I’ll never forget the phone call that I made to my family, telling them that I had decided to leave the football team. Part of their reaction was shock and disbelief. After all, I wasn’t one to quit anything. I was stronger than that. They were also sad and disappointed. I was walking away from my dream, and that wasn’t the type of son they felt they had raised. They were angry, and rightfully so. My family made countless sacrifices on my behalf, laying the groundwork for my future, and now I had selfishly decided that I was going to stray from the path that we had agreed upon. And I’m certain that they were afraid. I was 18 years old and I was living all alone in a studio apartment 3,000 miles away, lacking any real direction or purpose in my life. How was I going to handle this?
After that conversation I understood that I needed to do something. I owed it to to my family. I stayed enrolled at Golden West College and decided that I would fully commit myself to academics. My plan was to take all UC (University of California) transferrable courses and present myself in two years as a strong applicant for potential admission to UCLA or perhaps even Berkeley. I worked hard, and I did well. A focused Matt was a dangerous Matt. I could do anything I wanted when I set my mind to it. By the end of my freshman year I believe my GPA was over 3.8.
But I had my fun as well. I remained very close with a couple of friends from the team (who had also for different reasons moved on from football) and through them I met the core group of guys that I would spend most of my weekends and free time with in SoCal. To this day, I will say that those friends were some of the realest people I ever met. We had a blast together. Golden West followed a 4 day class schedule as opposed to 5 which you would find at most colleges and universities. So my weekends began on Thursday afternoon. Those evenings we would typically congregate at one of our places for a few drinks and then head out to a club in Orange County. On Friday, we’d often drive to San Diego for the weekend to visit with our friends at SDSU. We even mixed in quite a few trips across the border into Mexico – now that’s an experience. The sunshine, the beaches, the beautiful women, the newness of everything, the adventure – California was amazing. I had never envisioned anything like it growing up in a town of less than 5,000 people in rural Pennsylvania. I felt like I had found my Utopia. And I quickly forgot about football.
Shortly after my arrival to the Golden State I met a girl. She was a friend of a friend and had traveled with us for a weekend trip to Lake Havasu, AZ. We had an immediate connection. There was something about her. You could just tell that she was real, genuine -the way that she carried herself was so attractive to me. Only one slight problem…she had a boyfriend. We enjoyed each others’ company for those few days but we both knew that there could be nothing more.
When I arrived back in Huntington Beach I found that I could not stop thinking about her. I pondered where she was and what she might be doing with her life, knowing that if given the opportunity I’d choose to be a part of it. And then one day as I was walking to my car from class I bumped into her heading towards the Quad. We stopped and talked for a few minutes and then exchanged numbers with each other. Shortly after we began getting together as friends. And by the following Spring she had decided to move on from her relationship and we started dating. I felt like I had truly met someone special. I fell in love with her quickly. By the time our “romantic” relationship began, I was already more than half way there.
The following summer one my best friends from back home came to visit. This was his second trip out to California, and I was really looking forward to it. I always liked when people came to see me. I knew they appreciated the surroundings and I enjoyed being their personal tour guide. I was proud of my independence and the life that I had built, and I was excited to showcase it.
One day we went out with a couple of my friends and ended up back at my place rather early. There wasn’t a whole lot going on that night, so we thought we’d just hang out and watch a movie or some TV. We had been talking earlier that evening about how long it had been since we last smoked, contemplating where we might be able to get a hold of some. My friends weren’t big into it and neither was I at that point, so I certainly didn’t have a connection. But this was California, the US capital of greenery, so we had a feeling we could locate it one way or another.
My buddy hopped onto the computer (AOL Instant Messenger) and proceeded to begin a conversation with some local stranger who agreed to meet us. We sat waiting in a Kinko’s parking lot across the street from Golden West when a woman hopped out of her pickup with some of the most potent weed I had ever seen. Taking one look at her, you knew whatever she was carrying must have been good. She told us “it’s chronic”. We drove back to the apartment, rolled up and smoked two blunts. The high that took over my body was something that I had never felt before – this was not pleasant or enjoyable at all; I was in a state of sheer panic and paranoia. I paced back and forth in the apartment, wishing the feeling would good away. When I laid in bed I felt as though I was falling, and I even hallucinated a bit. I was convinced multiple times that my heart had stopped beating. This was the night my life changed forever.
Underneath the surface there were things going on inside of me for many years prior. My mind had become fragile. I remember that going back as far as junior high there were times when I would obsess compulsively over things. I was germaphobic at times, I repeated actions (counting, hand washing), and I began to worry about my health. In high school I started to obsess about my heart and blood pressure while waiting in line for a football physical – someone had exited the room with the doctor and mentioned that their blood pressure was high, and that they couldn’t understand it. Instantly, I had the same issue. I started listening to my heartbeat (still do to this day). During one football season I felt so run down and sick that I was convinced I had mononucleosis – the blood work came back negative. My head was manifesting these problems, and my body was exemplifying them. I was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Anxiety/Panic Disorder, I just didn’t know it.
That night in California with my friend from back home, the experience we shared served as an open door and gateway for the illness that continues to have a profound impact on me every day. All it needed was the the right opportunity to squeeze its way into my world and take total control over my life. And that’s exactly what it did…