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Cyclist takes strong stance to raise awareness, funding for addiction recovery
Dawn Brazell | MUSC News Center | June 10, 2014
|Glad to be back home, Steve Pulley finished a 3,133 mile, cross country journey to share his story and raise awareness about addiction recovery. Pulley, who just enrolled in MUSC's College of Health Professions physical therapy program, looks forward to the next bend in the road.|
After cycling 3,133 miles in 57 days, Steve Pulley dipped his tire into the surf at Sullivan’s Island.
It was the end of his cross-country journey that started in San Diego on a date celebrating his six years of sobriety. Dipping the tire into the Atlantic Ocean May 18 marked the start of a new chapter in his life as his mind switched gears to his next challenge.
Pulley, 26, now logs hours in the classroom at MUSC’s College of Health Professions as he pursues his dream of becoming a physical therapist. In trying to describe the eight-week journey, Pulley said people want to know the hard numbers, such as his mileage and that he raised more than $15,000, the majority of the proceeds going to Willingway Foundation that is a primary funding source for the Center for Addiction Recovery at Georgia Southern University, a place that helped Pulley get grounded. His Ride 4 Recovery campaign also raised $3,000 for MUSC’s Center for Drug and Alcohol Programs.
The numbers don’t get at the heart of the trip, though. For Pulley, it was the faces and the stories along the way and the long stretches he had on the road to reflect on those.
People such as the man he encountered the first night of his trip. It was someone he met through an online hosting site for touring cyclists. The man had done 10 years in prison and had been nine years clean and sober. He had met his wife through the ministry, and he was a pastor at a facility that housed 50 men.
“I went there to speak the first night. I don’t believe it to be random, and that was day one,” he said of how many such encounters happened on his journey.
“I was just welcomed and was overwhelmed by the generosity of complete strangers along the ride. A lot of people helped me out and took me in and cared about what I had to say, whether they had any history with addiction themselves or not. It seemed like everyone I talked to is affected in some way – either directly or indirectly – whether it’s a family member or just someone they know. It’s a pretty pervasive issue, but one that’s just not talked about.”
Pulley’s mission was to talk and share – to put a face on recovery. People opened up to him when they heard about his cause. He remembers arriving at a hotel in Texas, where he was directed to an outpatient facility just across the street. He walked over still in his cleats to give a talk to their outpatients. There he heard the story from a woman whose daughter had addiction issues and took her own life in front of her mother.
“It was a story she hadn’t shared much. She felt comfortable telling me. I think it was therapy for her. They’re comfortable talking to me because I’m sharing my story. It was just awesome. There were a lot of stories like that.”
Pulley’s story with addiction started young.
When the Mount Pleasant resident was in middle school, he began experimenting with alcohol and drugs. “Things for me progressed rapidly. I have the disease of addiction. Where consequences are a deterrent for a lot of normal people, for me – in my brain, they are not. It’s a progressive, fatal disease.”
Pulley, whose drug of choice was heroin, ended up being hospitalized four times, he said, referring to statistics showing what a problem this has become nationally. Drug overdose death rates in the United States have more than tripled since 1990. In 2012 the No. 1 cause of death in 17 states was prescription drug abuse, and that figure surpassed the number of fatalities caused by motor vehicle accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I did end up in a spot where I just knew that it was life or death. I wanted it. I was beaten so badly. I wanted to try something different. Whereas before I thought I had a problem and maybe I could manage it or would grow out of it, then I got to a point where I just accepted that it was hopeless and got apathetic. And then I just moved in circles.”
Finally he reached a point he was ready to seek long-term treatment. He went to a men’s halfway house in Statesboro, Ga., for 18 months and returned to college through a collegiate recovery program at Georgia Southern. “It was an awesome resource. It was an environment on a college campus for people in recovery. It was just getting started when I got there and had 40 people between 18 and 25 who are sober.”
Pulley said the average GPA of the Georgia Southern University student was 2.6. The average when he was there for his group at the Center for Addiction Recovery was 3.7. “I graduated with a 3.8. It was such a good resource. I can’t stress that enough.”
Pulley got interested in fitness as part of his clean lifestyle. He quit smoking and got serious about working out. He did a 10K and the Charleston Marathon, and then got interested in cycling. “It’s a big part of my recovery and a part of my life. It’s a lifestyle change to change everything about how I was living before.”
He bought a bike last May and even though he had been cycling only a year, decided he wanted to do the cross-country trip to raise awareness about addiction recovery. Given prior injuries, Pulley knew he had to change his mentality on being so competitive. “I knew I could do this as a ride, not as a race. It’s touring. It’s not racing.”
Suffering some injuries along his fitness path, Pulley had to work with physical therapists. That’s when he decided that is what he wanted to do in life. He was drawn to MUSC because of its reputation with addiction research and because his philosophy is to be transparent about his past. Unlike other graduate programs where he got accepted, Pulley felt MUSC didn’t see his past as a liability.
“I’ve been able to mature through some obstacles that many people face as far as alcohol and drug problems. For me, I thought that being honest up front and being welcomed to a place was the best policy rather than hiding in the shadows. I’m really not about that anyway. “
It was a risk, but he felt well received at MUSC, he said.
“MUSC is a good fit. I’m local, and I wanted to go there. It’s a top tier school, they do a lot of addiction research, and I felt comfortable here. I believe that alcoholism and addiction is a disease concept, and I believe they reciprocate that belief, and they try to solve the problem.”
Part of what his ride was all about was talking about addiction and alcoholism as a public health issue, rather than a moral or criminal problem, he said. The discussions need to happen because it’s a disease where what people need most is hope.
Pulley recalls some young men in Mississippi who were high, but they were really interested in hearing his story and why he was riding.
“For me, a lot of people planted the seed, and I remember people who had an impact before I was ready to stop. That’s all I can hope for with this is to plant a few seeds and try to make recovery attractive. For me, I got sober when I was 20, and it was six years to the day when I started this ride. I thought my life was over. I thought ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do that,’” he said of his life before recovery.
Without the burden and drain of addictive behaviors, Pulley said life has gotten so much fuller. Instead of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, he now has a fit lifestyle, a girlfriend and is on the path to becoming a physical therapist who can help others. He wants to give a vision to at-risk youth to see how attractive recovery can be.
“This has given me so many opportunities and made my life so much bigger than it was before.”
The ride helped him one more step on his journey.
“The things I was telling people to do, I had to be careful to do myself. I’ve been put under a spotlight in a way, and I’ve had to check my ego and my intentions. This is a day-by-day thing for me, and I’m not going around telling people that I’m cured. I have my flaws and things I need to work on on a daily basis to maintain my recovery. This has been a way for me to get really, really involved with recovery, and now I’m going to get really involved with school. I’m ready to focus on the future.”