Matt makes me think of life’s unfairness, and the stories we like to hear about how people overcome it. Some people scrabble from hardship to emerge as high-profile success stories. They grasp onto their dreams and push their way out of the muck, with tears along the way. They arrive on mountaintops, finally admired, inspiring others with what they’ve overcome. These are the stories that get made into movies. The ones for which people are always hungry.
Then there are stories, like Matt’s, whose triumphs remain secret to most.
Matt is confined to a wheelchair. His hair is neatly combed, his eyes, behind glasses, a clear, light blue. His speech slurs, his neck bends towards his chest, so he has to turn his head carefully to focus on the listener. It looks like it hurts to get the words out.
He has wrestled demons, and doesn’t know where they come from – or if they travel by a different name – genetics, environmental poisoning, personality. He’s still searching for healing.
That search, and the One to whom it’s directed, are reasons enough to shout Matt’s journey from the mountaintops – however halting, however incomplete, however gradual it may be. His continued hope that he will feel better, the push of his mind toward wholeness, is his gift. This gift comes the way breath flows through the body, the way a heart beats without anyone being able to make it stop or start. Some days, you can argue with this gift, or try to ignore it. But it keeps coming back. You can’t measure its value. That’s why, however bleak things look on the outside, something in me quickens when Matt talks about what he wants most.
He was always a person of faith, he says, baptized and confirmed in the Catholic church, and influenced by a close uncle.
Still, his experience has been riddled with mental illness and depression – topped off with a brain injury of unknown origin, but that he suspects is due to “lithium poisoning” from medication he was taking.
At age 18, he suffered his first “mini” mental breakdown, after spending two semesters at Brooklyn Polytechnic, where he planned to major in aerospace engineering.
“I was trying so hard in school and I was not getting the results I wanted and it really got to me. I wanted to be an engineer and I wanted to do well in school.”
Now, he sees there were so many other kinds of person he could have been.
“I wish someone had said to me, or it had occurred to me, ‘if engineering is too difficult, you can go into engineering technology instead, or accounting.’” But at the time, such aspirations felt inadequate.
He was taken with Ron McNair, who held a PhD in aeronautics at MIT and, tragically, was a victim in the Challenger space mission that led to the explosion of a rocket and the deaths of astronauts and civilians.
Matt transferred from college in Brooklyn to a prep school in Maine. One week into the second semester there, he had a full-blown breakdown and had to be hospitalized at the Augusta Mental Health Institute, and then later at McLean Hospital in Belmont.
He decided not to go back to school, and instead stayed in the Boston area and got a job working in the stock room of a department store. He lived with his great aunt and uncle.
He struggled deeply with depression. “When I was working, I used to think of how I would go to a motel room and get drunk and OD on pills. Then, I seemed to come out of the depression.”
In 1991, he read a book that changed his life – Fallen Angel by Barry Mason and Tony Marco. It was about a Hell’s Angel who “had a sad past, and found the Lord, or the Lord found him.”
“What I had in common with this guy Barry Mason was that he had a real rough past and I’ve been very abusive toward people in my lifetime, similar to Mason,” Matt said.
The story spoke to him of something that he needed. He began looking at his own life – seeking deliverance from a “spirit of hate” and from inability to forgive others for hurting him.
“Probably the root of all of it is fear,” he said.
Even in this quest, Matt was unsure. When he sought prayer, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to rid himself fully of sin, and that as a result, the demons wouldn’t leave. I, too, have felt similar doubts about my inability to fully surrender to God. It’s a paralyzing thought, full of despair and fog. It takes you outside of your body and brain, to an abandoned place where nothing belongs.
Matt’s wheelchair-bound body doesn’t scare me. Rather, it’s his mind and the places I imagine he has gone in it, or the places I imagine he can’t go. He’s aware of rage, of brain damage from a cause he doesn’t fully understand, and of the fear of troubles returning after they leave. Yet that isn’t his whole story. I can tell, because he hasn’t given up seeking prayer for healing. There is a part of him that believes, unabashedly, that something good will happen.
Is this true for you? Or could it be? If you lost what Matt has lost, would you believe in miracles, too?
Rev. Michelle Terwilleger Associate Rector, St Peter & St Paul’s Anglican Church in Ottawa