Crash and Learn

Like so many addicts, Tom Matlack had to hit bottom—really, really hard—before he turned his life around.

I woke to the sound of metal scraping against pavement. Sparks brightened that otherwise gray winter day in 1991. I was hanging upside down inside my girlfriend’s baby-blue Ford Escort, suspended by a seat belt as the car hurtled at 60 miles per hour along the westernmost section of the Massachusetts Turnpike.

I was 26 at the time. I had been in New York City with my girlfriend the night before, taking a break from my grad studies at Yale and drinking until dawn. While she took a train home to Albany, I had gone to class in New Haven, still drunk, and then set out for Albany myself. On the 30-mile stretch of the Mass. Pike between Exit 3 in Westfield and Exit 2 in Lee, you see nothing but pine trees and the occasional white-tailed deer. Somewhere along that span I drifted into a peaceful sleep.

I remained calm as the car slid along on its roof. There was nothing to do but wait and see what would happen next. The sensation was familiar. I had long been a human missile with no guidance system. One summer evening, just for fun, I’d lifted a love seat over my head and tossed it out of an eighth-floor window of a UCLA dormitory; one New Year’s Eve, just before midnight, I was thrown through the plate glass window of a midtown Manhattan restaurant, to the horror of the foursome whose dinner I landed on; I’d been accepted at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and then was thrown out—before attending my first class—for lying on my application; and I had developed a habit of blacking out from drinking.

I felt a searing pain as the roof of the car, slamming against the turnpike an inch from my head, crimped around a clump of my hair and yanked it from my scalp. The seat belt dug into my chest, drawing blood that stained my shirt. At last, the car stopped, leaving a wake of scrapes in the pavement. I unbuckled, fell on my head, and screamed, “Fuck!” After forcing the door open with my shoulder, I sprinted away from the car, afraid the gas tank was going to blow.

We have a remarkable ability to respond instinctively to life-threatening danger. The problem comes after that initial, instinctive response: the body shuts down. A state policeman found me shaking violently on the side of the highway. I still can’t remember what happened after I got out of the car. I could have been standing on the side of the highway for 30 seconds or 30 minutes.

“Son, you’re one lucky son of a bitch!” the trooper screamed while shaking his head in disgust. “I’ve seen plenty of Escorts flip, but I’ve never seen anyone survive. I don’t like having to pull dead bodies out of wrecks, so how about being more careful?”

His words didn’t register. I had beaten death again.

♦♦♦

In my budding business career, as the stakes grew bigger, I brought the same sense of invincibility and calm that I had felt hurtling along upside down in the Escort. At 29, I became chief financial officer of the Providence Journal Company, a huge and fiercely private media conglomerate. The company’s other executives, most of them twice my age, thought I should be getting them cups of coffee. I spoke only when spoken to. I sat attentively with my boss, the chairman of the board, as he drank scotch and smoked cigars, rarely saying a word except to nod my head in agreement.

And yet, once I had become his most trusted adviser, I needed just 90 days to take the oldest newspaper company in the country public and then negotiate the sale of the business in an Atlanta hotel room for billions to a bunch of cowboys from Dallas. The chairman had initiated the contact but never thought I could negotiate such a good price. When I did, he had no choice but to proceed, despite the firestorm it would cause among shareholders, employees, and the community. I stood to make several million dollars and be credited with pulling off the impossible.

My calculus at work had been flawless. After the sale, I appeared on the cover of The Wall Street Journal, a blond-haired wunderkind. What I had failed to calculate were the risks I was taking at home and how much I had to lose. I had two baby children, and I was about to learn how precarious my relationship with them really was. It was as if the car crash had put the emotional part of me into suspended animation. I was fearless in my professional life but unable to feel anything in my personal life.

♦♦♦

Christmas that year was agonizing. My soon-to-be ex-wife had kicked me out of the house for good. My 9-month-old son, Seamus, and 2-year-old daughter, Kerry, went to Albany with their mom. I was not invited. I packed a huge red fire engine in my company car, got on I-95, and drove to my parents’ house in Washington, D.C. On Christmas morning, I gave my brother’s oldest son the fire truck and tried to soak up his enthusiasm. It didn’t work. All I could think about was my own children waking up without me, on Seamus’ first Christmas. My brother and sister and parents all were understanding and overly friendly, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how I would never have the chance to live with my kids.

