Doctor Crosses the Bridge from Addiction to Recovery
***image1*** April, 1999. The orange-blossom scented breeze was whipping through my hair. The top was down on my Miata and the Dixie Chicks were playing on my CD player as I sang along, “I need…wide open spaces…” Behind me, the sun was setting over the Florida everglades as I drove north on I-95, headed for Charleston, SC and the annual Cooper River Bridge run.
At the time, I was living in south Florida, having moved there two years before to enter long-term drug and alcohol treatment. I was a physician, or rather, had been a physician. During my surgery residency, I had fine tuned my occasional over-drinking with a little narcotic use and found myself addicted and jobless.
Not to be making light of my addiction. I struggled to stop drinking and taking pills…they were ruining my life. And I could stop for some period of time, always to start back either when things quieted down again, or when I couldn’t handle reality anymore. I had already lost my surgical residency, my medical license, and my marriage because of my addiction. This move to Florida had been a last-ditch effort to try to get my life back in order.
And amazingly, it looked like it was going to work this time. Something had happened, something had changed that allowed me to finally overcome my denial and start to recover. I forgot about being a doctor and focused on surviving a day at a time without using drugs or alcohol. I committed to staying in a halfway house for 6 months and following their rules. Graduating from there felt as significant as graduating from medical school. I got a job in the public library and led a very simple life. I became active in 12-step groups and somehow I gradually got better. Before I knew it, I had been sober for a year…then two years…and felt as if I had made a major turn in my life.
So this trip was a momentous occasion for me. My first trip out of town, by myself. I had never felt such freedom. I was truly free from the bondage of my addictions. Even today, I can remember the brilliance of the orange fields, the sweetness of their fragrance, the coolness of the April wind on my face as the sun went down, the complete peace I felt…a sensation that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I was finally comfortable in my own skin.
Another memory from that trip that will always stay with me is the beauty of the Charleston skyline as I drove over the Cooper River Bridges that night. I loved those old bridges. I always had. My first glimpse of the bridges 20 years ago had left me spellbound. A small town girl taking my first real trip, I was on a Greyhound bus with my Girl Scout troop headed for Savannah home of Juliette Gordon Lowe, the founder of Girl Scouts. I remember desperately trying to capture the magnificence of the bridges with my pocket camera. Leaning out the bus window, I must have snapped half a roll of film, trying to get the entire length of the 2 1/2 mile-long bridges in one frame. I remember nothing else about that trip; every other activity has been forgotten, overpowered by the magnetic draw of the bridges.
Narrow twin rows of metal, steeply rising first to incredible heights, then swooping down low, dipping almost into the river and marsh below. Only to immediately rise again, then precipitously dropping once more before finally reaching the other side. Enough twist and turns to be a roller coaster. Scary enough that in the early years of the bridge, first-time visitors to Charleston were often afraid to cross the narrow bridge and stopped at the bottom, pulling over to hire local drivers who were more familiar with the passage to drive them across.
Over the years, the bridges have received nation-wide attention, at least among runners, with the annual Cooper River Bridge run being one of the top ten runs in the nation. I first heard about the bridge run when I was an intern during my surgery residency. I had been running for several years at that time, I had not yet crossed the line in my drinking career and running was my main stress reliever. The thought of running up and down those steep climbs seemed challenging but worth it for the view, so I signed up and road-tripped it to Charleston with several friends. To say it was challenging is an understatement…it was cold and windy and the ups seemed to go on forever…but the view was spectacular and the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd contagious. I loved every minute of the run and vowed to return yearly.
I was able to keep that vow for the next four years. Each year the race had a different flavor. One year it was roasting hot with gusty winds up to 20 mph, the next I was wearing gloves and a toboggan. Celebrities like Oprah and Bill Murray joined the crowd as the race grew from 3000 runners to 5000 to 7500. The race, first run in 1978 on the newer of the bridges, the Pearman, had switched over to the Grace in 1980 and then back to the Pearman in 1995. Urban legend was that the older Grace bridge was too dangerous, that officials feared that with so many runners (over 7000 in 1993) the right cadence would lead to the bridge become unstable and falling. The truth was not nearly as exciting. The Pearman was a little wider and would more easily accommodate thousands of runners. I was fortunate enough to run both bridges during those four years.
The following years were lost years to me. My drinking worsened and I began my downward spiral, until I had lost everything. By the time I landed in Florida, I had just about given up on ever being normal, much less getting my old life back. I wasn’t thinking about being a doctor again, I just wanted to be able to trust myself enough to walk into a grocery store again and not head for the beer and wine aisle. To be able to buy groceries safely…that would be enough for me.
And yet, here I was, driving up I-95, sober and free.
From then on, those bridges represented freedom to me. I could never cross them without remembering the joy and peace of that bridge run weekend, back in 1999. My life continued to get better. Serendipitously, I ended up getting an opportunity to practice medicine again…in Charleston. I drove across those bridges daily in my new life. Since moving here, I’ve run the bridge every year I could, my call schedule permitting. This past year had the largest crowd ever…with over 40,000 runners entering the race. Call it silly, but I love those bridges and everything they symbolize to me.
July, 2005. I have aching thigh muscles, blisters on my soles, a bittersweet smile on my face and a sad heart. Today I ran the “Burn the Bridges” run…the last run ever over the old Cooper River Bridges. The race looped over both bridges, a twisting, turning up and down course never done before. Soon, those bridges, the rickety old Grace and Pearman Bridges will be dismantled, forever changing the Charleston skyline. The new, modern, eight lane cable-stayed bridge, the “Arthur Ravenal, Jr.” opened earlier this month and will be the only bridge crossing the Cooper River into downtown Charleston. It is a beautiful bridge, majestic, an engineering marvel with straight clean lines that completely dwarfs the smaller metal nuts and bolts, almost tinker-toy appearing Grace and Pearman bridges. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the future bridge runs and I already appreciate the improvement in travel time into Charleston, but I’m really going to miss those towering symbols of freedom.
The good news is that I’ll be able to see the bridges again. Just in a completely different context. The dismantled bridges are going to be submerged in nearby waters, joining sunken New York subway cars and multiple shipwrecks to provide artificial reefs. Maybe one day I’ll be scuba diving in and around them, their metal skeletons beautifully decorated with colorful coral and lively schools of fish darting about. The beauty and purpose of the old Cooper River bridges will live on, in my memory as well as in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.