During my waking life I’ve always been tormented by noise—voices in my brain that turned terror into self-hatred.
For as long as I can remember I have had the same nightmare. My brother and I are in a prison buried deep beneath a mountain. The guards beat us. A fire breaks out. The guards flee, leaving us locked up. My dad is trying to get to us but he can’t. Just as the flames reach our cell, I wake up. I would stare into the dark and try to see something real to focus on—something to erase the images in my mind. Mom said that I’d often scream for quite some time before she could wake me up. Apparently, the unconscious drama had to play out to a certain point before I was allowed to escape death by fire.
During my waking life I’ve always been tormented by noise—voices in my brain that turned terror into self-hatred. The sensation in my body is bone grinding on bone. Tracing the origin of the noise is like trying to unravel the mysteries of the Big Bang. I am sure my parents’ utter commitment to justice, combined with my fragile nature, planted a seed that sprouted and flourished as my size (I was already six feet tall in the sixth grade) made me a freak. It became a cancer that grabbed my soul with its dark tentacles.
Despite being a swimmer of great promise, as a teenager I’d gorge myself on Oreos and banana bread until my stomach was distended, then look into the bathroom mirror with an overwhelming urge to smash my blond-haired, blue-eyed image. I discovered some small respite by going out for my daily 10-mile run through the hills that surrounded our house. I was always alone. I liked to run the same paths to reduce the mental energy required to figure out where I was going. The physical pain of running up those hills was what I sought. At the top, I could swear at the top of my lungs and no one could hear me. The payoff was the dead, dreamless sleep I craved. The noise stopped at least until the next morning, when I’d have to figure out a new way to obliterate my senses.
From age 17 to 27 I was in a blackout. I experienced moments of freedom rowing boats in college, crushing opponents in our wake, but the main focus was all-out drinking; it required less effort than my physical trips to the other side. I flipped a car on the Massachusetts Turnpike, threw a couch out a high rise UCLA dormitory, got kicked out of Tuck Business School before attending my first class for lying on my application, put holes in any number of walls in frustration over relationships with random women—and still woke in the middle of the night in the prison of my own making.
After college, when I was living in Central Square in Cambridge, I called my dad at one in the morning. I needed to tell him something important, that my body had succumbed to my repeated abuse by waving the white flag of a mysterious chronic fatigue syndrome. I had woken in panic but knew Dad would be up. I needed to tell him how much I loved him because I was sure I was about to die.
After regaining my strength, I found heroin of a non-pharmaceutical sort. I discovered that I had an aptitude with numbers. I also began to see that in business, most people are afraid to lose—they run from risk. But since I was going to die, losing didn’t matter. Losing at business was much less scary than flipping a car. I took huge personal risks with my professional career. If I won, I won. If I lost, I’d just roll the dice until something worked. The result of this suicidal fearlessness, combined with a mathematical gift for which I take no credit, was more power and money than I could handle. By 29, I was the chief financial officer of a major media company whose assets included television stations and cable television networks as well as a daily newspaper.
My outside success only served to heighten my interior agony. One Saturday morning, just days after being on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, I found myself in a church parking lot. My wife had kicked me out of the house and told me in no uncertain terms that I shouldn’t expect to ever see my 2-year-old daughter Grace or infant son Seamus again.
I called my mom and then drove to Dorchester to sleep on my brother’s couch that night. He came down to check on me every hour or so to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid.
That’s when I remembered just how much I had always wanted to be a dad. I had seen how beautiful my daughter was when she was born and how I’d drank Budweiser in the hospital room to numb her out. My son had been a miracle of equal proportion. He’d been born on a Sunday afternoon and I’d gone back to work the next morning—only to show up at his christening green with alcohol poisoning, having spent the previous night booting my guts out.
I wasn’t given the privilege of spending Christmas with my children that year. Instead, I bought my nephew a big red fire truck with a cool extension ladder to try to make up for the emptiness I felt. But it only worked for an hour or two; soon I was in New York City getting drunk. The next morning I stared with a very different kind of desperation beyond the skyline at the faint blue winter sky. As I tried to scrape the cigar smoke off my tongue and wash the cigarette smell out of my hair, it finally came to me that a good man seeks the truth about himself rather than covering up one lie with another one.
I sneaked into my first AA meeting in downtown Providence. The guy at the front of the room told a story remarkably like my own. I heard enough to convince me that addiction was at least part of my problem. I spent a year in a weekly-lease apartment overlooking Route 95 and going to meetings every day.
