Head case

Tom Matte broke his brain with drugs.
Now he sees things you don’t.

Imagine if every time you shut your eyes you saw another world. Some people might say that’s the power of a great imagination. And I would agree. But I don’t mean using your imagination to create or envision a new world. I mean actually being able to “see” a new world in your field of vision.

Think of this field of vision as the blank screen in a movie theater. I can simply close my eyes, refocus my attention and in that darkness a movie begins to play. Images race across the screen of my mind and come together to tell a story. It’s a story that I didn’t actually write, at least consciously, but one that I can direct and even interact with. It’s like every time I close my eyes I step into a virtual reality.

By definition virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional environment that can be interacted with by using special equipment, like glasses with a screen inside. But I don’t need to put on special glasses and connect to a computer system running a virtual program. I can close my eyes and somehow my brain connects me to a virtual world that’s all my own.

You might think I’m crazy. I’m not. I was though. I know the difference. What led to this amazing superpower? Drugs, copious amounts of drugs. Specifically cocaine. Followed by a complete mental breakdown.

2

Just a study aid

I have decided to set my house on fire.

My wooden deck seems the most logical place to start. I’ve got a container filled with a few gallons of gas. It’s been sitting in the garage for the past two years waiting for its chance to fuel the generator. I’ve got bigger plans for it. I’m going to use it as a catalyst to burn my entire house to the ground.

If everything goes as planned, my home will be in a full blaze in less than an hour. There will be local news helicopters overhead. Fire trucks will be lined up and down both sides of the street. And it will get prime-time coverage on all the major news networks. With this kind of media attention, the conspiracy will be uncovered and I’ll finally know the truth.

I pour gas onto the wooden deck and step back. The gas spills across the deck covering the wood. With a flick of my wrist, I light the match and toss it on the deck. The fire spreads fast. Within a minute half the deck is ablaze along with much of the patio furniture below. I’m mesmerized for a moment thinking about what I’ve just done. Not trying to burn down the house, but altering the course of my life forever.

The course of my life up to this point I wouldn’t exactly label as normal, but certainly not burn-your-house-down crazy either.

At the time of my breakdown it was 2012 and I was 48 years old. I had a wife, Christie, and two boys, Austin and Carson. Austin was in high school, Carson in middle school. We lived in the affluent suburb of Johns Creek in a beautiful home overlooking a small lake.

To fully understand how my life went from A to Z in a few years, you need a little backstory. Many addicts have a history of drug or alcohol abuse in their family. My situation was different. My parents never had addiction issues. My older sister and I had happy childhoods. I used my charm to get out of trouble. She used her brain to stay away from it. My dad was a consultant for big insurance companies and my mom was a wordsmith who loved to write poems and children’s books. We moved around more than most because of my dad’s job, but we were solidly and contently an upper middle class family.

I was first introduced to cocaine when I was attending Young Harris College. It was the night before finals. I had three exams scheduled on the same day. All the students were either studying in their rooms or in the library. It was around 11 at night when a friend asked if I wanted to do a line of coke. He told me it would help me stay awake and study. I was preparing for B’s across the board, so I thought, what the heck.

I did a line of coke with him and went back to my room and cracked open a book. I figured it couldn’t hurt to study some more. Plus, I was wide-awake with a rush from the drugs. I was also focused. With a little help from my friend, I stayed up all night studying. I ended up with two A’s and a B. I made the dean’s list. That was a first. The message was clear: With hard work and a little coke, I could do anything. I didn’t get addicted right away. It would take many years of recreational use.

Tom credits his wife Christie Matte, whom he met while they were students at the University of Georgia, for helping him regain his health and rebuild their family after his ordeal.

3

High-functioning addict

I transferred to the University of Georgia in 1983 and met Christie in the library. This is important to my story because she’s pretty much been a part of my life forever. We were friends first. She’s always been a sucker for a guy with a sense of humor. Our first date was the movie “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.” It was our last actual date. We decided just being friends was better for the time being.

Time passed, we dated lots of other people, but we were always together. College ended and our career paths crissed and crossed. Eventually, we started a business together, a small advertising agency. We did the family thing a little backwards. We got pregnant first. It was an accident but ultimately the best thing that ever happened to us. We were soul mates, but we needed a kick in the butt to settle down. I asked her to marry me in front of the library where we first met.

