Closer to the Shore

On Ben Tuff's third day in inpatient treatment, he had a surprising encounter that would eventually lead him to attempt a grueling 24-mile swim across the Narragansett Bay.

January 18, 2024
Ben Tuff

Today, Ben Tuff is a marathon swimmer who takes on ranges of open ocean stretching 20-plus miles. But 11 years ago, Ben was just getting his sea legs in sobriety following severe alcohol addiction and mental health struggles. Now the subject of the 2023 documentary “Swim Tuff: How I Swam My Way Out of the Bottle,” Ben writes about what drives him to tackle his “crazy swims.”

A shock of pain shoots down from my left shoulder all the way to my grotesquely pruney fingers.

I had initially feared that the cold New England Atlantic would be the factor that challenged my ability to become the first person to swim the 24-mile length of Narragansett Bay from Providence to Jamestown, Rhode Island. I’d swam similar distances over the past four years, but now the torn labrum in my left shoulder — earned in an overly aggressive touch football game with my eighth-grade students — is no match for the 15-knot winds and rushing currents. I push the pain and exhaustion deeper to focus on finishing what I started.

After all, this swim is nothing compared to what I had to go through when I made the decision to get sober on April 21, 2012.

***

An encounter in my earliest days in addiction treatment would eventually lead me to marathon swimming. During my third day of rehab, I was told that I had to go to the morning recovery support meeting and come home with a temporary sponsor. This sounded more like an adventure in speed dating.

But it all became clear when I heard an Irish gentleman speak frankly about sobriety and the role that the sport of triathlon played in his life. At that moment, I made a pact with myself that I was going to leave the Silver Hill inpatient program prepared to care for my mental health needs while also attempting to be the most athletic, healthy human I possibly could be. I asked Ken, the triathlete, to be my sponsor, and he assured me I would do great if I put in the time and effort. He also encouraged me to learn how to swim when I left.

I remember returning to the all-men’s house I was in and jumping right into a meditation session. It quickly became evident that meditation was not my jam, as I struggled to contain my movements and clear my ADHD mind. Just two months later, I truly discovered swimming and how it could wash all my anxious thoughts while giving me clarity, a connection to my higher power and a massive dose of mindfulness. Learning to swim wasn’t easy, but it was a hell of a lot easier than what I had to go through to get sober. Swimming washed away my worries, fears and frustrations.

In both my sobriety and my swimming, I was supported by my caring wife and two best friends. Now, in the Narragansett Bay, Jake paddleboarded next to me, keeping me on track to the finish line. David, who had spent the previous four years coaching me, jumped in the water and swam beside me to boost my morale.

These were the friends who had always championed my sobriety. I had noticed, in my early years of recovery, that my new focus on swimming had swept the majority of my friendships away. I understand in hindsight those were the friends who kept up a social and emotional presence in my life only when I was drinking. What remained were the friendships built on firm foundations of mutual love, care and concern. My father always reminded me that true friendships are a matter of “quality, not quantity.”

It is amazing how quickly real relationships develop when you take substances out of the picture, with both friends and family. Without the false pretenses, fakeness and lies that addiction and alcohol brought me in my life, I finally found that I was able to nurture genuine relationships with my wife, kids, brothers, sisters, parents and friends. I compare it to the time that my mom brought me to my first optometrist appointment in eighth grade; I put my new glasses on and could see the leaves on the trees and the blades of grass on my lawn.

Still, when my twin brother, Chris, asked if I would be interested in being the subject of a documentary that would chronicle my journey to and through sobriety, in parallel with a 24-mile swim, I told him he was nuts. Five weeks later, esteemed director Matt Corliss was filming me in Vermont.

***

It is important to look at the past and plan for the future, but everything seems to be clearest for me when I just concentrate on the present. If I live in the now, it allows me to adopt a mindful approach to each moment. Perhaps that’s why swimming is so therapeutic and special: It allows me to fully immerse myself in the now, even if only for an hour of the day.

Swimming is also an activity that I use to bring my friends and family together to rally around my endeavor while doing something great for the world. (It was important to me that my marathon swims support a cause, and I’ve now helped the environmental nonprofit Clean Ocean Access raise more than $160,000.) When people ask me why on earth do I do these crazy swims, I tell them that it isn’t about the swim. It’s about the people that come together for it, and it is about pushing through an emotional and physical wall.

In the end, two things happen: 1) I prove to myself that I can push through difficult, trying experiences, and 2) I remind myself a little bit about the most difficult time in my life, when I struggled with addiction. Even though it’s not fun to look back at, I think I need to remember where I was and how it felt, to help ensure that I never end up back there again!

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