A year later, I got a permanent apartment in Boston and took the first shaky steps toward actually learning how to be a dad. I fed Seamus, just over a year old, a bottle in my darkened bedroom. The world stopped as I listened to the sound of my boy suckling in my arms, spent time in Mommy and Me classes, and logged countless hours at the local playgrounds. Over the course of the next six years I learned how to care for my children, even though I realized they would always live with their mom.
I met Elena, who met my superficial criterion—beautiful, smart, and warm—but there was one thing that mattered way more than any of that, the thing that had kept me from remarrying: I trusted her with my heart from the start. She had lost a husband and I sensed both a non-verbal understanding of my hardships and an inner calm that set me at ease. Equally important, though, Elena was the first woman I trusted with Grace and Seamus. Soon, Cole was born and he sealed our family unit. Grace and Seamus fell in love with their little brother and he worshiped them in return.
A decade after my crash, I had learned how to be a good dad and loving husband—yet some part of my manhood was still missing. I’d still wake up in a cold sweat. Elena complained that more than once I delivered a sharp elbow to her forehead in bed at night, thrown as I fought some imaginary enemy in my sleep.
The dreams began to re-invade my waking hours, too. Elena and I built a house on a peninsula in Westport, Massachusetts. On a beautiful summer day three years ago, the three kids, plus their cousins and neighborhood friends, were playing happily in the yard, running back and forth through the field that separated our house from a white-sand beach. But I couldn’t get out of bed. I pulled the blinds to block the sun—the beauty outside the window was too much.
A visit to Sing Sing in 2009 filled in the last gap. I had spoken at several prisons before, but this time was different. I got there early and found my way to the visitors’ parking lot on top of the ridge. I watched the sun rise over the Hudson River as a heavy mist covered big chunks of blue water. I looked past the guard towers and directly into the prison, and shot a short video of myself. I looked not like an author at the first stop on his book tour, which I was, but a man still haunted by his demons.
I walked down hall after cement hall and was buzzed through locked gate after locked gate until I finally entered a room in the bowels of the prison, where 13 men waited for me. As I sat down, one touched my shoulder as he offered me a cup of coffee.
“We’re so glad you are here,” he said.
My fear melted in that one human touch. The inmates went around the room and introduced themselves: The minimum time served in the room was 16 years—the longest, 32.
I told my story, including the part about talking to my mom in that church parking lot. My hands had been shaking uncontrollably, I told the men, as I tried to explain to her how I had gone from wunderkind to homeless in a matter of hours. When I was done, I asked each man to describe a moment that defined his manhood.
An older African-American man explained that inside, when your parent is dying, you have to choose whether to go to the deathbed or the funeral—you cannot do both—and when you go, you are shackled and escorted by four armed guards. When his mom was dying, he wanted to see her alive to say goodbye. As he shuffled down the hall of the hospital, the nurses pleaded with the guards to remove the shackles. They would not. “The nurses wrapped a towel around my wrist,” he explained, his eyes trained on me and forming tears. “I couldn’t even hug her goodbye,” he whispered as his body began to shake with sobs.
Tears rolled down my cheeks in recognition. I was in my nightmare now. But there was no fire. I was no longer afraid. The noise that had plagued me all my life was gone. Looking into the eyes of a man who’d been dressed in the same green jumpsuit for the last two decades and would probably never know the feeling of a worn pair of jeans again, all I could hear was music—the sound of one man’s heart breaking for another’s. Before leaving, I hugged the men to thank them for showing me that I didn’t have to be afraid of the dark.
The digital clock read 4:47 when I woke up this morning. Four-year-old Cole was nestled in his mom’s arms. My arms wrapped around her in a three-way spoon. My little boy laughed in his sleep. I wondered what storyline in his unconscious could possibly cause him to make a sound so sweet—and how I could have lived without such grace for 45 years. I wondered whether my struggles might serve as a beacon to my Cole and Seamus of how easy it is to be distracted by false gods when looking for goodness in one’s own maleness.
Then Cole laughed in his sleep again. A street lamp provided just enough light for me to make out his blond hair and angelic face squeezed into a joyful contortion. And in that moment it wasn’t one man’s heart breaking for another’s. But one man’s heart simply beating for another’s. My son’s.
♦ ♦ ♦
Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want a free copy of the book? Become a Premium Member, here.