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William Matthews, Electrician, Waiter & Gym Instructor

November 28, 2015
by the gentle author

Several years ago, Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Alex Pink experienced a life-changing head injury and, in the first of two stories published with Headway East London, he collaborates with fellow-survivor William Matthews to present this personal testimony of discovery and recovery.

When a friend offered me a job as an electrician’s mate, doing installation, I loved it straight away. The company was based in Essex but the job was in St James’ Park. It was like I’d won the lottery. Down in Dagenham, it was a damp and depressing but this was a different world. I walked past Scotland Yard on the way to work, right next door to the Channel 4 offices. Opposite the block we were working on, there was a school and you would see them all turning up in their school uniform and a lot of them would be on time. It was nice to see it done correctly.

The money was unbelievable, I was there about a year and a half and I earned £1,400 a week sometimes. It was not like work, it was more of an adventure. We would go to work, have breakfast, we would have a beer after breakfast – this is not a great advert for electricians, is it? You would try and get your job done by three o’clock, so you could all get in the pub. There was a real family feeling which I loved.

It was quite easy to get hold of cocaine in the pubs. I would be so tired because I had to leave home at half four in the morning and I went to college at night, so that was when it really helped. It was widely available and, as soon as I had a bit, it gave me the burst of energy I needed. By this time, I was confident socially and I could do what I wanted. I thought everything was going well but obviously it was not, because I was addicted to cocaine.

When I had the stroke, I came home late on Sunday and went straight to bed. Mum had a migraine on the Monday, so she did not go to work. She checked in on me in the morning and I was sleeping but, when she checked back later in the afternoon, she knew there was something wrong with me. I was semi-conscious, rolling my eyes and moving my arms.

Discharge Report: William was admitted to hospital on 3rd December 2001, suffering from cocaine induced encephalopathy and remained unconscious for two weeks.

I could not walk or talk or eat, so I had a drip up my nose and a feeding tube in my belly, which I pulled out twice. I had gone back to being a baby – I had to learn to walk and talk and breathe again. I spent six months in the rehab unit. The left side of my body was most affected, so at first I could not even stand. My throat muscles were weak so I could not swallow easily or control my saliva. I was beginning life my again. I was eating a liquidised diet through the feeding tube and my friends used to wind me up, because every time they saw it get pumped in they would say ‘Oh, look at that chicken. Look at that crispy duck.’ Obviously I would get peed off with them so I would think ‘Shut up’ but I could not express that. I was laughing but I could not really laugh, so I just squeal. My voice box was not working which meant I sounded like a hyena.

I was surrounded by old people, because strokes generally happen to older people, so they put me in a separate bedroom. The World Cup was on and other patients, doctors, nurses used to come in and watch the football with me. It was nice because we became like a family. There was this old boy, he could hardly walk or talk or breathe, but he went into the toilet and had a cigarette. He had two women on the go. Seriously, he was in hospital and had two women and they came in at different times. I thought ‘This is ridiculous, like a comedy. How can anyone be a player in that situation?’

The hospital team got me on my feet and the occupational therapist, physiotherapist and speech therapist were really good with me. The speech therapist got me into the residential rehab centre and my cousin helped as well – I am very grateful to them. I loved the residential rehab, I thought it was brilliant – like a college or youth club. They would take me swimming and on outings, and I was doing to Maths, English, Art Therapy and Physiotherapy. I learned to read and write better, because I had time to sit down and do things, whereas at school I would always be rushing off.

I learnt to cook, which was great because I had never cooked before and I love cooking now. They would make me cook for three or four and I had to work out the ingredients and buy them from the supermarket. You would not believe how fatigued you can get from that, when your fitness and energy is low, I would come back from the supermarket and sleep for an hour.

