Matta and I were walking down Wilson Avenue passing out condoms to the homeless people leaning against the storefronts when a man started pounding the ground with an aluminum baseball bat inches from our feet.
I jumped. I thought my life was going to end right there, on a sunny day in the middle of Uptown. Matta didn’t even flinch. She stopped calmly so the bat wouldn’t crush her feet, as if she were waiting for a stoplight to change.
When the guy looked up, raising his bat, he saw Matta’s face and smiled. “Hey!” he said as if he were greeting an old friend. He reeked of alcohol.
Matta said, “You want some free condoms?” She put a couple Trojans in his hand and walked on. That was it.
“Were you a little scared there?” she asked later.
“Whatever they do, you can’t let them know you’re scared.”
On the street Matta is tough–with brown spiked hair, dark sunglasses, a jean jacket, and a voodoo bracelet that rattles when she moves. She clenches her jaw when she has to, smiles when she doesn’t. Off the street, she’ll call you honey. She’ll hug you when you say good-bye. She’ll tell you to be careful when you cross the street. Kids who walk into the outreach center where she works hop up on her lap and hug her.
In Matta’s five years as an AIDS-prevention worker at a north-side outreach center, she’s seen people many would call the scum of the earth. Dope fiends. Prostitutes. Gangbangers. Heroin dealers. But to Matta they’re just people who need help. After all, she’s been three of the four herself at one point in her life. “They’re me,” she says.
Matta Kelley Campbell, 46, has the kind of lily-white skin that reveals a pure Scandinavian background. Her grandparents and her grandparents’ grandparents lived in Iceland, but she left the country when she was 21 to follow a man she loved to America. Her first 15 years here now give her night terrors. But she uses her painful experiences on the street the way a professor might use years of schooling. When she counsels drug users about the threat of AIDS, she speaks with authority: she knows what it’s like to be an addict. Today she gives people on the street the support she never had.
In 1966 Matta met a 19-year-old GI stationed at an American base in Iceland. She spoke only Icelandic, and he spoke only English. They talked to each other with dictionaries in their hands, but she thought it was so cool to date a GI.
“After he was sent back to the States, he used to write me and tell me how much he loved me but he couldn’t send for me because he didn’t have a job,” she says. “I was swallowing all that shit up. I thought I was in love.”
Matta thought America was an Annette Funicello beach movie. You could find money in the street. Everybody had a car. Everybody owned a home. Everybody played the piano. “You’d go to the beach and you’d run with a champagne glass in your hand in slow motion in a chiffon dress,” she says. “And you run, and you’re in love, and the sun’s going down.”
By the time she was 21 Matta had saved up enough money for a one-way ticket to America. She arrived in Chicago on a sunny April day in 1967 wearing a wool suit with a pink fox collar, a ruffled shirt, and a new hairdo.
“After I paid for the plane ticket, I had $20 to spare,” she says. “All I had with me was a scrap of paper with his name and address on it, and I just handed it to the cabdriver. After we got there and I paid him, I had eight dollars left to my name.
“The cabbie knocked on the door, and I guess he told my friend’s mother that there was a young lady in the car who didn’t speak English looking for this person. This woman came screaming out, dancing around the car looking like she didn’t know what to do.”
Her friend wasn’t home, so Matta went in to wait for him. Eventually the GI walked in the door with another woman. “I went up to him to throw my arms around him, and he was like this”–Matta puts her arms stiff at her sides. “It was weird. It was all very uncomfortable.
“The girl who came with him threw a watch on the floor. It had his initials on it. But I still didn’t get it. I thought that he was in love with me. I didn’t understand what anyone was saying. All I knew was that I was in love, and I was an American, and it was just wonderful.”
The next American word that Matta learned was “engaged.” The GI was engaged to the woman who threw the watch. “He lied to me in the letters. Nothing was like I thought it was. It was rough, and we couldn’t afford to send me back.”
The GI’s mother made him marry Matta two months later. It was June 1967, and there was no chiffon dress and no champagne.
“It was a marriage from hell. . . . He was young, and he was under a lot of pressure.”
In 1972, when Matta left her husband, she had two kids. She moved into a third-floor one-bedroom apartment in Albany Park and painted all her furniture black and gold to make it look fancy and oriental. The dining room served as a bedroom for the kids, and although the apartment was small, Matta liked it because it was her own space.
Late that year she met a man who came to visit his mother down the hall. She got pregnant by him and had a girl, Michelle, in 1974, but the child’s father stopped coming around once the baby was born.
When Michelle was a few months old, Matta met the person who turned her on to drugs. They started dating, and he moved into Matta’s crowded apartment in 1975. He had groups of friends over all the time, and they’d go into the bedroom together. They locked Matta out.
