BENNINGTON -- Bill Clark has spent his entire life adapting.
When Clark was a child, he suffered from emotional and physical abuse. "I grew up in a very emotional childhood. Everything I did was wrong, and I got beat for it," Clark said.
He said sometimes his parents would even lock him in the basement for his wrongdoings.
Everything changed when his father took his own life in front of Clark's eyes in 1988. Aside from having to deal with the emotional trauma ("His blood was all over the walls," said Clark) of witnessing that act, Clark's family had to find a new home. Clark's father worked as a caretaker, and the home his family lived in came with the job. When his father died, Clark's family had to leave.
Clark's mother, unable to provide for Clark and his two sisters, forced him out of the house not long after. He was 17. Faced with the prospect of surviving on his own, homeless, Clark went back to what he knew best growing up: The woods.
"For everything he did, my dad did teach me a lot about hunting, surviving in the wilderness," said Clark. "The woods, growing up, was my safe place."
He went to the woods near Mount Anthony, just west of Southern Vermont College. That was where he found a cave.
"It was warm, dry, it had everything I needed," he said.
Clark stayed in that cave for more than a year, until he ran into some trouble with the law.
"I was doing a lot of vandalism. I broke windows, parked cars on ice," he said.
United Counseling Services of Bennington became involved in his case, and were shocked to learn that he was living in a cave.
"They didn't believe me," said Clark, "I took them up to the cave, and they said ‘Wow, this kid is really living in a cave.'"
Ironically, the UCS building was one of those that Clark had vandalized. They didn't hold it against him, however. "They didn't just look at that I was bad, they looked at what caused it."
Clark was sentenced to three years in prison. For Clark, this was a turning point in his life.
"Being separated from society, it gave me time to think," he said.
He thought about what he wanted to do with his life, where he wanted to go. But he also struggled with severe self-esteem problems. "I'm in jail, who's gonna trust me? I'm a criminal," said Clark.
When he got out of prison, Clark continued working with UCS, but not fully. "I still didn't trust anybody," he said. UCS helped him get back on his feet, aiding him in finding an apartment and food. "UCS helped me live," said Clark.
However, he never really committed himself to the organization's programs. "I'm a bull," he said, "I'm very stubborn, and I was convinced that I could handle my problems on my own, my way."
This changed two years ago, when Clark began attending a self-esteem group at UCS led by Sasha Slattery, who has since become his case manager. The group, which is made up of about 10 people, changed the way Clark viewed himself. "I do have worth, I do have a purpose," he said, "I have traits I can offer people."
Slattery said that many people show interest in her self-esteem group, but many of those drop out by the second or third class. "People want to do the self-esteem group, but its hard to look at yourself like that," Slattery said. As for Bill, Slattery described working with him as "awesome."
"For my part, I watched him go from not really believing in himself at all," said Slattery, "He had no idea of his worth."
Currently working on getting his high school degree, Clark hopes to someday attend college to study technology. A self-described "computer whiz," Clark found that helping fix his friends' computers was one skill he could use to help better other peoples' lives.
Clark became a certified ham radio operator in 2006, and is currently the District Emergency Coordinator for Bennington County. In the event of an emergency that took down more conventional means of communication, Clark would coordinate several countywide Amateur Radio Emergency Services groups.
"I never would have thought it was possible," said Clark of his position.
Clark also builds and flies RC airplanes, which can be valued up to $8,000, flying with the Green Mountain Renegade Flyers, out of Pownal.
Of his own life, Clark said, "I've had to let go of a lot of things I've taught myself. I never really trusted people. I've come to accept help."
Clark said his goal going forward was just to "stay engaged in my counseling. It's so important. I've ran out of therapy sessions. Literally, added Slattery with a laugh. "But I've always come back, because running wasn't going to fix anything."
When asked what he would tell someone who was going through what he went through as a child, Clark responded, "For the longest time, I didn't want to talk about it too much. But as time went on, I realized that I want to let people know that they're not alone. There's somebody else who has been through that. Maybe they need to talk with someone. I've been there. I went through a suicidal state. I have to live with the scars on my arms every day. They remind me that I didn't do it. If I had, that would have been such a waste."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB.