The Chesapeake Bay Bridge took part in the slow, kindly intervention that occurred in the last year of my drinking. Kindly might not be the right word, but when you’re spared DUI or public humiliation, private pain feels like house arrest in a home much nicer than you deserve.
When I was a kid, crossing the Bay Bridge on a Friday night in summer symbolized a week in near heaven. It was the only way to the beach and my beloved Punchy raft and sandbars at noon and Mr. Softee ice cream cones that dripped melty globs of rainbow sprinkles on the tops of my brown, bare feet.
When I was ten, my family and I walked one side of the dual-span 4.3 mile stretch during a Bay Bridge Walk. The steel suspension bridge had never felt more alive, especially since we could feel it sway beneath us. Leaning over the guardrail at 186 feet inspired my very first short story about a toll collector who stole $100 from the register and (spoiler alert) plummeted to his death when he escaped on foot and dropped the bill and scurried after it.
Why didn’t he just drive in the car that he’d obviously used to get to work in the first place? Why didn’t he take more than $100? Which asshole had paid a $2.50 toll with a Ben Franklin anyway? I wish I could ask 10-year-old-me.
My second short story was about an alcoholic who fatally slipped on a broken bottle of booze, so if I could go back in time, the first thing I’d do is pat 10-year-old-me on the back for spinning dark, fatalistic morals and then I’d grill her with questions but not pointers since my work hasn’t progressed.
I lived a real-life drama on that bridge several years ago – almost to the date – when I drove over in the most hungover state I’ve ever been upright in. This particular hangover hadn’t been helped by a 2-hour drive and careful rationing of orange juice and vodka. Or maybe it was gin. The things I drank often matched the desperation I felt inside.
Alcoholics don’t drink in the morning for the buzz. Just like smokers don’t take their first drags for the fresh air, I drank secretively and at desperate times to make withdrawal symptoms go away.
Hangovers on a good day were a strip of tight pain that ran across my forehead and maybe a mouth that tasted like something had crawled in and died. A couple ibuprofen and an afternoon nap usually did the trick. On a bad day, hangovers were a rising tide of panic and nausea and doom, with a good measure of I’m not fit to be alive, let alone a parent.
The day I drove over the Bay Bridge in full blown hangover, I had been taking small sips to keep withdrawal at bay. It just hadn’t worked. My wretched drink ran out and I felt worse than ever. We met my extended family for lunch at a quaint harborside place just before the bridge. The beer I ordered came too little, too late. If I’d been with my husband, I would have ordered three more and I would have made him drive. Instead I drank my useless beer and muddled through small talk and ate actual food and grinned tightly before getting back in my car and silently praying for death.
Now I’m glad that panic attack happened because it forced the biggest wake up call of my drinking career. There is nowhere to pull over on the bridge and heave your guts out, so the fear and nausea grew with the realization that I might throw up all over myself – or just die, which felt a very real possibility – while my kids watched from the back seat, already silent because they could sense I was barely holding on.
My husband called as I was driving over the bridge and I cut him off with a “Can’t talk…think I’m having a panic attack.” I didn’t even tell him why; I just hung up. When I finally crossed over, the swell of nausea fell until I reached my parent’s house and feigned the flu and crawled into bed and rocked myself to sleep. I swore I would never drink again, which was absolutely true until the next night.
That wasn’t rock bottom – a moment so horrible I had no choice but to quit for good – but it was the most physically painful place my drinking took me, moreso because I suffered it alone. I can’t remember what labor pain felt like, but I acutely recall the bite of a bad hangover.
The hangovers got unpredictable and worse in the last year of my drinking. Sometimes drinking more made them go away, but more and more often it only made the pain feel worse. This is why I say the hangovers saved me.
This fall I’m signed up to run a Bay Bridge 10K with my younger sister. It will be the first time they’ve opened the bridge to runners in nearly a decade, though it’s a big deal to me for other reasons.
I am excited to bond with my sister over running. I’m eager to see how my fear of heights has beefed up over the years…maybe it’ll lead to another preachy short story.
The run and the bridge in general also symbolize how far I’ve come from that dark moment of panic and shame and just a really low shit-point in my life as a parent and a human being. While I’m a little nervous about running across a gently swaying hulk of metal suspended two-hundred feet above sharks*, I’ve lived through hell of my own doing the day I drove over in full-blown hangover and panic. Anything short of that feels like a cakewalk.
*not really, but sharks sound better than sea nettles.