11:57 a.m.: The last of the crowd packed onto the Interstate 5 Bridge on Monday, trading high-fives with volunteers as people stretched from the north bank to the south bank of the Columbia River.
11:59 a.m.: Hundreds of adults, children and pets spanned the distance. Drivers traversing the bridge honked in support.
The clock struck noon, and everyone grasped the hand of the person next to them. They formed a near-mile-long chain. Everyone raised their hands and together shouted: “Recovery!” Then, the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
The proclamation marked the 18th anniversary of Hands Across the Bridge, an annual Labor Day event that celebrates anyone fighting a substance addiction at any stage of recovery.
Kicking off September as National Recovery Month, the celebration gave Clark County residents who are struggling or have struggled with addiction an opportunity to come together and share their stories.
The crowd first gathered in Esther Short Park before making the voyage to the northern pedestrian entrance of the I-5 Bridge; halfway across, they met up with the contingent trekking northward from Portland.
The event celebrated people in all stages of addiction recovery, focusing on what there is to gain in sobriety — health, home, purpose and community.
“If you don’t think there’s stuff out there for addicts and alcoholics to live a productive life, you’re truly mistaken,” said Erin Johnson, one of many recovering addicts who addressed the crowd at Esther Short Park. She’s been sober since 2011, she said. Since then, she’s regained custody of her children, bought a home, obtained a driver’s license and wrested back control over her life. “I didn’t think seven years ago I’d be asked to speak on this stage at Hands Across the Bridge.”
The turnout at the celebration was a testament to the strength of community, and of the power that addicts sharing stories can have on one another, she added.
“They show up, they suit up and they support. That’s what they do,” said Johnson.
The observance of Recovery Month also venerated the progress that dozens of people in Clark County have made in recovery from their addictions. At one point, the Rev. Vicky Smith of Xchange Church called to the stage a group holding poster-sized printouts of their own mugshots. The demonstration highlighted a stark contrast between the people on the posters — often captured by the camera at their lowest moment — and the smiling, whooping people holding them up.
“How many out there have a mugshot?” Smith asked the crowd, to a smattering of applause and raised hands. “That’s good — you can relate. How many of you guys have an active addiction picture? How many of you guys have destroyed all those pictures and thought that you didn’t ever want to see them again?”
The group of people onstage were more than just pretty faces, Smith added, touting their volunteer work with relapse prevention programs at the Clark County Jail and assistance with recovery service at the church on Saturday nights.
“This is amazing work, you guys. Look at the transformation,” Smith beamed.
The event also had a political bent, with state Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, discussing how she’d seen substance abuse tear families apart, pull entire generations away from caring for their children or decimate the future of a teenager who fell into addiction after a sports injury.
Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle also used her time at the microphone to point to dire addiction statistics across the country — last year, opioid addiction claimed 72,000 Americans, the equivalent of a 747 plane crashing every other day. She urged the celebration’s participants to channel their passion into direct action and take advantage of the booth at Esther Short Park helping attendees get on the voting rolls.
“That’s why you need to vote,” McEnerny-Ogle said.