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the light

That's when he hit rock bottom.

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The stops

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So began the spiral. More alcohol. More sex. By age 35, the Vermonter was diagnosed with AIDS.

But this isn't simply a story about abuse and addiction, disease and the prospect of death. It's also about finding a missing piece. Pausing in this ever spinning world to form the real picture. Turning a seemingly inescapable ending into a surprising new beginning.

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Stirred by a ruler slapping his desk, he learned he'd have to repeat fourth grade. But daydreaming was kid stuff compared to getting drunk in sixth grade. Then 11, he found himself with a man who lived a mile down the road. The gray haired stranger, swigging a bottle of beer, offered him a sip.

"One night, half drunk and seriously disillusioned," he recalls, "I resorted to sleeping on newspapers under a bridge."

That's when his stewing young stomach spewed all over the floor.

Kathan, 54, never had it easy. Born in Bellows Falls to parents juggling eight other children, he suffered eczema that spurred head to toe bleeding and high fevers that sparked nightmares and hallucinations.

after stranger.

And so it continued. Kathan, struggling to focus in class, would fantasize about summer, about a shade porch, about shelter and escape.

The boy hated the taste but loved how it made him feel relaxed, free spirited. He soon accepted his first shot glass of whiskey, an invitation to play in the bedroom, on the mattress, with his zipper.

Kathan studied cooking in Montana and culinary arts in California before snagging a kitchen job on a cruise ship. He set sail to Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Australia and New Zealand. To a dozen ports Nike Blue Jackets along South America. Through the Mediterranean and Red seas, the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.

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"The worst was finally over," he thought.

Yet his world suddenly grew bigger and bigger.

He never understood why his family was suspicious enough of doctors not to take him to one. Or why, left alone just before starting school, two neighbors stripped him naked. Or why, when he told an adult, he heard only, "Oh, Walter, you know they would never do anything like that."

The start

Moving to Connecticut, he won and lost a series of odd jobs, then managed to earn a two year community college degree. This time, instead of following the rise with another fall, he won admission to a state university meteorology program.

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"I remember all the trees, houses and fields getting smaller and smaller."

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Kathan was fishing one sunny day in 1993 when he caught a "huge" channel catfish and what appeared to be an allergic reaction to a riverside plant.

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Walter Kathan can still hear the laugh of the adults who ripped off his clothes at age 4, still taste the beer and whiskey used to sedate and silence him under the covers at age 11.

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But he stopped carousing only after a visiting brother sobered him by saying, "Everybody is always asking, 'Whatever happened to Walter?' You're nothing like you used to be."

In between he sampled Boston, New York and San Francisco before settling in West Palm Beach, Fla. There he attempted to anchor himself with a country club job. But increasingly he felt confused, scattered, anxious. This time, alcohol couldn't wash it away it instead robbed him of his work, his home, his money.

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The catch

Kathan decided to head home. Returning to Vermont to take a factory job, the 27 year old went from cardboard box folder to senior mill operator, only to drown his loneliness in drunken nights with stranger Nike Tracksuit For Girls

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about Windham County and neighboring Cheshire County in New Hampshire. His problems always followed. Mistaken as a "slow learner" in school, he quit at 15 to pump gas. At 17, he joined the Job Corps upon the promise of free training and, to get there, his first plane ride.

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