SWANTON — Professionally, Elisabeth Nance is Swanton’s first economic development coordinator.
As Nance put it, “My job is to make people want to live here, in an atmosphere where they can afford to.”
She’s held that position for two years.
Personally, Nance is recovering from alcoholism, bulimia, anorexia, struggling with self-harm.
That’s a position she’s been in most of her life.
She quit drinking, and smoking, in 2003. But “something happened,” Nance said, “I couldn’t tell you what … and I picked up a drink almost exactly sixteen years later.
“And I picked it up like I never stopped.”
That was this past January.
In the midst of her relapse, her psychological state descended into planning suicide.
“Somehow,” Nance said, she checked herself in to a Veterans Affairs hospital in White River Junction.
At the hospital, patients could follow a program for substance use disorder, for mood management or for trauma.
Nance planned to join the substance use program, but felt it didn’t address why she drank in the first place.
So she went into the trauma program.
“I came out feeling much better,” Nance said. “And I still do. Obviously I slip, but as somebody reminded me, everybody has days, or moments, when they … don’t feel good about themselves, or whatever.
“It’s just what you do with those.”
Nance first picked up a drink waitressing in a college bar in Columbus, Ohio. She was 18.
“They let us drink, as long as we didn’t get drunk at work.”
She joined the armed forces in February 1989.
“I wanted to get the hell out of my hometown,” she said. “And I couldn’t afford college, at that point.”
Her sisters were in the army. Her brother was in the navy.
“So I joined the navy to make it even,” she said.
Nance said she didn’t drink any more in the navy than she did as a civilian. That hadn’t really started yet.
Instead, she developed anorexia after a traumatic relationship, and then bulimia, a condition that follows extreme overeating with self-induced vomiting, purging or fasting. Not to mention depression.
Nance remembers eating an apple pie out of the trash at the height of that sickness. Dusting cigarette ashes from it “because I wasn’t done yet.”
“I guess it’s kind of like when you smoke, and you’re digging all over the place for a butt,” she said.
In the navy, Nance worked in data processing, a field she said was “overloaded with women.”
Administrators downsized, and asked for volunteers to get out. Nance volunteered.
She moved on to database marketing analysis for a casino.
“And we did lots of drinking.”
At first, Nance said, it wasn’t every night. But it became every night. Beer. Nance was going to a different convenience store each night to mask how much, how often, she drank.
What she wanted was to go back to school. She wanted to teach social studies. And in calculating what that would cost, she calculated how much she regularly spent on cigarettes and beer.
“That was shocking.”
So she quit, cold, in January 2003.
Nance did go back to school, the University of Southern Mississippi, and she did get her social studies teaching licensure. Hurricane Katrina disrupted her student teaching.
Around the same time, she took a vacation to Burlington.
She remembered seeing a map of the U.S. over her former boss’s shoulder in his office at the casino. New England stuck out. Nance realized she’d never been to New England and decided to go.
She arrived in Burlington, hit U.S. Route 2, drove through New Hampshire and followed a loop around Maine.
Afterwards, flying out of Burlington, Nance decided to move to Vermont.
Nance moved here in April 2007, the first week of April — right in the thick of a snowstorm.
“Of course, I wasn’t prepared,” she said. “I think I had a leather coat on.”
She moved to an apartment in Burlington, sight unseen.
Nance still wanted to teach social studies. But the recession postponed expected teacher retirements, and she needed a job.
She took a job with Gannett Publishing, and started looking for houses.
Nance looked in St. Albans, but said homes here were just above her price range. So then she looked in Swanton.
“I just liked it there,” she said.
Nance bought a home in Swanton, and commuted to Burlington for about a year. When the weather was nice, it provided an easy way to transition into and out of the work day. When the weather wasn’t, well, we know how that feels.
She got sick of that.
Nance had let her teaching license lapse in Vermont. She wasn’t sure what to do next.
She saw a career counselor, completed the accompanying homework, surveys and “deep thinking,” Nance said, and came out with a list of wants, needs and desires.
Her career counselor noticed something.
“She’s like, ‘You know what’s not on your list, in wants or needs? … Working with children.’”
Instead, the list suggested Nance liked solving transportation issues. Community development interested her.
So she took online courses through Green Mountain College. Nance said she was “a thesis away” from her master’s degree in sustainable and resilient communities.
That’s when she applied to become Swanton’s first economic development coordinator.
Nance talks about her work with excitement. She was eager to discuss the community turnout at this year’s chili cookoff, which preceded a joint village and town board meeting informing voters about Town Meeting Day. Roughly 40 people attended that meeting, about 34 more than usual.