I loved being a husband and most of all being a dad.

Our company became successful. Along with our partner Rob, we specialized in business-to-business advertising. One of our sweet spots was legal marketing. Not the ambulance chasers you see on TV. Our clients included some of the Top 100 law firms in the country. From the outside looking in, I had it made. Except for the drugs.

I was a high functioning recreational drug user. Cocaine had the added bonus of helping with my ADHD. It slowed down my racing mind, helped me focus and actually calmed me down.

But by 2008, my drug use had gone from recreational to habitual and it was playing tricks on my mind.

One April morning, Christie came home from a spin class and I was sitting in a chair waiting for her.

“Who have you been with?” I asked her.

Still sweaty from the gym, she appeared confused.

“I’ve been working out.”

“No, you haven’t, I know you met someone this morning. You’re cheating on me.”

She laughed out loud.

“Oh, yeah, I get up at 5 in the morning, put on my sweatpants and go meet my lover.”

She thought I was joking. I wasn’t.

From that point forward, when I would use drugs, the idea that my wife was cheating and running a porn empire occupied my thoughts. But that was just the beginning. Eventually I believed my kids were taken over by alien shape shifters and the government had satellites following my every move. Paranoia overwhelmed me and my mind began to break.

I stayed late after work almost every night staring at the computer for hours, searching for proof my wife was cheating. One night it hit me: She had installed cameras in the vents to record videos for her porn empire.

I called Rob around midnight to tell him this new revelation. He drove down to the office and started praying over me. Rob is religious, not a guy that just talks about it, he’s a guy that actually lives it. He did his best to perform an exorcism. It didn’t work. He called his brother, an EMT, and they persuaded me to check into a detox facility. Rob would leave the company a few months later.

It was as amicable as any business breakup could be. It was also a wake-up call to stop using. I rallied my employees who’d stayed with me. I focused hard on building the agency again. At that time, my ego would not allow me to fail. It worked. The company had new clients. Family life was good, too. We worked, traveled and watched the boys grow up. It was the calm before the storm. I stayed clean for 18 months. When I started using again, things went south in a hurry.

Photo: A view of Cruz Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, Dec. 17, 2000. Tomas van Houtryve/AP


4

Alien invasion

I stare into the flames. I’m back on drugs and convinced more than ever that Christie is using our business as a front for her porn empire. I believe it with every ounce of my being. Luckily, I panic and call the fire department. Trucks arrive in no time and quickly put out the fire.

My family wants me out of the house. I walk out on everything I love. Not just my family, I also leave my business. I stop answering my phone, quit responding to emails. Nothing. I simply vanish.

I stop spending time trying to find proof about Christie’s business empire. I’m broken and tired of looking. I’m not angry anymore. I even forgive her. A new kind of psychoses takes over. I start listening to music non-stop. Mostly pop and rap music. I need my earphones in 24/7. The music begins to guide me, telling me what to do. Some of the lyrics are actually coded messages from aliens. For some reason they want to communicate with me.

I start traveling the globe and staying in five-star hotels. One morning I wake up and decide to go to St. John island in the Virgin Islands. On the ferry ride over, I sit outside near the front of the boat. The boat is crowded and the sun is behind us. If I catch the angle right in the shadow, I can see antennas coming out of these insect-like aliens posing as people. Not all of them. Just a few sprinkled here and there among the tourists. Not only that, they are telepathically telling me that I will never leave the island alive. I resign myself to my fate and find a hotel.

The aliens instruct me to build a structure in my room above my bed. Using the fan as a fulcrum, dozens of strings hang down from the center and I attach them to pieces of furniture throughout the room. It looks like a spider web, but it’s not. It’s a map of their galaxy. I hang pieces of jewelry at various places along the strings. These are the planets. I add different items each day. When I lie in the bed, I look up at the fan and the surrounding strings. It’s like I’m a fly caught in the middle of a giant spider web. In reality, I’m a human captive on an alien ship moving farther and farther from Earth.

I tell the hotel cleaning lady to please only empty my trash, clean the bathroom, and wipe down the kitchen area. Touch nothing else. After a few days she stops coming in my room altogether. After a week, all the staff stays clear of me.

