In the minutes leading up to noon on Monday, people from all walks of life stretched along the pedestrian walkway on the Interstate 5 Bridge, chatting amongst themselves or gazing into the water below.
But when the hour and minute hand hugged together on top of the clock, the bridge occupants followed in suit. Friends, family and strangers alike joined in hand, creating a nearly mile-long chain.
As a tugboat blared its horn in a trio, everyone raised their interlocked hands above their heads and sounded off that recovery from addiction is possible, it’s real and it’s for everyone.
Hands Across the Bridge is an annual event held each Labor Day where Vancouver and Portland residents in all stages of addiction recovery join hands across the I-5 Bridge. The event also kicks off National Recovery Month, happening each September, which raises awareness of mental health, substance use disorders and celebrates individuals in recovery.
“No matter where you are in your journey, you have found your way here, you are embraced by a community that loves you and wants you to thrive,” Vancouver City Councilor Sarah Fox said.
The event is organized by the nonprofit Hands Across the Bridge Project. More than two decades ago, Patty Katz and Louise Wedge read an article about National Recovery Month and were inspired.
The two decided to 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 in celebration of their recovery.
The event was a catalyst for the annual event, which formally started in 2001, and invited people in recovery, as well as those in support.
Katz and Wedge both died in recent years, but the tradition lives on. The nonprofit is now led by Tabby Stokes, who was a sponsee of Katz and has been in recovery for more than 17 years.
“A lot of people tell us throughout the year that this was the first event that they realized they could have fun during their recovery,” Stokes said. “We have so many people here today that are a testament that you can be living in recovery and in sobriety and still have fun and a life worth living.”
Speakers led countless call-and-response chants of “Recovery is …” and “real!” before sharing their own stories — many centralizing on the importance of community.
“There’s no question that Vancouver has a rock star recovery community,” said Cass Young, who has been in recovery for more than two years.
Young grew up overcritical of herself. She felt like a failure and that she didn’t fit in anywhere.
“As you can imagine, the first time that I introduced substances into my body … something inside of me changed,” Young said. “I had found a solution to the chaos that I had felt. It was an escape for me.”
For years, she experienced houselessness and using substances until she made the decision to reach out for help.
“I continued for a long time to block out my intolerable existence until I was finally hurting enough to reach out for help,” said. “I was sick and tired of hurting. … I really didn’t know what to do at that point. I think people forget sometimes when we are on the other side of it, that it is hard getting clean and sober. And it’s darn near impossible to do alone.”
When she reached out for help, the community welcomed her in. She said her recovery journey has been heavily influenced by support from community resources. Young underwent treatment at Lifeline Connections and received Access to Recovery funding, among other support.
Throughout the years, Young said she experienced the ebbs and flows of recovery, one time hitting bottom but she reached out for help again.
“I’m no longer that person I came into recovery as. I have freedom of self today, I no longer have this need to escape my own self,” she said. “My family is thriving, I’m a good mom today, a good friend today. I would have never gotten to this place in my life without others’ support. I don’t want anyone to have to do this alone.”
Young, as well as Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, encouraged attendees to vote, get involved with local initiatives and use their voice.
“Find out how to use your voice to invoke change because your story deserves to be heard, and you can make a difference,” said Young.
Other speakers shared that no matter where someone is in their recovery journey — even if it is just a thought — that hope for a better future is possible.
“There is never a life so far gone that recovery is no longer possible,” said Melody Peck, who has been in recovery for six years.
Peck shared that since her recovery her life has transformed, and that same fate is achievable for others.
“I get to stand here shouting from the rooftops that you don’t have to live that life anymore. There’s another way. You don’t have to feel shame because of your past today. You get to stand proud in your community and say I am brand new, I am healed,” said Peck. “Recovery is real and hope is real.”