The next day, on my way back to Providence, I stopped in Manhattan to smoke cigars with some college buddies. I had been trying to stop drinking without much success. That night my friends and I ended up in a SoHo restaurant with a mirrored bar that let all the beautiful people enjoy good views of themselves. It wasn’t my worst night of drinking—I didn’t flip any cars or fly through any plate glass windows—but I was rude and more than a little lecherous.

I woke up the following day with a pounding headache, the smell of cigarettes in my hair, and the taste of cigars on my tongue. I spent the morning contemplating how I could kill myself quickly and painlessly. But later in the day, as I drove back to Providence, I convinced myself that neither Seamus nor Kerry deserved the shitty father I had been. They certainly didn’t deserve a dead father who didn’t have the guts to face his demons.

That was the last time I had a drink, but sobering up was just the start. I had to learn how to take care of my two babies by myself. When their mother moved back to Boston, I knew I had to follow. But I had trouble finding a place that felt right to me, because moving out of my week-to-week hovel in Providence would mean that this was to be a permanent condition: I really wasn’t going to live with my kids.

♦♦♦

I eventually found a penthouse on the corner of Commonwealth and Massachusetts avenues, a killer bachelor pad to be sure, but not the dream I had in mind, so it took quite a while for me to settle in. The bathroom had a skylight over the tub, and often, when I couldn’t sleep, I would take a bath and gaze up at the stars. The apartment faced east, toward the city core. From the seventh-floor bay window the views of Boston’s brownstones and parks looked positively European. Each morning I meditated in the bay window until the sun hit the State House’s gold dome in the distance and eventually made its way to warm my face. This perch became my monastery.

My ex-wife and I agreed that the kids would come to my apartment every Friday night. I put bunk beds and a matching wooden toy chest in what would become their room. Each week I’d pick up Seamus and Kerry, and all their gear, and drive around my city neighborhood looking for a parking spot. The kids were usually grumpy and hungry by the time I finally parked the car and loaded them into their double stroller. I’d put their bags on top and start pushing. I was driven by adrenaline, trying to make this all OK for them.

By the time I had reached my building, unloaded the kids, and got them through the door and into the lobby, I would feel as though I had climbed Mount Everest. I’d tell Kerry to hold Seamus’ hand, and then I would go back outside, collapse the stroller, and lug it up the stairs and into the lobby before corralling the kids into the elevator. From the elevator, the kids would run ahead down the hall. I’d catch them just in time to open the door to my apartment and lead them up a final flight of stairs inside. Then it was time for me to make dinner.

The first night I had the kids on my own I gave the them baths, slipped them into matching footie pajamas, tucked Kerry into her bunk, and then warmed a bottle for Seamus. In my bedroom, I turned off the lights and rocked him gently while he drank. I inhaled deeply. It was the scent of my son that changed everything—his scent and the sound of him suckling his bottle, the softness of his skin and the sensation of holding him as his body gradually went limp with sleep. I looked down and realized that this—being a father—was my deepest satisfaction. Chasing Kerry around the house at 5 the next morning, catching her, and tickling her as she screamed with joy confirmed it.

♦♦♦

In the days that followed my kids’ first overnight visit, I realized just how much work I had to do as a dad. I feared I would never be a decent parent no matter how hard I tried. When they were at my apartment, my childhood fear of heights returned. I often had nightmares of the kids falling out the bay window. Kerry didn’t help matters. Even at age three, she loved to taunt me by standing on the ledge inside that window with her nose pressed against the glass, looking out at the city and giggling at my discomfort. To set my mind at ease, I nailed two-by-fours across the bottom of the window.

I didn’t want to see my kids just on weekends. During the week I took them to a playgroup in one of the buildings on Newbury Street. I sat in a circle with the moms and their kids, singing, wrestling, and generally acting goofy. As I rolled around on the floor, the moms didn’t know what to make of me. But they gradually accepted me, and I got to be with my kids. On Saturdays, I took them to the top of the Prudential building, only a few blocks from my apartment. The carpeted floors and large, soft furniture were ideal for some safe roughhousing, and the observation deck was a large square track, where the kids could wear themselves out by running around and around. There were rainy days when we couldn’t see a damn thing, but we still went up there, just to have something to do together.

Care objects were very important to the kids as their little minds tried to manage all the moving around. Kerry had a blanket she slept with every night. Seamus became attached to a stuffed Pal dog from the PBS show Arthur. Pal took on identifying textures and wear marks as he was beaten, barfed on, and laundered. He was one of a kind and not replaceable. I became obsessed with knowing where Pal and “Blankie” were at all times. At the time, I kept a bag full of the kids’ things in my room and doled out clothes and toys like gold bullion. As the end of each visit approached, I turned the apartment upside down with drill-sergeant precision to insure all the kids’ stuff was accounted for.