Discharge Report/ July 2003/ Cognitive difficulties – William has difficulty sustaining, switching and dividing his attention between tasks. William has an anterograde memory deficit (difficulty remembering new information after his brain injury) and also visual and auditory memory deficits. His ability to plan, think flexibly, sequence and make decisions is impaired, and he is impulsive at times. A Support Worker has been commissioned to provide him with daily support as required, and to help him with tasks such as enrolling at college and ensuring he receives the benefits to which he is entitled.

Unfortunately, after spending all that money to make me independent, the system failed when I left the residential centre. Something went wrong and I was left defenceless. A social worker told me the only way I could get a place to live was to go homeless, which I did and they took me to this hostel full of single parents and drunks. It was a scary moment. My mum arrived with me and, when she left, I sat down and cried.

After six weeks, I went to look at a council bedsit and it was horrible – damp and small. The bathroom was dirty with limescale and there was a tiny old kitchen so I said ‘I don’t want it.’ But the social worker told me ‘You’re at the top of the queue, but if you don’t take this property you’ll go down the priority list and you won’t get offered nothing.’ So I took it and I decorated it, I put up some blinds with my friends. Basically, they were saying to me, ‘Beggars can’t be choosers.’

My whole experience in that place was rotten and I was there for eight years. I had no prospects. I was very shy. By which I mean, I was too scared to get on the bus. At that time, my mobility and my speech was much worse than now and I walked with a little stick like Yoda.

Things changed when I saw an advert for a neuro-linguistic programming course. My mum paid for me to go.  It was a ten day course and I loved it – I went from being a recluse to actually being sociable. There were a lot of business people there, people with a positive attitude. That opened my eyes to a new life, I think, and I became determined to move out of the bedsit.

I must have bid on council properties about forty or fifty times. You never get anywhere because the only way you can move up the council list is if you have a medical report – you speak to other people and learn how the system works. After eight years of being stuck, as soon as I got a doctor’s note I moved within five days.

While I was in the bedsit, the gym became my life. At first, I went every day just to take a shower, but then I started to work out a lot and I treated it as my job, instead of sitting at home. Phil the fireman, an instructor, started training me and became a friend as well. I looked up to him, he was a good fella.  As I used to be very fit before, I had loads of body fat on me from being in hospital but when I started to burn it off, my muscles started coming through again and I was like ‘Hello, who is this?!’

When I came out of rehab, I said to the social worker, ‘I don’t want to rely on benefits, I want to go back to work.’ I was so adamant that I would achieve it. She said ‘Well, you need to claim benefits, you can’t live otherwise.’ It made me feel I could not do any better and that affected me at the time.

I signed up to a back to work programme and started doing a job where I worked a few hours as a one-armed waiter in a sushi bar. That was quite funny because my walking and talking were not very good, so people could not understand me that well and, if I was there two days in a row, my brain could not function because of the fatigue. Taking the job meant I had to give up my benefits and my rent and council tax went to full price, so I needed to earn £300 a week to pay for everything. In fact, the job did not work out and I had only done a few hours’ work, so I had acquired over a thousand pounds of debt which I am still paying off.

I tried getting back into work through volunteering at the gym. I like training people and I am good at it. I qualified as an instructor in 2006 and I got to know the manager at a gym in Essex. We got on alright and she said ‘I will give you a job here, if you can prove it to me.’ I went on a trial period of training people and then she said ‘Fine, you have the job.’

I worked there for a couple of months but I could not cope with the fatigue, both physical and emotional. So my quality of life, which funnily enough was meant to get better through working, just went downhill. After a few months, I had to accept I just could not handle it and I gave up the job.

When you start a conversation with ‘I’ve had a stroke,’ everyone feels sorry for you. As soon as you mention the drugs, they think,‘Well, it was your own fault.’ I take responsibility for my actions but, if you keep blaming yourself, you will never move forward. This injury, this situation, has made me grow up so quickly. It is an experience I would not have wanted but it has made me a more complete person, I have become wise for a young lad (I call myself young still).

