After an early-morning thunderstorm passed over Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, a solitary, Speedo-clad man walked to a diving board at the edge of a wooden pier and gazed out at the choppy blue-gray waves.
Ben Tuff ’03 paused, stretched his arms high to the sky, and jumped on the board, as if testing its bounce. Then he leaped and splashed down into the water, surfacing to arrange his neon-pink swim buoy before striking out with a confident crawl toward the Newport Bridge, a little more than a mile away.
The swim, much shorter than his usual long training distances, was nonetheless fraught with a certain amount of peril. There are currents, which can pull a swimmer far off course before they even notice. There are jellyfish, Tuff’s least favorite sea creature, whose tentacles can sting and burn when they come into contact with skin. There’s the cold, the boats, the specter of sharks, and the sheer repetitive challenge of moving arms and legs stroke after stroke, mile after mile, hour after hour.
Tuff is an ultra-marathon swimmer who pulls off mind-boggling feats of endurance on a regular basis. In 2019 he swam 25 miles around Conanicut Island in Narragansett Bay, where Jamestown is located. Two years later, he swam nearly 19 miles from Block Island to Jamestown, a particularly sharky stretch of open ocean, and last year, he swam from Providence to Jamestown, the almost 24-mile length of Narragansett Bay.
But the physical challenge is not the only reason why he does it.
The long-distance swims are an integral part of his hard-earned sobriety.
“Unless I’m really hurting over long distances, I tend to just disappear in the water, almost like an animal,” Tuff said. “Addiction is so ingrained in our brains, and those of us who struggle with it need to get in a whole new environment, separated from all the noise of the environment that’s around us on a daily basis. And for me, that’s swimming.”
This summer, the swimmer and longtime educator has been busy promoting the documentary Swim Tuff: How I Swam My Way Out of the Bottle. The film, produced by Matthew Corliss, tells the story of last year’s Narragansett Bay swim as well as his sobriety, which began 11 years ago.
Tuff is thrilled to share his journey with other people. He wants them to know that after getting sober, life not only continues but can be amazing.
“Before, I thought that when you’re in recovery, you just go to [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings in churches all day long. And it’s not that at all. It’s what you make of it. It allows you to live again,” he said. “My whole approach is throwing it all out there, but throwing it out there in a positive, inspiring way.”
Tuff grew up in New England in a big family that moved to Atlanta when he was about 13. That’s when he started struggling with severe anxiety, though back then he didn’t have the tools to understand or vocalize what was going on.
“There were times I’d be like, ‘Mom, mom, there’s something wrong with me. I’m having a heart attack or something,’” he said.
He wound up going to see a psychiatrist, an elderly man with an accent as thick as his glasses, but it wasn’t a good experience.
“I sat down and started looking at those ink blots, and I came out of there thinking, ‘I’m never going to do that again,’” Tuff remembered. “That made me even more quiet about it.”
Summers, the family returned to Jamestown, R.I., where Tuff, his parents, and his five siblings played tennis, took sailing lessons, and raced sailboats. Alcohol was an integral element of the community’s summertime life.
“There’s just cocktail party after cocktail party after cocktail party,” he said.
Tuff first tried drinking when he was 13, but didn’t start making it a more regular part of his routine until his junior year in high school, when he found that it helped blur the feelings of anxiety.
“I used to just look forward to the weekends, because I could just totally zone out, relax, not worry about anything,” Tuff said. “Until Sunday, when it was 10 times worse.”
Hitting the bottom
He has great memories of Colby, where he was an anthropology major and enjoyed socializing with a wide array of people from hippies to football players. That’s where he met his wife, Gretchen Black Tuff ’04, and joined the debate team.
Alcohol wasn’t a defining part of his college experience.
“A lot of times people ask, when did alcoholism start? Well, it probably started at birth, in my mind,” Tuff said. “But when did it take hold of my life and to an unhealthy level? I think it kind of ebbed and flowed for a while, until about 14 or 15 years ago.”
At that time, Tuff was in his late 20s, teaching full time at a Connecticut private school and, with his wife, parenting two young children. He began to drink heavily, hiding vodka in Vitamin Water bottles and winding down at night with a six-pack or more of beer.
The drinking was negatively affecting his ability to be a good father, husband, and teacher, but he pretended things were fine.
Until he couldn’t pretend anymore.
That happened in 2012 when he had a panic attack so severe that he went to the emergency room. When he asked a nurse why he was waiting so long to see a doctor, she said that his blood alcohol level had to come down below the legal limit first.
“That was at 11:30 in the morning, and I had stopped drinking at 9 the night before,” he said.
His wife gave him an ultimatum: go to rehab, get sober, or lose her and the kids.
“I started crying,” Tuff said in an interview with the Boston Globe. “I’m ready to go. I just want help.”
Climbing back up
Rehab at Silver Hill Hospital in Connecticut was a powerful experience. There, he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which helped explain his lifelong struggle with anxiety. Doctors prescribed a mood stabilizer, which prevented the peaks and valleys while still allowing him to feel like himself.
“That was the piece that I’d been struggling with my whole life,” he said. “I didn’t realize that what I thought was anxiety was actually tied completely to my moods. So it was this mind-blowing thing.”
At Silver Hill, he was allowed to leave the hospital to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in town. That’s where he met his sponsor, a man who participated in Iron Man Triathlons despite having two hip replacements.
Tuff was inspired to try doing a triathlon, too. Physically, he was weak and too thin, weighing only 165 pounds on his 6’3” frame.
“I was just so unhealthy,” he said.
And he wasn’t a strong swimmer to begin with.
“I couldn’t swim the full length of a 25-yard pool,” he said.
But he was stubborn. Over the course of a couple of months, he taught himself to swim and progressed from swimming a dozen yards to a half mile. He started doing triathlons—until his competitive streak emerged in a negative way.
“I just wanted to win, and it just got unhealthy,” he said. “I was like, I didn’t do this to be competitive. I did this for myself. But you know what? I really like this swimming thing.”
Swimming and beyond
After a long swim, Tuff feels good. He feels free.
Experts believe that exercise can help with addiction recovery by releasing naturally occurring chemicals like endorphins and dopamine that reduce stress and make people feel happy. This sounds right to Tuff, although he doesn’t think that ultra-marathon swims are necessary to achieve that state.
“The one thing I don’t want people to think while watching my movie or hearing from me is that they have to be a superstar. Little steps, like walking to get your mail every day, or doing little things for yourself, it starts there,” he said. “And then just build from it.”
He is excited to have the opportunity to encourage more people to build on small steps and embrace their best selves through the documentary and through making a career pivot to public speaking. This fall, he will not return to school as a teacher but instead will be traveling around to share his recovery story and the documentary.
“I want to get out in front of as many schools, as many rehab centers, as many companies as I possibly can to spread the word of my journey, so I can help inspire those who need to take a journey,” he said.
Gretchen Black Tuff, his wife, said that she is proud of her husband’s willingness to share his story and help other people. He’s got a gift for both those things, she said.
“I think he just has this innate ability to connect with people very quickly,” she said. “I think it’s awesome he’s willing to do it and willing to advocate for the greater good of society.”
Helping others is part of what drives him forward, both in the water and on land.
“It’s the goal of spreading the word that recovery doesn’t have to be boring. That recovery doesn’t have to be something negative,” Tuff said. “That recovery can be something that you are really excited about and proud of.”
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