“People would come over to my house and they’d be sniffling, and I remember how bad they felt,” she says. “I’d be trying to give them cough syrups and chicken soup. That’s how dumb I was.” They were heroin addicts, sick because their bodies needed more heroin. But Matta didn’t know anything about drugs. She was 29 years old and sitting on a couch in an empty room like a scolded child.
“I got tired of being alone, and I went in the bedroom,” she says. “There were cookers and syringes laying around. There was a girl sitting on my bed, and she had a tie around her arm, and she was getting off. The guy I was going with says to me, ‘This is what we do. You want to try it?’ And I said yeah and held out my arm. He gave me a hit. I didn’t like it at all. I threw up all day.”
She tried it again the next day and got sick again. The people who came over all the time kept telling her that once she stopped getting sick she would feel really good. What they didn’t tell her was that once she stopped getting sick she’d have a habit. In five days she was hooked.
“I was like, ‘God, I do all this throwing up, and it really doesn’t feel good.’ And then I didn’t shoot drugs for one day, and the following morning I woke up and I was sick. I remember sitting on the couch, and my nose was running, and I couldn’t lay still. My boyfriend said, ‘Well, if you got some money, I can take that sick away.’ And I had money, and he went and got a fix. And I was gone. That was it. That was the beginning of the end.
“It’s a lot of fun getting high in the beginning, but then it becomes a job and it isn’t fun anymore. What you’re doing most of the time is not getting high–you’re getting functional. Very seldom do you have enough drugs to get functional and get high.”
Matta couldn’t afford a drug habit. She was on public aid, and between feeding three children and herself and paying rent and other bills, she was barely getting by. Her friends told her she needed a hustle.
“I can’t steal. I wasn’t any good at it. I got busted twice for shoplifting–once for stealing a seven-dollar umbrella. It was embarrassing. They didn’t keep me in jail, but I had to stay all night and go in front of a judge.”
Then a friend in her building introduced her to a wealthy north-side businessman who was going to give her $200 for half an hour of her time. “That was another beginning for me–knowing that I could have sex for money, quick money. At first I thought, ‘Oh my God, I would never do that,’ but there came a time when I needed a fix.”
“Turning dates,” as she terms it, led Matta to new possibilities. “When you meet people who are into that kind of thing, you learn of other ways you can make money. I realized I could go strip.”
She started working at three strip joints on the north side. They were all slimy, dark, and degrading, but the money kept her habit going. “It took me a while to be able to dance with just a G-string. I used to wear a top, but then my boss told me, ‘We’ll give you another 20 bucks if you take your top off.’ I don’t even remember how much you made a night–I think 40 bucks, and then you’d get money if you could talk a guy into buying a drink.”
In the winter of the following year, 1976, Matta went into the hospital for a hysterectomy. She was glad when her ex-husband and his mother offered to take care of her three children because baby-sitters in Albany Park were expensive and not always reliable.
“About a week after I came home from the hospital they brought Michelle home. She did not belong to them. She was somebody else’s. They said, ‘We’ll take care of the other two for a while longer until you feel better.’ So what finally happened was I kept telling them, ‘Bring the kids home. Bring the kids home.’ One day I called and they said to call their lawyer. I didn’t see my kids for years.
“It’s like walking into a house and realizing that somebody has stolen everything you have. You get that sickened feeling of endless pain, to lose your kids and know you’ll never see them again.”
Matta was 30 years old and had been shooting drugs for a little over a year. She decided she needed a change, so she went to a methadone clinic. Matta thought methadone would cure her. She would walk in the clinic’s door and meet a smiling counselor–a miracle worker who would prescribe medicine that would cure her.
“I don’t even remember anymore how many counselors I saw at that first clinic. They were students, and they came there to stay a month, write their paper, and then they were gone. Then they took somebody else in to be your counselor. They would open you up and leave you to bleed.”
In her first year at the clinic Matta learned to tell the counselors what they wanted to hear–that she was planning on coming clean, going to school, getting a job. She didn’t mean a word, but she was very convincing when she said it.
“[The clinic] was where I met all the drug addicts, and that’s where I really learned about drugs,” she says. “They’d open up at like 11 AM, if I remember right, and you’d be sitting around until like 3 or 4 in the afternoon before you’d get medicated. You sit around with all the drug addicts and, being dope fiends, all they talk about is dope–where the best is and what you can get high from, what you can take with the methadone to get higher.
“I would shoot up and get high from heroin or a lot of cocaine, and then I’d use the methadone to come down because I’d be all frantic and wired, and the methadone would calm me down. I drank the methadone through all of my addiction, every day, so I never had to get sick. That was my fall.”
