Living in Paradise: Why Addicts Go to the Caribbean

Bahamas beach sunset
Bahamas beach sunset

This post is different from my normal ones. A few weeks ago I was approached by a fellow sober blogger named Marilyn Spiller who I have chatted with via Twitter and blog comments before. I love reading her blogs and I can relate to almost everything she writes. We share many similarities. We both lived in Caribbean destinations abroad, and we're both alcoholics who got sober and now share our experiences through writing. We both agreed on the fact that the Caribbean is paradise living and a place that attracts big drinkers and alcoholics. To explore this topic more in depth we did an interview style blog post together. It was fascinating getting to know Marilyn better and interesting how similar and different our experiences were.

Kelly: Marilyn, what made you move to the Bahamas and were you a heavy drinker before you lived there? 

Marilyn: Which came first: the drinking or the divorce? That's the age old question for me. I had always been a big drinker, in fact it is certainly one of the factors in my divorce, but I really spiraled out of control afterwards.  My husband was watchful, and without him to mitigate my drinking it quickly escalated.  I was well on the way to alcoholism when I arrived on vacation, in Staniel Cay in The Bahamas.

What I found, was a place so beautiful and decadent it was like the Island of the Lotus Eaters or Hotel California: I was stupefied. There were no rules. There were no deadlines. I thought I had found my place in the world. I bought a house on the island and began to spend most of my time there.

Marilyn:  What about you Kelly? Was living in Cancun a trigger? How did you end up living there?

Kelly: Wow yes those islands sound very similar to Cancun. Cancun living was just the next progression in my party lifestyle. After being a heavy drinker in college and continuing that same lifestyle in Ocean City, Maryland for one summer, my next move was to Cancun - a party capital! No family or friends there to watch over me or annoy me about my party habits. It was filled with other people just having fun and not caring about real life.

Kelly: At what point did you realize your drinking habits in paradise were no longer the norm? Did you know you were an alcoholic? 

Marilyn partying in the bahamas

Marilyn partying in the bahamas

Marilyn: When I first moved to Staniel, I did a lot of hiking, island hopping, snorkeling, travel by boat - all the things you think of when you think of  a Caribbean sojourn.  All those activities were coupled with drinking, however.  The culture made it very natural to have a drink in the hand.  It was the norm to see vacationers and locals on the dock with a cocktail, early in the morning - in fact we jokingly called it "Bahamian breakfast".  I drove a golf cart on the island, and I always had a cooler with wine, beer and plastic wine glasses - and yes, I drank and drove.

There was always a party, or festival or regatta happening and there were always wasted people. I thought of myself as just one of the loveable eccentrics, not as a raging alcoholic.  It wasn't until long after I left (and through Waking Up the Ghost) that I reconnected with some people on the island who said they had always worried about me. That in fact I was more outrageous than most. They reminded me of all the times my golf cart had to be lifted off the big, decorative rock at the entrance to the Yacht Club.  Apparently everyone thought of me as the crazy, white woman on the hill - it's very embarrassing to me now... In my defense, the Bahamian men are like machines - they can drink all night and work all day. I just couldn't keep up...

Marilyn: What is the drinking culture like in Mexico? How did you deal with living in a place where most people were visiting for a week's vacation? Did you try to temper your drinking? 

Spring break 2010 drinking

Spring break 2010 drinking

Kelly: Cancun is a spring break and vacation town built for partiers. The nightlife is extreme - most clubs are open all day and all night. You can find a party any day of the week. Locals often work in the "party center" an area of the Hotel Zone made up of all the clubs and bars. Drinking is a huge part of the culture there and even eating dinner or grabbing a taco is accompanied by a beer. I loved living in a place where most people only came for a week. It was thrilling and I felt "special" living the local life and making it work in paradise. I had tried to moderate my drinking and going out for years and I did go through different phases of that in Cancun. It never worked.

Kelly: Did you get sober in the Bahamas? When did you make the decision to stop drinking? Why?

Marilyn: God no. I just kept drinking more and more. I love that you say you felt special living in a vacation spot, staying on after everyone went back to their "boring lives". I felt exactly the same way - and frankly I haven't felt that much at home in a place before or since. But my drinking and misfortunes kept getting worse - I crashed my golf cart a few times, knocked out my teeth, twice, had a romance go bad (surprise, surprise with a peach like me, right?)... At some point I realized if I didn't leave I'd probably die. Like you, I tried a number of times to curtail my boozing, but it never took.  I went back to Florida a bit broken, and a few months later I quit drinking for good.

Marilyn: You actually got sober in Paradise, right? How did that happen? Did you have a rock bottom? I suppose it's not politically correct to ask, but do you ever miss the scene?

Embarrassing picture of kelly in punta can - her last drinking trip

Embarrassing picture of kelly in punta can - her last drinking trip

Kelly: Yes I got sober in paradise! Crazy to say that. As silly as it sounds, I was just done. I was defeated. My rock bottom was a trip I took to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic with a group of my closest high school girl friends in May of 2013. We went for one of their bachelorette parties and stayed at an all inclusive. Of course I took this opportunity to get wasted the entire trip, even after I promised my boyfriend I would moderate and be responsible (yeah right). I blacked out and embarrassed myself (nothing new). I knew my boyfriend was mad and he had told me he was moving out. In the airport on the way home I felt so lost, hungover, and hopeless I said enough it enough. I'm done drinking.

As for missing the scene, well I'm not ashamed to say I do miss socializing and dancing to great music, and the party atmosphere some days. Luckily, I can still enjoy a sober night out here and there. I do not miss being in my active addiction though. I know I made the right choice.