Or the second annual community yard sale, which drew nearly 30 yard-sellers and a streams of buyers across Swanton this past May.
Nance organized both events.
“Those are not small things,” Nance said. “Because they bring the people downtown.”
She pointed to Vermont’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
“There’s a reason it’s ‘Commerce and Community Development,’” Nance said. “You can’t have one without the other. It goes both ways.”
Sitting in the window of a North Main Street café in St. Albans, Nance gushed about the philosophy of rural community development, and said it’s like composing a picture: it starts centrally, with details added to the fringes and around that central image.
“Younger people want to live where they can walk or bike,” she said. “So that’s where we’re concentrating.
“The goal is to make Swanton a place where people want to work, want to live and have things to do.”
The way she engages in conversation, her visible joy in describing Swanton’s character and developmental possibilities, seem to render the idea of Nance’s struggles improbable, inconceivable.
But that’s the nature of emotional health.
“I think it’s more common than people realize,” Nance said. During her six weeks hospitalized, “I can’t tell you how many people rotated in and out. And that’s just military.”
Emotional health is no different than community health. It’s about connection.
Depressed people “feel isolated,” Nance said. “Well, part of it is they isolate themselves.
“And I thought I liked being isolated. I go home and, you know, I’m happy at home.
“But it’s a form of… not having to interact with people. Or not feeling like you can interact with people. So you just go home, instead of putting yourself out there, because that’s where you’re comfortable.”
That comfort didn’t protect Nance from alcoholism.
She said she was a “functional alcoholic,” that she knew she needed to be able to work in the morning, hangover be damned, that she only drank at home.
Plenty of times, she’d wake up without remembering going to bed. Plenty of times, she said, she’d buy a 750 mL bottle of vodka and wake to find an inch left.
Nance hadn’t drank in two months when she sat down to talk with the Messenger.
“The downside is I’ve replaced it,” she said. She pulled her sweater below her wrist, revealing a bracelet of cuts.
“It’s the weirdest thing,” Nance mused, turning her wrist around. “That it’s a compulsion.”
She started cutting while drunk.
“It hurts,” she said, “both during and for some period after. And I can control that pain.”
That’s the key word, underlying each of Nance’s forms of self-harm: control.
“Control for me is a big thing,” she acknowledged.
Trauma creates a sense of helplessness. It’s a shock a person couldn’t anticipate, and as such, couldn’t resist.
Self-harm, on the other hand, is a way to control physical trauma. To control pain in a way a person might not feel they can otherwise.
“You get tired of fighting it,” Nance said. “… It would be easier not to have to fight it all the time.”
Which is the point Nance reached before hospitalizing herself. She considered sitting in her garage with her car running, or fatally cutting her wrists, to end her life.
She remembers seeing a patient who had tried the latter in the hospital, the depth of the scar.
“How she survived, I don’t … I don’t know. I said, ‘I don’t know that I could have done that.’
“But it helps when you’re drunk. A lot.”
And loving her work is helping Nance now. She’s phased back into working full-time, and said she’s keeping busier than ever — for example, simultaneously working on three grants for Swanton, scoping studies to improve the Merchants Row parking and pedestrian safety on Maquam Shore Road and a construction and design grant for a sidewalk to Missisquoi Valley Union.
Molly Lambert, who, with her husband Hank, proposed the economic development coordinator position to the town selectboard in 2015, has nothing but praise for Nance. The Vermont Council on Rural Development gave the Lamberts the council’s lifetime achievement award in 2018, and Lambert herself was the first woman to head Vermont’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
She called Nance a “rare combination of talent, vision and passion,” and said Nance has “already made a difference in such a short amount of time.
“I know from my experience in community and economic development that to achieve success in this arena takes years, not months.”
While those paying attention might notice Nance’s work, she said few people know about her personal struggles. But not because she’s ashamed.
“I’ll tell anybody,” she said. “I won’t shout it … but if somebody asks, I’ll tell them, because this is part of who I am.
“I think being open, and letting people ask or not ask whatever they want, hopefully it puts somebody else at ease. … I think a lot of times, people don’t know what to ask, or they don’t know what to say, if they’ve never dealt with it.
“We’re all the same, but unique, because we have different experiences … so the reasons I might do what I do is different than the reasons other people might.”
Nance was clear about her reason for reaching out to the Messenger.
“This is going to sound kind of trite, or cliché,” she said, “but… my goal is to maybe resonate with somebody. Who kind of feels like they’re alone.”