While on the island, the aliens use me for a number of different experiments. They also decide not to kill me.

From the islands, I head to London and after a couple of weeks, over to the Beverly Hills Hotel in L.A. I mingle with celebrities, make some new friends, spend lots of money and do more drugs. I’m staying at the Chateau Marmont when I get a voicemail from my bank telling me I’m overdrawn on my account. For the first time since I left home, I start to think about money. Everything I had in the bank is gone. Everything.

Photo: Santa Monica Pier in 2007. Something Original/Wikimedia Commons


5

Hello, rock bottom

I have no idea what I’m going to do. I have no money. No place to stay. No family that I trust. No family that trusts me. Eventually I get hungry and find a restaurant for dinner. I order a steak and fries. Dessert, too. I tell the waiter I need to use the restroom and will be back in a moment. After using the restroom, I proceed out a side exit down to the beach.

I have a full stomach now but still don’t know where to go or what to do. I’m scared as hell. I walk into another five-star hotel on Santa Monica Beach. I stayed there when I was flush with cash. I know what floor the linen closet is on. I casually walk past the front desk and up to the 11th floor. I take two sheets off the closest rack and stuff them in my backpack. I leave through the back entrance and walk toward the darkest part of the beach where I find a spot about a quarter mile from the Santa Monica pier. I place one sheet on the sand and use the other as a cover. The beach gets cold at night, and the wind doesn’t help. My jacket is the real lifesaver. I wrap my backpack around my wrist three times and use it as a pillow. It has my phone inside, the only lifeline to any kind of help. I fall asleep listening to the ocean and watching the Ferris wheel lights on the Santa Monica pier.

The next morning, I’m awakened by a man driving up and down the beach in an ATV. He tells me I can’t sleep on the beach and gives me a dollar so I can take the bus to a homeless shelter in another part of town. A homeless shelter? Are you kidding me? I’m broke, but I’m certainly not homeless. Then it dawns on me. I am homeless. I just pissed away $350,000 in six months. I have nothing. I’m confused. I’m scared. I need serious psychological help.

I manage a ride to the UCLA Medical Center, one of the best psychiatric teaching hospitals in the country. They usually have a waiting list for people to get in. Today’s my lucky day. They have a room available.

In five short days my insurance runs out and I’m back on the streets. I’m referred to a 30-day rehab center in Malibu that’s willing to take me in with the hopes that I can eventually pay. After a week they realize that’s not going to happen. They recommend a men’s halfway house that occasionally takes indigent clients. I last two weeks. I don’t fit in anywhere. I’m lost and lonely. I miss Christie and the boys. These are my first giant steps on the road to recovery and my eventual sanity. With help from an old friend, I make my way back to Georgia.

Christie and I begin the process of mending my mind, our relationship and our family. It wasn’t easy. I had a few legal problems to face, and the boys were constantly fighting. They were mad at me but took it out on each other. I caused so much suffering. I broke our family. If 2012 was the earthquake that destroyed us, then 2013 was the rubble. And there was a ton of it to clean up. Somehow we picked up all the pieces and started building something new.

I haven’t used cocaine in more than six years.

Image: Animated proof for the formula giving the sum of the first integers 1+2+...+n. Vincent Pantolini/Wikimedia Commons


6

Mad skills

To be clear, I was psychotic and delusional. Now I’m not.

Over time the paranoia receded and was replaced with a greater sense of awareness. I don’t believe insane things anymore. But something has changed in my brain. Of this there is no doubt. The “virtual reality” hallucinations are the most obvious example. Another is a sudden interest and ability to understand complex mathematical concepts like the Space-Time Continuum that I didn’t have before.

I’ve had numerous eye exams and two MRIs. My eyes and vision are fine. I have no lesions or brain tumors. There is nothing physically wrong with my eyes or my brain. Yet, no ophthalmologist or neurologist can give me a reason why these hallucinations persist.

I emailed prominent authors, doctors and researchers looking for more information. I reached out to anyone who I thought might help give me answers. I finally connected with Dr. Flavie Waters, an academic researcher at the University of Western Australia and founder of the International Consortium on Hallucination Research. She was very helpful in my further understanding of my condition.