Kelly: Do you believe the Caribbean attracts addicts and lost souls? Why or Why not? 

Bahamas caribbean living
Bahamas caribbean living

Marilyn: What a great question. The Exumas attract all manner of people: celebrities and the uber rich, vacationers and eco-tourists, those looking to escape, the oddballs and the misfits. We are all seeking the extraordinary beauty of the landscape and the relief of living on "island time". I think it is less about the Caribbean being an effect and more about it being a cause of problem drinking.In other words, I don't think most people are attracted to the island culture, because it allows them to drop out or space out. But the temptations are always there, and if one has a penchant for addiction the Caribbean climate (in all its facets and glory) is ripe . I have seen many, responsible folks fall prey to addiction in the happy-chappy, oh-just-have-another, environment of the islands...

Marilyn: When I think of The Bahamas, I think of sitting on the deck of a boat or a deserted beach, with a gorgeous sunset and A DRINK. What about weather, and the slower lifestyle in the Caribbean? Is the encouragement to drink dangerous for everybody?

Kelly: I couldn't agree more! Wonderfully said. The beach/vacation lifestyle are often portrayed as being accompanied by an alcoholic beverage. I definitely think the beautiful weather and slower lifestyle encourages having a cold beverage that includes alcohol with a paper umbrella in hand. I also think the Caribbean is a place where you throw caution to the wind. What happens in Cancun stays in Cancun. Bad decisions and carelessness are encouraged. I think this type of party atmosphere encourages everyone to drink, but it is especially detrimental to alcoholics and addicts. It is the perfect place to “get away” and find like-minded people who are there for the same reasons: looking to forget real life and live to party.

Kelly: Do you feel like Staniel Cay played a big part in your alcoholism? Are you angry at the island?

marilyn in the bahamas

marilyn in the bahamas

Marilyn: I can honestly say my biggest regret is having to leave Staniel Cay behind. I did some crazy things while I was drinking, and made some terrible decisions, but Staniel was my place in a misplaced world - I tear up as I write this... and I still miss it almost every day. I do not think the Caribbean is to blame for my alcoholism, and I am not furious at the whole damn island, but I am proud I was smart enough to know I could never quit drinking while I was there. I've been invited to visit by a darling woman (and recovering alcoholic) who lives on Staniel (we've become friends through the blog) but I am afraid to go back. I'm afraid it will be too painful and that all my work putting bygones behind me will fall into the Exuma Sound... I hope that doesn't sound fatalistic. It is what it is...

Marilyn: I'm actually afraid to go back to Staniel Cay. I've been elsewhere in The Bahamas without the yearn to drink, but I'm not sure how I'd fare in Staniel - all my memories are linked to drinking. Have you been back to Cancun? Were you tempted while you were there to slip back into old patterns? 

Cancun beaches
Cancun beaches

Kelly: That's a shame, I'm sorry to hear that. Even though I do have a lot of drinking memories that involve Cancun and I harbored some resentment toward the city for some time, I will never be afraid to go back there. Our stories differ, in that I got sober in Cancun and lived there for another year sober before moving back to the U.S. It was hard at first, but I was able to develop a life that didn't involve alcohol and I stuck to my decision not to give in to the desire to drink. I have never been tempted to go back to my old partying ways because my life has gotten SO much better since I got sober. I never want to return to the hangovers, the stress, the anxiety, the constant worry about what I said or did during a black out. The feeling of peace and self confidence I have now being able to walk around in Cancun without shame or embarrassment is priceless. I'm glad I am no longer angry at Cancun because it is a beautiful place that has taught me so much. It's also where my boyfriend is from and his family lives there so I must return and visit on a regular basis.

Kelly: Why did you start Waking Up the Ghost? How has it helped you in your recovery?

Marilyn: I started the blog selfishly as a journal - a means of keeping myself honest and sober. I write almost every day and every day I would write down a reason I didn't drink and a short vignette about how I was feeling. When my private posts started getting shared with others on social media, I began to get messages from strangers telling me I'd helped them and that one post or another had rung true and eased their suffering. I was amazed and honored. Now, my readers help me as much as I help them - they are my friends, muses and fellow travelers on this sober road.  I don't wow everybody, every day, but every once in while someone will write to me and say they feel exactly the way I do and that I am not alone. That makes it all worthwhile.

Marilyn: Why did you start The Sober Señorita? You've been at this longer than me - how has writing your blog impacted your recovery?

Kelly: I love that! I've had a similar experience. I originally started the Sober Señorita because I was really getting into blogging at work and I was good at it, and a lot of girls I was friends with in Cancun had blogs about being expats living in Mexico. So, already sober at the time, I wanted to link the two. I have to say my sister is the one who came up with the name Sober Señorita and it fit perfectly, a sober Mexican-living girl on this adventure called life. My posts started out mostly about my life in Cancun and here and there I would mention I was sober, but I never really got into why that was. It wasn't until my One Year Without Alcohol post that I revealed my struggles with alcohol and why I decided to quit drinking. Obviously you know that I got a huge, overwhelming response from that post. I, like you, started my blog for selfish reasons. But now I feel a great responsibility in sharing my story with the world and letting people know they are not alone in their struggles. It's an amazing feeling knowing that sharing my experiences, I can inspire others.

Thank you Marilyn for this awesome joint post idea and taking the time to talk to me about your experience with alcoholism and sobriety in the Caribbean! If one thing is for sure, Cancun and the Bahamas will be imprinted on our hearts forever!

Read Marilyn's blog posts here: Waking Up the Ghost

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