Matta was often too strung out to take care of herself, so Michelle learned early to be a caretaker.
“I remember her standing on a chair with a little dress on trying to cook an egg for me. My daughter was always tall, so for her to need a chair to get to the stove, she was just a little girl.
“I remember us not having any food in the house, and I remember her eating a raw onion.”
Matta always shot up in the bathroom, so Michelle would often find her there, nodding off on the toilet seat. “She’d come get me and put me to bed. ‘Come on, Mom, get up.’ That kid’s been through a lot. She’s been through having people come to her wherever she was and say, ‘Your mom’s in the hospital.’ She never knew, when I was out, if I’d come home.”
Those years, blurred together now, were punctuated by the occasional eviction notice, run-in with the police, or overdose. In the early 80s Matta and Michelle, who was in her first years of elementary school, moved into a one-bedroom third-floor apartment in the Lathrop CHA project near Clybourn and Diversey.
It was there that Matta almost died in 1985. She had had a fever, chills, and chest pains for weeks, but she ignored them until they were an absolute emergency. Matta dropped Michelle off at a neighbor’s apartment and drove to Augustana Hospital. By the time she got to the emergency room she had a fever of 103. Doctors told her she had endocarditis. When people shoot drugs, they said, bacteria that normally live on the skin can enter the body, causing infection of the heart lining that can lead to heart failure and sometimes death.
“The doctor told me I wasn’t going to make it through the night,” she says. “But I did. Every time I felt myself slipping away, I would sit up and shake my head. I had like a 106 temperature. I would shake all the time. They put padding on the bed I would shake so hard, because of the antibiotic fighting the infection in my body.”
Matta learned then that doctors treat addicts differently than straight patients. Nurses wouldn’t give her painkillers because they thought she would try to get high.
“Doctors treat you like shit. I remember a doctor coming in with a group of students and saying, ‘Show them your tracks.’ And I did. I went like this.” Matta pushes up her sleeves. “And he said, ‘Come on, don’t tell me it’s just on your hands. Let me see under your breast.'”
Matta was in the hospital for six weeks. When she got out, she ignored the doctors’ warnings about getting endocarditis again from drug use. She thought they were dogs anyway. She started dealing heroin and shooting the profits up in cocaine.
“Cocaine is a drug from hell. You stick the needle in, you drive the cocaine in, and your brain gets this big.” She holds her hands out to the sides above her head like she is holding something huge. “Everything looks real good, and you feel sexy, and you want to give everything away. But it’s only a short period of time before you hit the paranoia stage.
“Then you crash. Only you don’t have any more, and you’re so full of guilt that you spent all your money or sold everything in the house. And you’re like, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do now? Just let me go to sleep so I can get over this.’ Then you do the same thing the next day.”
Police used to break through her door on a weekly basis, Matta remembers. They were trying to catch her dealing drugs, but they never found anything. Matta was very good at sticking her hand down the toilet to flush the drugs quickly. Thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs went down that toilet.
“One time a cop gave me the choice to jump out the window and get shot for trying to escape or he would have sex with my daughter. Michelle was like ten. So I opened the window and started to climb out, and he snatched me back and said, ‘Oh, you fucking bitch!’ And he kind of slapped on me. But he didn’t send me to jail.”
One day in the summer of 1985 Matta hit the usual paranoia coming down off cocaine. She started looking down the street for police–she had sunburned her elbows from leaning against the glass so often.
“I realized I had been standing there for hours looking for the police. I was so high on cocaine and paranoid, and somewhere in my head I was saying, ‘God, this is insanity. This is insane.’ And I remember my old man bringing me a syringe, and it had a mixture of cocaine and heroin. He said, ‘Here, babe, have a speedball.’ And I said, ‘This is it. Everybody out! Everybody out!’ And I turned to him and I said, ‘If you don’t want to quit, you go with them.’ And he went. He was my man for nine years, and he went with the drugs.
“It was always just a drug relationship. There was no love there, and when there were no drugs in the house there was nothing left.”
Being clean was hard. She cut herself off from all her friends because they were addicts. Her six brothers and sisters were still in Iceland, and her ex-husband had her two older children. Until then Matta had always been surrounded by a lot of people, but after the drugs went, the only person in her life was her 11-year-old daughter.
