The Threat of Major Loss Inspires Major Transformation
As a kid growing up in Texas, Matthew Taylor was active and liked to have his hands on something. Oftentimes, that meant grubby hands from playing basketball and football, but it also meant food.
“I guess as a kid you’re not self-aware enough to say, ‘I need to make good use of my hands to do something productive,’” he says. “So I just turned to food.”
As a teenager, Matthew weighed 315 pounds.
He knew this was not sustainable. He began working out compulsively, even at the expense of his college education, often prioritizing exercising over classwork. Then he encountered an obstruction that was enough to make anyone reflect on the mysterious, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction manner in which our lives unfold—a poetic and terrifying roadblock.
At 23 years old, Matthew woke up one morning and could no longer swallow food at all.
A TERRIBLE TRANSACTION
The reason: a tumor, wrapped around his carotid artery. Doctors discovered during surgery that the tumor was even larger than they’d initially thought, which made its removal riskier, and more costly.
“The tumor and the vagus nerve were intertwined, and so some of the nerve had to be sacrificed in the operation,” shares Matthew, now 29.
The surgery turned out to be a transaction. Matthew traded something lethal for a number of less-lethal complications: neuropathy, dysphasia, dysphagia, paralysis of his tongue and vocal chord, and first bite syndrome.
His neuropathy caused debilitating pain that started in the neck, radiating behind his eye and down his shoulder through his entire left side.
His dysphasia (a speech communication disorder as a result of nerve damage) and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing as a result of a half-paralyzed tongue) necessitated months-long speech and swallowing therapy. There was a very real possibility that this surgery would leave Matthew on a feeding tube, or a liquid diet, for the rest of his life.
Since he couldn’t swallow, Matthew used a feeding tube as he recuperated. Showering with the tube was cumbersome and uncomfortable; he had to hold it in his mouth or hang it over his shoulder so that it wasn’t dangling free, as any movement of the tube caused tenderness and soreness. He couldn’t sleep on his stomach because of the tube, so he slept with pillows on both sides so he wouldn’t roll over.
Because speaking requires the friction of two vocal cords vibrating against each other, Matthew’s paralyzed vocal cord meant his other one had nothing to vibrate against. He needed to scream to make a whisper. He eventually received an implant that shifted the location of the paralyzed cord, so that the other cord didn’t need to travel as far to vibrate against it when he was speaking.
“They said that before being eligible for a vocal cord implant, I needed to wait nine months to see if it would heal on its own,” Matthew says. “In that time, there was a lot of isolation. It’s frustrating to yell just to barely be heard. And what I wanted to share, I didn’t think anyone would understand, so I thought, ‘What’s the point of even trying to speak?’”
A SHOCKING RESET
Through daily work and practice, Matthew learned to swallow without the use of his epiglottis, the flap at the back of the throat—a difficult process. After 11 months, he could swallow well enough to have his feeding tube removed. But with the ability to swallow again came first bite syndrome—a ringing pain throughout his jaw from certain foods, particularly citrus, vinegar, or tomato-based foods. “For that, I just deal with the pain as it comes,” he says.
Treatment of his neuropathy has been more nebulous. Fewer answers, more trial and error.
“[A nerve pain medication] really helped for a few years, but my insurance changed because I turned 26 and had to leave my parent’s health insurance,” Matthew says. “I tried antidepressants to control the activity of the brain, but the combination of pills had a lot of mental side effects. Zombie and sad. Up and down. A bad cycle. It wasn’t me. I took it for years, and I got used to it and started to feel like it was just me.”
These feelings were not him, though. Somewhere in him was still the old Matthew—the one who yearned to be active and playful, not sedentary, numb, thoughtless. It was when his doctors put him on a new treatment that he rediscovered his old self.
“They put me on ketamine. It’s a dissociative drug. Of course it’s prescribed, but it can really take you away from your body,” Matthew shares. “As my tolerance kept building up, I decided to try a ketamine infusion, which is supposed to be able to reset your nervous system. You can see illusions, they say, if you’re in a bad state of mind. So they say to be calm, be positive.”
But that calm dissipated. In its place came dark images, one in particular.
“I left my body,” says Matthew. “I had the IVs in my arm, but at the same time I had transformed into this old man. There was no doubt in my mind that I’d died. I felt like I’d wasted my entire life. That lasted for a couple hours, but it felt like more. I changed my gears after that. I want to feel like I fulfilled something in my life.”
This vision meant the end of ketamine for him, the end of antidepressants, all of it. It was not the “nervous system reset” doctors may have had in mind, but it was a reset for Matthew nonetheless.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE ON PAIN
“I tried marijuana for the first time in Colorado, where it’s legal,” Matthew says. “Immediately I felt pain relief, and without the sadness or zombie symptoms. The experience on marijuana—it’s like a deep breath.”
Because cannabis remains integral to managing Matthew’s pain, he uses delta-8 THC and CBD, which are types of cannabis that are legal where he lives in Texas. He uses a decarboxylator, which warms and activates the cannabis products so that he can intake them by sprinkling them on his food.
From feeding tubes and debilitating nerve pain, to eating food again and seasoning it with pain relief, Matthew’s ongoing journey has given him new perspectives on purpose, pain, and his relationship with God.
“After my tumor removal, I realized nobody’s gonna save us,” Matthew says. “Of course we can pray, and ask to get peace, but if you wanna get out of a situation, you gotta put in the work and do it yourself. I had to work for the blessing to swallow food and feel less pain. God gives us the ability to work for what we want. That’s the way I see it now.”
Now, Matthew spends much of his time at the gym, training clients, leading fitness classes, and exercising himself. He is transforming, one jumping jack, one pullup at a time. As someone living with chronic pain, his mindset on exercise is an unconventional but compelling one. Whereas most with chronic pain calculate their lives around how not to experience more pain, Matthew seems to dive in headfirst.
“Since I live with chronic pain, pain has become a meaningless thing to me,” Matthew says. “I experience pain and there’s no reason for that pain. But when I go to the gym, I’m pushing myself, and of course it hurts, but there’s meaning to this pain. It gives it a purpose. There’s nothing more frustrating to me than to sit in my pain.”
Arriving at this frame of mind was a long process. Consequently, the dude is not sitting still. Not for anything. Except for cake, which he admits he likes to eat before dinner. And hey, after triumphing over obesity, not to mention the threat of never eating again, why make yourself wait? Why not have your cake and eat it (before dinner) too?
“It’s frustrating to yell just to barely be heard. And what I wanted to share, I didn’t think anyone would understand, so I thought, ‘What’s the point of even trying to speak?’”