I train some guys with brain injuries at the YMCA. It is really nice because I can give them my knowledge and what I have learnt but, at the end of the day, I think it would be nice to get a career outside of the gym. Each time I try to go back to work and then have to stop, I go through the process of getting benefits again. Each time, it takes a little bit more out of you, because you want to be positive but you are confronted by the things you cannot do.

The only way of changing my situation is through more knowledge. I have realised that education has to come before everything else. I am working towards getting my Maths and English GCSE so I can study at University. It is a slow process but I have put my whole life on hold for it.

I would like to move out of where I live. In an affluent area, you feel alive and the people you meet have got energy. When you live in a deprived area, the standard of living is low in lots of different ways. You have to travel a long way to get anywhere. You get on the bus and it is packed, and people are arguing about whose bag is in the way because they are basically angry and frustrated.

I just want the same things everybody does. I want to earn enough to support a family – I have always wanted to have kids. I want to own my own house and have a career. I do not want to be in this system where you get a taster of things, through work schemes and volunteer placements. A taster’s not enough, I want the real thing.”

“I just want the same things everybody does”

William Matthews – “It is an experience I would not have wanted but it has made me a more complete person.”

Photographs copyright © Alex Pink

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. November 28, 2015

    Wow, what a hard, hard, hard thing you are dealing with.
    I salute your perserverance and hope.
    I love NLP and similar things, they can completely turn your life around.
    Well done, congratulations, best of luck xx

  2. Leana Pooley permalink
    November 28, 2015

    What a gutsy, thoughtful and intelligent man. I expect I’ll read about him as an Oxford don in a few years’ time.

  3. November 28, 2015

    What a beautiful, moving story. William, I think you’re an amazing person, I wish you all the luck in the world. I’m sure things will get better for you because you have insight and determination. Hang in there.

  4. November 28, 2015

    I’m guessing you already know about support groups but just thought I’d mention this one

  5. November 28, 2015

    William, you are courageous and honest. I wish you all the best in the years to come–I’m sure the GA will be updating us and it will be with terrific news.
    Take care of you.

  6. Suzy permalink
    November 28, 2015

    This was such a heartening read. I can relate to so many of William’s wise words. It’s perhaps one of the most crushing things to be unable to work due to health problems. It destroys you anew every single day. And given we live in a world where we’re judged by how we earn our daily bread, to be unable to work, is, well, it’s very difficult to grasp and then hold onto a sense of dignity. I know. And that dreaded question: “What do you do for work then?” Much kinder to ask folk things like, ‘What makes you feel glad to be alive; what makes your heart sing?’ Or, ‘If you could describe yourself with five positive qualities, what would they be?’ It’s qualities that matter. Not job titles.
    Ah, wishing you all the very best William! It’s a somehow a very uplifting thing when we hear the echoes of our own thoughts in someone else’s head. And, I guess, that’s what makes us unique from animals. That need to be understood and to, in turn, be able to show understanding. Thank you!

  7. isa permalink
    November 29, 2015

    Good luck William you are an inspiration and yes there are barriers when one has ill health but step by step and with having steps or goals one can achieve ones dreams. Having a brother who was destroyed by drugs I am happy to read you did not give in and have good ambitions.

  8. November 29, 2015

    It’s tragic the system isn’t flexible enough to support someone who is trying to overcome disability yet has to leave work on health grounds. The system leaves them in no man’s land.

    As someone who teaches GCSE English to adults, I wish William all the best in his studies.

  9. Neville Turner permalink
    November 29, 2015

    William takes us on a very trying and difficult journey through adolescence,work and enviroment the contrast between early morning mist of Dagenham and the bright well laid out ST James Park are indeed vivid and enough to seduce most into an easy optimism and it’s pltfalls.William Matthews is a fine example of inner strength and perserverence.Good luck and good health to you William.

  10. Kam Johal permalink
    December 3, 2015

    William, I love the fact that you continue to push through the obstacles you face which year on year are difficult in different ways. You refuse to be defined by your stroke and realise that your future is in your making and you are on that path. That takes strength, inner confidence and makes you a winner.

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