When I reach out to people to interview for this column, usually the first thing I hear is, “I’m not interesting, what would people want to know about me?” Then they go on to tell one of the most amazing, heart wrenching, humorous, endearing or just flat-out awesome stories I have yet to hear.
Vanessa Berge is one of those people. It’s interviews with people like Vanessa that make writing this column such a privilege. And though she isn’t originally from Portland, having been raised in Reno, Nevada, she is as part of the City if Roses as any native, as you’ll come to see.
When you meet Vanessa, the first thing you notice – at least, that I noticed – is the look in her eyes. Her glance is soft, yet something hard lies beneath. She’s been through a lot, yet she finds so much to be thankful for. Her laugh is as infectious as her story is sad, touching and inspirational.
You see, like so many others that have graced this page, Vanessa has been through hell and back. Though she has not struggled with it herself, she has stood by the side of men in her life who have held epic battles with alcohol.
When her ex-boyfriend, and her son’s father, decided to quit alcohol cold turkey, the results were nothing short of catastrophic. One week in the ICU incubated on life support in an induced coma fighting withdrawals. And yet there, by his side, the whole time, Vanessa exhibited a strength others would be envious of.
“I had to keep this all from my son,” she explains. “I was the one who had to keep all of the friends and relatives updated, make all major decisions… make him eat… calm him when he was convinced the staff were hurting him.”
The list is long, but she stayed firm. Her ex improved, and though they no longer share the bond of love, now they are great friends.
“He is my son’s father, and I sincerely believe he would’ve done that for me,” she replies in answer to those who wonder why she stayed so loyal through it all.
Yet, the story doesn’t end there. Vanessa’s current boyfriend also struggled with alcohol. After two-and-a-half years they broke up and he moved away for six months. The fact is, after what she’d already been through, Vanessa was not going to tolerate his alcoholism.
“He learned that life without me was horrible,” Vanessa says with a wry smile, “and made the huge decision to quit drinking so that our life together could be what it was always meant to be.”
Through it all, Vanessa has managed to raise a well-rounded son with a bright future, all while pursuing her own goals.
“I started college for the first time ever at thirty-two years old, and have maintained a 4.0 GPA with everything going on in my life,” she says with well-earned pride.
Yet, it’s not just the struggles and successes in her personal life that drive Vanessa. Quite frankly, we could fill another 500 words with more interesting tales from her life. Except there’s just this one thing we would be remiss not to mention.
“I love slugs,” she whimsically says. “Is that weird enough?”
In keep it weird Portland, we’ll say so. It’s just one of many aspects of her life that make her right at home among our fair city.
“When I do have spare time, I love to hang out with my kid and friends, go to concerns… explore nature, camping, swimming, photography, beach trips, fishing…” as she trails off, it’s apparent she has made her point.
She could go on, but it’s okay. Her story fits right in with the Portland tableau – except for maybe the slug part, which we’ll give her a pass on. From loved ones’ struggles with alcohol to nature hikes and her job at a Portland icon: McMenamin’s, despite her transplant status, she’s a PDX Person through-and-through.
William Bessette – PDX People Contributor
William Bessette is a journalist and freelance writer who has been covering politics, entertainment, culture and travel for over thirteen years. When he’s not profiling Portland-area restaurants and residents, you can find him reporting on national and international travel and eco-tourism through his travel brand, Floppy Hat Adventures.