“Hallucinations are the result of a complex interaction between sensory cortices and the frontal cortex,” she wrote via email last March. “What we think happens is that the sensory cortex becomes excessive(ly) active following an event (drugs, mental illness, trauma, even sensory or sleep deprivation). At that stage, the frontal cortex should push back these signal activities. What happens when people have hallucinations is that the frontal lobe is no longer sifting and organising sensory signals the way that it did before. Instead of pushing back against excessive sensory signals, the frontal cortex now allows the processing and access to consciousness. … These experiences are a very normal reaction to your life-events and circumstances, so would be considered adaptive if you have no distress about them, and if they do not interfere with your daytime functions…”

Adaptive is the perfect word. My brain has adapted. It’s also more connected. I’ve developed this amazing new ability to access my own “virtual” reality. The ability to not only hallucinate but to control the hallucinations, interact with them and change them with a thought. I call this new skill Upsight.

So what exactly is Upsight? Essentially it’s my brain’s new operating system. Here’s how I explain what happened. After my mental breakdown, my brain was able to reboot itself. However, it wasn’t just a normal reboot, it installed a massive upgrade.

Not only does it allow me to receive and process more information, it has built new connections to other areas of the brain where information is stored that I now have access to, data and information that to this point had gone untapped.

I have insights into mathematics, astrophysics and quantum physics, things I’ve only had a passing interest about in the past. It’s like my own personal Wikipedia. I affectionately call it Schizopedia.

Throughout history there have been numerous examples of math and mental illness walking hand in hand.

One of the most famous examples is John Nash, whose life story was the basis of the movie, “A Beautiful Mind.” He’s the Nobel Prize winning mathematical genius that struggled throughout his life with the disease of schizophrenia. He’s the one I feel the most connected to. I’ve never been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but we share a love of math, and we both thought we were communicating with aliens.

I’m not a real mathematician. What I mean is, I have no formal training. I’m self-taught. My last math class was high school geometry. My newly acquired mathematical gift revolves around visualizing three- and four-dimensional geometric shapes and how they move through space and how space moves through them.

Silicon Valley is working on new technology that will allow a human brain to interface with a computer. Thanks to Upsight, I think I might be partway there.

Tom and Christie walk their dog Wifi near their home in Johns Creek.

7

No place like home

Not long after I returned home, Austin told Christie she was stupid for letting me back into their lives. She was crushed. She thought she was letting him down. I told her one day that because of her, our kids would look back on this time as a lesson of love and forgiveness and not bitterness and hate. I’m lucky, I know. Her heart is her family. Mine is, too.

I’d say we are definitely a family again. Maybe a little bruised and battered, but also a little wiser and a lot closer. We’re a lot more thankful for each normal day. OK, with us normal may be a stretch.

It has taken years, but finally I don’t hate myself for causing so much pain to the people I love the most. Myself included. My family forgives me for the suffering I caused them. I know because they’ve told me. Forgiveness is powerful. It works miracles. I’ve learned something from every mistake. Some things I didn’t want to learn. Some I had to learn. And some I’m still learning.

For two years, I was lost, literally and figuratively. I was a wanderer. Drifting from place to place.

Am I the only one? Not by a long shot. The lost and lonely are everywhere.

Am I lucky? Definitely. Of course, I had some help. Along the way there were angels and aliens at every turn.

Looking back now, it feels like they were all put there for a reason, like beacons of light in the dark. Everyone I met on my journey was pointing me in one direction.

Home.

Tom has written a book about his experience called “Jesus Goes To Hollywood: A Memoir Of Madness.”


ABOUT THE STORY
Tom Matte’s story came to me from former AJC reporter Jim Auchmutey. The author of “Class of ‘65” was teaching a writing class in which Tom was a student, and Jim thought Tom’s story about his fall from grace and ultimate redemption had strong Personal Journeys appeal. He was right. What makes Tom’s story particularly unusual is the little something extra he got in the bargain.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE WRITER
Tom Matte is a brand consultant and marketing strategist who lives in Johns Creek. His book, “Jesus Goes To Hollywood: A Memoir Of Madness,” will be published later this year. Learn more about Upsight at www.madnessmathandmarketing.com.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.

Tom and Christie play with their dog Wifi near their home in Johns Creek.