May 22, 2018

LITTLE DETAILS: Finding the light in others

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

October 24th, 2013

Brian is an affable young man. He sips his mid-morning hot chocolate, an antidote to constant sleepiness, induced by medications. I know only bits and pieces of his story. His mother, survivor of a succession of abusive men, loved her son but did not know how to protect him. Brian endured physical trauma—including being slammed against a wall so hard his bones fractured. He fought violently when required to bathe. Years later, he revealed that one of his mother’s boyfriends sexually abused him in the shower.

Brian was eventually removed from his mother’s home, for his own safety. Intensive therapy, coupled with a highly individualized education plan and a nurturing foster family, allowed the real Brian to emerge from self-induced isolation. This unkempt, angry, tantrum-prone child has grown into a patient, polite young man with an easy smile.

He paid a high price for the abuse. The physical, sexual and emotional trauma arrested his development and compromised his IQ. His mind carries the memory and his body carries the scars of cigarettes pressed into his skin when he “misbehaved.” He eventually earned a high school diploma, but is not likely to become the doctor, the engineer, or the writer he might otherwise have been. The abuse left him permanently disabled.

Cary is polite and smiles only shyly, embarrassed by her yellowed, crooked teeth. I met Cary years ago when she was incarcerated at “The 4 Cs,” jailhouse parlance for the Chittenden County Correctional Center. (It’s since been renamed the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.) She was just a little bit older than me, but you wouldn’t know it. Decades of alcohol abuse left her physically depleted and aged beyond her years.

Cary’s mother was asked to leave her northern Vermont Catholic high school when she became pregnant in the 1960s. Cary’s dad, also a teen, found the nearest exit, leaving her mother alone and ill-equipped to raise a child.

Growing up in Burlington’s Old North End with few emotional and material resources, Cary discovered booze early. She craved comfort from alcohol’s escapist quality but, instead, fell into the abyss of addiction. There is no mercy in a bottle. Emerging from her drunken haze, she’d face the same woman with the same struggles in the mirror…over and over and over again.

When I last saw Cary, it was at the Cherry Street Rite Aid in Burlington, the pharmacy which sometimes sells cheap, little bottles of wine in bins near the register. She was sober, attending AA meetings, and waiting tables at a local restaurant. She seemed hopeful, yet cautious. She’d walked that path many times before. She intentionally sought out work at a breakfast-lunch restaurant—one that did not serve alcohol, lest she be tempted. Her effort to stay sober and live a “normal life”—the sort of life some of us take for granted—is nothing short of herculean. The true test comes when life throws Cary a curve ball. Will she stand strong, ignoring the voices of addiction beckoning her to return to old, familiar, destructive ways?

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1926-2004), a Swiss-American psychiatrist best known for her work on end-of-life issues, said: “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”

I am reminded why I’m drawn to working in the field of human services. We all have things we have to overcome. Each of us carries some sadness in our hearts. We need to look for the light in others, those tiny embers gasping for air to fuel the fire of the human spirit—and keep it aglow.

Note: Names changed to protect confidentiality

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston.  Reader comments are welcome at or


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