Faces of Pittsburgh

One Woman’s Struggle to Make a Difference


1974: Kathy Stierheim and her newlywed husband were driving home when a tractor-trailer, without its lights on, hit them head on.  Kathy’s head hit the window, leaving her with extensive memory loss, a mangled arm, and two broken legs.

Fast-forward four years.

It’s 11 a.m., 1978.  A prisoner in her own home, she takes another swig of the vodka she keeps by her bedside, the same drink that has kept her there for so many days. 

After a few hours, she wakes up, gets dressed, and makes her way to a meeting, an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting.  She had no idea that the mid-morning shot of vodka would be her last.  She decided that same day that her life was not going to be all about her.

Kathy Stierheim is a recovering alcoholic, and has been for 33 years. 

Looking back, Kathy says the accident was the catalyst for her change of direction.

“After the accident, that was when I started drinking.  My husband, he was a doll, a very kind person.  But after a couple years, if you’re in the throes of alcoholism it’s not going to be the alcohol that goes,” Kathy explained.  “That was probably the biggest regret of my life.”

After four years of alcoholism, she finally went to an AA meeting.

“My life kind of revolved around me, I wasn’t real selfish, but I was selfish enough.  I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to die and I haven’t done anything.’  I was embarrassed that it was all about me.  I was afraid that I was going to die and not be a very big part of people’s lives, ” she remembered.

A Pittsburgh AA representative said, “It’s usually up to an individual when they want to quit.  The road to recovery is not absolute.  It’s different for everyone.” 

Kathy met her second husband, Herb, in AA.  Despite wanting kids, they both decided it was better if they did not.

“We didn’t have kids because we said, with both of us being alcoholic, ‘That baby would come out with a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other, and probably a pair of dice.’  When you have two drunks, chances are the kids are going to be drunks,” she lamented.

Six months after their wedding, Herb underwent triple bypass surgery.  A few years later he was diagnosed with bone cancer.  Shortly thereafter, doctors found a tumor underneath his scapula. 

“The nurses always joked with me that Herb had nine lives.  That’s why I never worried because he was a fighter,” Kathy said.  

In 2002, Herb suffered a stroke that affected the brain and led to dementia. 

“I had him here for 24 hours a day.  I was a real mess, because it was 24 hours of him following me around the house asking me questions.  Every moment was new to him,” she said.

After four years of fighting, Herb died in 2006, leaving Kathy with a depression she thought would never end or make it through.

“I remember walking into the hospital room, and he would always look at me and smile, but he didn’t.  He just lay there, and I let out the loudest scream,” Kathy recalled.

Kathy explained that when Herb died, her friends lost touch with her.

“When he died, nobody called me,” she said.  “I felt like a leper.”

Two years later, in 2008, Kathy’s mom died of a heart attack. Kathy says she was on a downward spiral and there was no way to get out of it.

“I told the psychiatrist that I was going to get in my car, hook up the tube to the exhaust and die because I just didn’t want to live anymore.”

Kathy was later diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  The National Center for PTSD states, “different people appear to have different trauma thresholds, some more protected from and some more vulnerable to developing clinical symptoms after exposure to extremely stressful situations.”

Dr. Judith Cohen, the medical director at the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents at Allegheny General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Drexel University College of Medicine, mentioned that “people can relate a PTSD diagnosis to seeing or hearing about death.  It deals with traumatic grief.” 

Doing things for other people, Kathy said, was the only thing that made her feel good.

“There was a lot of sadness, but also a lot of not being into myself.  It’s more important to me, for my soul, to do things for other people.  I feel human again.  I’m not that leper anymore,” she said.

In 2009, Kathy brought into her home a young man, Gary, and his girlfriend who she met at an AA meeting.

“I saw him at a meeting and he had a duffle bag with him.  I couldn’t figure out why,” she explained.  “Here he had been living outside.  He had a notebook of all the ‘Thank Yous’ for if he passed.  I told him I had a room, and I let them stay for a year and a half.” 

In addition to giving a helping hand to Gary, just this year, Kathy wrote a letter to the owner of Giant Eagle, where she is currently employed, requesting that her fellow co-worker be positioned in the Bakery.

“We have a woman in charge who went through this young gal’s bag and accused her of stealing cookies that she made.  She sold them to make extra money to support her three kids, but she made them.  So I wrote a letter to the owner and told him.  Now she’s full-time in the bakery,” Kathy said.  “I’m a fighter for people.  I cannot handle people being hurt by someone.” 

Kathy has worked through memory loss, fought alcoholism, grieved loved ones and friends, and has still managed to make a difference in numerous lives.  She has been granted her one wish, to be a big part of a person’s life.

“I remember a psychologist talking on the radio once.  He said, ‘The time is going to pass anyway, so you might as well make it useful,’ and I’ve been trying to ever since.” 

For more information about Alcoholics Anonymous, please visit www.aa.org.

Friedman, M. J.  (January 31, 2007).  A brief history of the PTSD diagnosis.  Retrieved March 30, 2011, from National Center for PTSD: Official
     Website: http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/pages/ptsd-overview.asp