Hands Across the Bridge: Fighting the battles of addiction

From the Portland Observer, August 31, 2011

Hundreds of people span the Interstate Bridge for “Hands Across the Bridge” to share the message of hope for people struggling with addictions and those in recovery.

This year’s annual event is Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 5.

An ex-addict recalls the hellish experience of a coming down on drugs in a jail cell: “Pretty soon you don’t get high –you get sick. The euphoria is gone. Without heroin in your system, your body is limp as a dishrag. You feel pain all over. You’re throwing up, shaking, sweating, and your bowels are loose.

“But all you can think about is getting free, so you can get high again, and make the pain go away. And when you finally do, you make sure to get so high that your wretched soul vanishes from this godforsaken earth. Then, the night passes, you wake up under a bridge, again, and wonder– Damn, I’m still here.”

Louise Wedge, a Georgia-born recovering addict who was trapped in Portland’s drug underworld for 35 years can safely say she has no plans of turning back to addiction and looks forward to her life of recovery.

Clean for the past 16 years, Wedge is no longer the lonely, devastated woman she used to be, “I have my mind back. I can think. I have a few dollars in my pocket, I bought a house, I bought a car, I’m raising plants,” she said, listing the good things about recovery on a floral sofa in her north Portland home.

With much to celebrate, Wedge and hundreds of people like her will gather this Labor Day, on Monday, Sept. 5 at 10 a.m. to join in unity for “Hands Across the Bridge,” an annual event spanning the Interstate Bridge across the Columbia River that pays tribute to National Recovery Month and the freedom from addiction.

Victims of drug and alcohol abuse, eager to give back to the community they once clung to, will share a message of hope for those still struggling.

For the most extreme, getting sober is the only choice next to dying in the hands of drugs.

Patty Katz, the founder of Hands Across the Bridge and a former drug pal of Wedge, never stopped drinking after she was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning at 18. “The more addicted I was, the bigger the hole in my soul grew,” she said.

Katz drank her way through the 1960’s and experimented her way out of every social group she came across. Later, she found heroin and abused it so much that she stuck needles in every skin pore she could find. Sinking further from society, she spent months in and out of jail, treatment, and the streets.

At rock bottom and her arms poisoned by strychnine, a nurse told her, “Ma’am you’re going to lose your arms if you don’t stop using dope.” But as a junkie out of control, she said she learned to inject heroin using her toes –just in case.

Metaphorically under the same bridge as Wedge, and sometimes under the actual same bridge, Katz continued to do as many drugs as she could, only to “wake up and be pissed that I was still alive”.

Her realization of hitting bottom came in the vision of a little old lady rocking in a chair with no arms. In jail on a 90-day stint, Katz decided to live and not die in limbo. Out of jail at midnight with no plans and just $1.25 to her name, she shuttled to downtown Vancouver and checked into a Clean and Sober Club.

From then on, Katz attended meetings, stayed sober, and after two years of transitional housing, got her first job at Hooper Detox where she re-united with a recovering Wedge. As a volunteer spokeswoman for a “drug-free workplace,” Katz became publicly involved in breaking the stigma of addiction for herself and others.

After “using” for 35 years, Wedge spent her last 14 months of prison in a drug program. At first she rejected the steps to recovery, just wanting to be free from prison, but her attitude finally changed. She took the only job she could get –scrubbing prison floors. With treatment, her self-esteem rose as she worked her way up and out.

Once sober, Wedge struggled with finding a place to live, “Nobody wants to rent to you if you have a record and any credit you have is bad,” she said. Nearly 20 apartments denied her before she found one empathetic landlord.

Wedge told him, “If you rent to me, I will be the best tenant you will ever have,” and for seven years, she was. She became certified as a drug and alcohol counselor and soon could afford her own house. Now, she is a mentor for HARRP, a recovery program that provides transitional services to men and women coming out of prison.

In 2001, Katz and Wedge decided they would stand on top of the Burnside Bridge at daybreak to celebrate that they were no longer under the bridge in their addictions, but on top of the bridge to celebrate their recovery.

Marking a tradition for years to come, Patty Katz and Louise Wedge held the first Hands Across the Bridge celebration on the I-5 bridge in 2002 with about 200 people in attendance while the following year’s event grew to include 500 people.

Today, Katz works as the Program Director for Beyond Barriers, and along with other volunteers, mostly recovering addicts wanting to build leadership skills. She helps organize the Hands Across the Bridge event year after year.

Katz says the biggest prize of the event is watching former addicts do things they’ve never done before; evolving from a volunteer the first year to a mentor the next, and finally, to a leader in the recovering community.

“I am just so proud to hear them bear their souls to the community,” she said, “Sharing stories helps break the stigma of addiction and puts a face and voice to recovery.” This year’s theme is Recovery benefits everyone.

At the event on Monday, attendees will hear from Washington’s Clark County Commissioner Mark Bolt and State Sen. Craig Pridemore, and from Multnomah County Commissioner Judy Shiprack, State Rep. Michael Dembrow, and State Rep. Lew Frederick.

Ivette Torres of SAMHSA (Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Association) and Rhode Island’s Steve Gumbley of Faces and Voices of Recovery will also speak at the event.

The Hands Across the Bridge Project is sponsored by Partnership for Safety and Justice, Central City Concern, Samhsa, ATTC, A&E, Lifeline Connections, and others.