I recently had the privilege of meeting an unusually resilient man named Matt.* He has lived through extreme illness, abuse and hardship, yet remains upbeat, generous and hopeful. As I listened to him recount the tragic details of his life, I often had to fight back tears. But surprisingly, by the end of our conversation, I felt encouraged.
Matt never remembers a time when he was totally healthy. As a toddler he was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that caused him to contract one life-threatening infection after another. He suffered from the effects of this disease throughout his childhood.
Matt’s parents divorced when he was very young. He and his mother left their home in New Jersey when she took a job transfer. When Matt was 9, his mother, then 42, met and married a man who was just 18 years old. Matt’s new stepfather had drug and alcohol problems and was physically, verbally and sexually abusive to him; he even tried to kill him twice.
Matt’s only happy childhood memories are of summers spent back home in New Jersey with his father. The two swam, walked the boardwalk, and just enjoyed being together. At the end of every visit his dad tried to convince him to stay permanently, but his mother said she’d kill herself if he didn’t come back. She was an alcoholic with a long history of mental illness and Matt believed she’d follow through with her threats. So he always went back.
When Matt was 12, he was hit by a car while crossing the street. He had no heartbeat when he arrived at the hospital. He was revived, and spent 7 days in the ICU. Because he had suffered a severe brain injury, pain medication was ruled out as being too risky, so his recovery period was excruciating. The damage to his brain has impaired his short-term memory ever since.
The blood disorder that plagued Matt’s childhood mysteriously cleared up when he was 13. But just when life should have been getting better, he began hearing voices telling him to hurt himself. Sometimes he did what they said—like putting his hand in a fan. At other times he was able to resist. Afraid to tell anyone about the voices, he kept this new affliction to himself.
After high school Matt worked a wide variety of jobs; his favorite was baking. At the age of 30, while working as a linen clerk in a hospital, he suffered his first mental breakdown. Upon confiding to his boss that he was hearing voices telling him to hurt his coworkers, he was hospitalized for 4 weeks. It was then that he received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. At last he had an explanation for the voices he’d been hearing for the previous 17 years.
Matt’s been hospitalized about 20 times since then: each time because the voices got too loud to ignore. He hasn’t been able to work since that first breakdown and he desperately misses having a job. He’s been on many medications and experienced a wide range of unpleasant side effects. Before finding the medication that he credits with getting his paranoia under control, he spent extended stretches of time completely alone in his apartment—sometimes for as long as six months. During those times, a friend brought groceries to his door but Matt was too afraid to let him come inside. Matt still has attacks of paranoia, but they don’t come as often as they used to and they are much less intense. And he’s learned how to handle them; when they occur, he goes home, takes his anti-paranoia medication and rests until the feelings pass.
Matt is 53 now. It’s been three years since his last hospital stay. He’s been proactive about finding medications that work for him. When he heard a friend say how well his anti-psychotic medication was working, Matt asked his doctor if he could try it, too. His doctor agreed, and the results were amazing—the voices had finally been silenced! Matt’s excitement was uncontainable, he says, “It was like The Star Spangled Banner went off; like I saw fireworks and everything!” He also takes an anti-depressant. Now, with a balance of medications that work well for him, he says life is better than it has ever been before.
Matt remained very close to his father over the years. Sadly, his father died recently and Matt is feeling the loss deeply. To work through his sadness, he’s receiving help at a local mental health center. His days there are spent learning how his brain works and how schizophrenia works. He’s also learning how to avoid dwelling on the past, how to value today and how to look forward to the future. With his new skills, Matt says he’s working on forgiving the past.
Even though he still hurts because of the things his stepfather did to him—essentially robbing him of ten years of his young life—Matt says he’s made the choice to forgive him, too. He knows the man was influenced by his addictions and he knows forgiveness is the right thing to do. He quotes Jesus’s words as he hung on the cross: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” He adds, “I try to keep the same perspective, and say, ‘Father, forgive [my stepfather] because he didn’t know what he was doing because of drugs and alcohol.’”
When Matt finishes his outpatient program, he’ll begin a volunteer job at a non-profit thrift store. He hopes to establish a solid work history there, so he can later pursue a paid position elsewhere. His dream is to be a baker again, perhaps in a grocery store.
Matt firmly believes that his life has a purpose: helping people. He does this by sharing his faith and offering practical assistance. He especially likes reaching out to the homeless. He inherited his father’s car and puts it to good use by taking people where they need to go. Matt chooses to live his life by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Matt says he doesn’t blame God for any of the bad things that have happened to him; he plans to use what he’s gained from his struggles to help others. His ultimate goal is to travel to hospitals, delivering a message of hope to patients on psychiatric wards. He wants to tell them he’s been where they are, that he found his way through the darkness, and that there really is a light at the end of the tunnel.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
Photo via Pixabay