Then, one day, Pal disappeared. I scoured under beds and behind furniture. The apartment wasn’t that big, so coming up dry convinced me that the crisis was indeed serious. After several nights of listening to my tearful son on the phone bemoaning the loss of Pal, I slunk over to FAO Schwarz and purchased another.

I brought the replacement Pal to my office. I tried to duplicate, in a single day, years’ worth of wear marks. I took a baseball bat to the pristine doggie, and then I threw the six-inch-thick Handbook of Fixed Income Securities at him. My partners in our venture firm couldn’t figure out what was going on. My door was shut and I didn’t respond to any calls or emails all day. On the walk home, I took the now-limp dog and rolled him in sidewalk sand. When I got to my condo, I threw him in the washing machine for an extra-heavy spin cycle.

That night I stood apprehensively at my ex-wife’s front door with the new, but suitably worn, Pal. But before I could present him, I learned that the original Pal had been recovered: Kerry confessed to smuggling him home and hiding him inside the folds of her mother’s curtains. When I returned to my apartment, I stored the spare dog in the back of my closet, just in case.

♦♦♦

Six years to the day after my last drink, I remarried. Elena and I had a son named Cole. I’ve been married now six years and sober 12. Cole just turned 5, Kerry is a sophomore in high school, and Seamus just started junior high.

When Cole’s eyes are heavy after a long day of pretending to be a knight, I get his jammie-joes on, brush his teeth, and he gives Mommy a good-night kiss and hug before I carry him in my arms down the hall to the cowboy-themed bedroom Elena designed for him. We snuggle into the lower log-cabin bunk bed and read three books—about lost penguins, monkeys toying with alligators, and dogs wearing strange hats and driving cars.

Often Cole starts snoring before I have finished the first story. But sometimes he goes the distance. Either way, I turn the light out while still pinned between Cole and the wall. Even if he is already asleep, he stirs when he hears the switch and asks, “Daddy, will you stay with me for a little while?”

Holding my son as he slumbers on the bottom bunk of his bed, surrounded by big logs of raw pine, I feel cocooned and have to force myself to leave. I allow myself 20 minutes of forgetting what I was so anxious or mad or sad about before climbing in to read bedtime stories.

In the dark I listen to Cole snore as I stare up at the bottom of the top bunk, my mind empty of any thoughts. Every night some instinct eventually tells me it’s time to get up and walk back into my life. But I return nourished just enough to make it through another 24 hours, until it’s time to get our jammie-joes on again and climb back into the bunk beds.

“Crash and Learn” first appeared in the Good Men Project anthology (which, by the way, makes a great gift).

♦♦♦

Click here to read other stories in this special addiction package from the Good Men Project Magazine.

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 to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.

Read more on Addiction on The Good Life.

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. Tom –

    Thanks for the honesty.

    What, if anything, would the current Tom say to the Tom that existed when Seamus was 9 months and Kerry was two?

    Kath

    • Tom Matlack says:

      Kath I would say that guy was pretty scared, sad and misguided. He was running as hard as he possibly could towards the wrong goal, or perhaps from the shadow of fear that didn’t exist. He was living a double life, knowing somewhere deep inside that would never work. He was in a great deal of pain.

      None of that is an excuse for mistakes made and their real consequences.

      • Again, WTG on the honesty!

        So many people – not just men – never own up to why they fail. It’s excuse after excuse after excuse.

        You? You not only know why you failed, but take responsibility for the failure.

        Impressive.

        Thanks for your articulate response :-)

  2. Second time I’ve read this. First of all, thank you for sharing youself like this. My issues were more mental than chemical or liquid. I married an addict and got her clean. That ended in divorce years later. I’ve seen both sides.

    The important thing is what you do AFTER your crap. Looks like you climbed Mt Everest. I admire you.

  3. Yet another inspiring piece, Tom. I can vividly recall the despair I felt when my first wife and I separated, and she wouldn’t let me see my sons out of pure spite. While my life was not in danger, like in your story, I can relate to the mindset of becoming the father your kids deserve. I’m fortunate to have my wife who reminds me how good a father and husband I am, and that motivates me to improve everyday, for her and for our kids. Keep up the great work. Your voice is needed.

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