No Matter Where You Go, There You Are

By Kim Alden Mallin

When I read that Sasee was expanding its circulation to include Boca Raton, I settled back into my chair and let the memories began to flow. Good ones, like running down A1A and through South Inlet Park while training for the Disney marathon, attending Ballet Florida’s yearly production of The Nutcracker, watching the rich and famous stroll South Beach. The not so good ones…well, I’ll talk about them later. Suffice it to say, Boca is a place of extraordinary importance to me.

I am a Carolina girl through and through. I love the smell of the marsh and the changing of the seasons. I love soft southern accents and country music. Although I may have tried to delude myself into thinking that I was a sophisticated, urban traveler, before my Boca days I hadn’t traveled much, and I’d never lived outside of the Carolinas.

And there I was, stepping off of a plane in West Palm Beach, no less. Being met by a big guy holding a sign with my name on it. Boy, I had arrived.

Not.

That big guy was driving a white van that was taking me to long-term drug rehab. I thought I would do my time, three months or so, and get right back on that plane, right back to my Carolina. Back to my old life in Wilmington. My nice job as a physician, my new condo complete with ocean views, jeep, Miata and wave-runner. It took me many months to realize that my old life wasn’t quite as I imagined it. That, in reality, I hadn’t been on the wave runner in months. As for the ocean views, everyday when I came home from work (well, until I lost my job), I turned the air conditioning on high, pulled down all the blinds and drank to oblivion, alone in the dark on my nice leather couch.

But I jump ahead.

I stayed in that particular rehab about six weeks before going AWOL and getting drunk. After a weekend in detox, it was suggested to me that I try another rehab. (That is, if I ever wanted to practice medicine again.) Fortunately for me, there seemed to be rehabs on every other corner in Florida; I guess sunshine and orange juice are good for recovery. Anyway, I only made it about four weeks in the next one before going AWOL again. This time I was really scared. I knew something needed to change for me. I could no longer hide from the reality of my old life and the worsening downward spiral of my current one. I was homeless, jobless, broke and desperate.

One of my counselors suggested I try the Lighthouse, a halfway house in Delray Beach. Seeing no other options, I did. And miraculously, with a lot of help, I was able to stop drinking, and my life began to improve. Along with the many treatment facilities in South Florida, there are tons of recovery groups. I found one that I made my home, and they provided me with support, love and strength.

I “graduated” from that halfway house after six months. It felt as monumental as graduating from medical school. I put aside the dream of returning to medicine and concentrated on getting well. It seemed too soon to return home. I knew I wasn’t ready. So I found a great little apartment in downtown Delray Beach. All that was left to do was find a job. Not an easy task for a budding surgeon without a license. But, a very kind library director saw something in me and gave me a chance. I became a library assistant, the perfect job for someone who loves books and reading.

I developed a life; a healthy sober one. That’s where all the happy memories come in; window-shopping in Mizner Park, going to Sun Fest, snorkeling in Gumbo Limbo Park. Before I knew it, I had developed roots, made friends. Traditions were started, like the annual running of the Festival of Lights 5K race, celebrating every Christmas at my friend Ariel’s annual holiday dinner and spending anniversary nights at Wayside House.

I hadn’t returned “home” to the Carolinas during those years. I suppose I was afraid. Not so much that I would drink again, although that was a concern, but that there were too many difficult memories for me there, including people I used to work with or friends I had let down. Boca and Delray had become safe havens for me, and I wasn’t sure what would happen if I left those county limits. Then one day, I picked up one of Pat Conroy’s books and almost cried at his description of the Lowcountry. He wrote of being among the oyster beds and putting one’s hand deep into the pluff mud, scooping it out and inhaling the distinctive, unique marsh scent…and with an almost visceral longing, I wanted to go home.

I planned a weekend trip back to Charleston for the Cooper River Bridge Run. I was so nervous leaving Boca early that cool April morning, the Miata’s top down, the scent of orange blossoms filling the air. I was wondering if I would feel like I was home, or if I would find myself wanting to run back to Florida.

The question was answered along a stretch of Hwy 17, just this side of Beaufort. The road, shadowed by overhanging live oaks covered with dangling Spanish moss, seemed to go straight for miles before crossing a small bridge and curving just enough to hinder my vision ahead. Abruptly the trees disappeared, their darkness replaced by soft late afternoon sun illuminating a vista of open green marsh grass, broken only by tidal pools and old wooden docks that sagged along the far banks. I pulled over and stopped the car. A large blue heron stood in a tidal pool as a few ospreys flew overhead. The slightly funky musty smell of the marsh filled my soul with contentment. I was home.

It took another year for me to make my way back to the Carolinas. I still had lessons to learn down in Florida, preparation for facing some of those difficult situations that lay ahead of me on my return home. How to handle disappointments sober. How to fall in love. How to fall out of love. When in doubt, how to hang on and just try to do the next right thing…and more importantly, how to know what that next right thing was.

Living on my own in Florida, working in the library and just living life, a day at a time, eventually gave me back the strength and ability to pursue my dreams again. With the support of friends and advisors, I decided to try medicine again and was fortunate enough to get a position in Charleston. I left Florida, at peace with myself, sad to leave new friends, but eager to resume my old career.

And here I am today, back home. Living on the marsh where I can watch egrets and herons play everyday. Where dolphins frolic and every breeze carries that special marsh scent. There is a popular saying in 12 Step groups, “no matter where you go, there you are,” implying that geographical cures won’t fix a person’s problems. I don’t believe my move to Florida fixed my life, but the “people, places and things” I met there certainly gave me the support, strength and opportunities for growth that I needed to get my life back on track.

About this writer

  • Kim Alden Mallin Taking a break from her life as a family doc in Charleston S.C, Kim Alden Mallin is currently living in Antigua with her husband, teaching at the American University of Antigua School of Medicine. Her days off are spent scuba diving, writing and improving her road race times by running up the hills of Antigua.

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