—an extremely good wage in the ’50s—massaged his tender teenaged ego.
"I thought I was special, and I think that’s what probably put me over the hill," he says.
Kevin was special, too. He was tall and handsome and looked older than the tender age of 14, the age at which he got a girl pregnant. "I was …. careless," he says.
By 16, he was smoking pot daily and adding a few beers for good measure. He says he was "like a little man."
Kevin says the alcohol became a problem when the good weed dried up. "When I couldn’t get that, I started drinking heavy." Meanwhile, other drugs were introduced to enhance the B-grade marijuana.
Kevin dropped out of school and started "hanging with real bad guys," frequenting the rum shops and working sporadically. He couldn’t hold a job for more than a couple of years, if that.
But being handsome and having the gift of the gab, Kevin did fine at restaurant work, at a time when tourism was burgeoning in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
At 24, Kevin landed a government job as a messenger. But not long after a supervisor, concerned about Kevin’s excessive drinking, had Kevin’s government car searched. They found beer cans in the back.
"I was grounded." Not only that, the supervisor, understanding that Kevin had a problem, made him punch in and sit in a chair all day, waiting for him to give up and become willing to get help with his drinking.
"The supervisor knew all along about my problem, but he wanted me to come clean," Kevin says.
The method, though not terribly sophisticated, is similar to one Victor says worked for him eventually.
"You can lead a horse to the trough, but it’s not necessarily that he will drink," Victor reflects. "But if you put a noose around his neck and drive a stake in the ground, he’ll either die or eventually drink."
Victor’s noose was slipped around his neck after he drove his car over the Waterfront "at high noon."
It was not his first car accident, but it was to become his last while drunk.
"That’s when the judge put a stop to it. No one is supposed to be that drunk in the middle of the day," he says.
Victor was sentenced to attend Alcoholics Anonymous and report to a probation officer for a year—or go to jail.
Kevin was also forced, through his job, to attend various group therapies and 12-step programs. But this would not be the end of substance abuse for either man.
Rocky Road to Recovery
Victor’s shiny mahogany-toned skin is that of a much younger man. Only his silvery beard and hair hint at his 65 years.
His green eyes sparkle when he talks about his life in recovery, but he is acutely aware of the struggle it took to achieve and maintain it, especially in a community where, he says, "everything is with a drink."
Victor says he didn’t drink every day from when he started at 12 years old. He was still doing the normal things, going to movies, dances, but eventually everything in his life became "with a drink."
"So, if I go dancing, I am going to be drinking and probably be drunk at the end of the dance."
In a community where everyone is drunk around you, Victor points out, "It’s hard to tell when your drinking is affecting you."
After being sentenced to Alcoholics Anonymous by a judge, Victor only ever again drank once. But that doesn’t mean he understood what recovery from alcoholism—known as "the disease" in AA circles—meant. In fact, he says, he was terrified that one of his peers would see him skulking into an AA meeting at then Calvin Hall near back street.
"I could no longer be a macho man," he says about having to give up his "right" to drink.
Kevin’s initial forced abstinence didn’t work at all.
The supervisor who had zeroed in on Kevin’s drinking problem would drive him to various support groups and drop him off. "When I finished I would go and buy a drink," he says with a grin.
He, too, was afraid of losing his machismo. "I didn’t want the guys to see me going to AA meetings," Kevin says.
Furthermore, he had little in common with the people at the meetings, he says. "All the people were white and ‘oldish.’"
He says he couldn’t relate. "In fact," Kevin says, "I didn’t want to relate."
Thirteen or so years before Kevin was attending those first AA meetings, Victor was having the same problem relating to the people at AA.
It was an older white woman who introduced Victor to the 12 steps and traditions of the AA program. While he says he appreciated her interest in him, he didn’t exactly relate to her.
Victor was still on probation from the mid-day automobile accident. The threat of finishing his sentence in jail hung like a cloud over his head as he made his way to his weekly meeting with his probation officer one afternoon down Harwood Highway. That’s when the disease called to him in the form of his old friends hanging in front of the Prince Market. "F— de man, come over here and have a drink," they called to him.
When he showed up at his meeting with his probation officer he was drunk.
"You know who I am," he told the officer, "I am a big man. I shouldn’t have to put up with this BS."
The officer told Victor to look out the window of the corrections office. Across the street Victor could see the red-hued outline of Fort Christian, which then served as the jail.
"You schtupid? You goin’ there right now," the officer told Victor.
With the noose tightening, Victor begged forgiveness and was given one more chance.
Kevin wasn’t quite that lucky right off the bat. But crack cocaine hastened his particular trip to hell. "Nothing spirals you down like crack," according to Kevin. "It has you selling everything."
Follow Kevin and Victor’s journey tomorrow as they struggle with both crack addiction and adjusting to a life of sobriety in the territory, in the conclusion of "V.I. Epidemic: A Tale of Two Alcoholics."