“I remember the hardest thing. There was a guy who would come to the house a couple times a month from Springfield. He would bring a lot of drugs with him, and he needed a place to use them. He came to my house and said, ‘Let’s get high,’ and I said, ‘I don’t use anymore.’ And he said, ‘Come on, I got a quarter ounce of this and a quarter ounce of that. You know I’ll let you split it with me if you let me use it in your house,’ and I said, ‘I quit.’ He kept begging and begging and begging to get in my house, and I said, ‘No. No. No!’ Finally he said, ‘Well, fuck it then,’ and he started walking down the street. I had the hardest time not running outside the door to call him back. That was real hard, to let him walk far enough away that he wouldn’t be able to hear me if I called him back.”
Matta was 39 years old and had been using drugs for more than ten years. It was hard to think how old she’d gotten. It was hard realizing she couldn’t get a job. It was hard starting to feel again. The come-and-go counselors at the methadone clinic were no help. After almost ten years on methadone, she started to come off it, too, to decrease her dosage until she wasn’t taking it anymore. She went from 40 milligrams to nothing in just under two years.
“Coming off methadone was insanity,” she says. “Everything that works in your brain has been brought down for so long, and when you’re coming off of methadone, everything starts firing faster. My brain was going so fast, but my body didn’t have the energy to move. I couldn’t sleep, I was very paranoid, and I felt bad about myself. The only reason I didn’t kill myself was because of my daughter.”
On the day she finished her last dose of methadone, the clinic gave her the standard card and a cupcake with a candle in it. Matta didn’t know where to go or what to do. She added the word “clinic” to the list of things she didn’t have any longer.
“I had no energy,” she says. “I remember feeling so bad in the winter that I would get out of bed and aim straight for the front door so I could put my bare feet in the snow, to like shock my system into just being able to get dressed. I would stand in the shower, and I couldn’t raise my hands to wash my hair. I would just stand under the water. It was horrible.”
About six months after her last dose of methadone Matta reached a point where she started sleeping, and for part of the day her body actually felt good. “It was like an awakening. It was like saying, ‘Wow, I can actually wake up and listen to the birds,’ instead of saying, ‘Ah, fuck these birds, God damn it, now I have to get up!’ And it was like saying, ‘Wow, the sunshine, it’s kind of nice.’ I really liked that.”
Late in 1987 Matta went to a counselor at a methadone clinic in tears, saying she was straight but couldn’t find a job, didn’t know what to do with her life–that she was desperate, and afraid she would return to drugs.
“He didn’t say anything. He just wrote a name and number on a piece of paper and handed it to me like this”–she holds a Post-it at arm’s length. “He just said to call this person.” The name on the note belonged to the head of a research project at the University of Illinois-Chicago forming to study IV drug users and AIDS. The university was hiring former addicts–not only would reformed addicts know where the drug scene was, but researchers surmised that current drug users would listen to them. Matta called UIC, got an interview, and was offered a job as a community-outreach worker in January 1988.
“If I didn’t have the job, I think I’d be dead right now,” she says.
The two-week training session in late January was called HIV 101. Matta was handed a manual the size of a Chicago phone book and took her place in the UIC classroom with other outreach workers. Professors and researchers went through the manual page by page, explaining the nature of AIDS and the link between HIV and intravenous drug use. So much information was thrown at her at once that Matta was overwhelmed. “I thought I was the only one who didn’t understand everything.
“I remembered hearing about AIDS on the radio when I was using, but I thought of it more as a gay disease. I remember being really scared when I came home from work and thought about what they told us, about how you could get AIDS.”
She was learning about high-risk behaviors–sharing needles, flushing syringes with shared water, having unsafe sex. The project directors showed Matta and the other trainees how to prevent transmission of the AIDS virus by flushing dirty needles twice with bleach and twice with sterilized water. They went over ways to approach people on the street when passing out condoms and AIDS literature. They went over risk-assessment questions in the manual that she was to ask clients once she had gained their trust.
But reading about something in a manual and putting those lessons into practice on the street were very different things. Matta’s primary outreach area was the Lathrop housing project, where she still lived. But when she went there and told her old drug partners about AIDS, nobody would listen. “I was getting paid for 10 hours of work a week, but I was on the street for about 50 hours a week trying to break through. It was so cold then because it was the middle of winter. I was freezing out there.
“But everybody I talked to, they were just like ‘Yeah, right,’ and they would take literature from me but they wouldn’t read it. I would find it on the street. I’d almost lost all hope. Poor Larry [her boss], he was just totally fed up with me because I’d call him, and I would be crying. I’d say, ‘I can’t do it. Nobody will talk to me.’
“Then one day somebody took some bleach from me, and little by little it just opened up. People realized I was not out to find information. I was not bullshitting them, because they realized I was not getting high anymore.”
But even though she had successfully broken into her network, Matta still didn’t have any confidence. She hadn’t worked in more than 15 years, and getting used to a straight working routine was tough. Suddenly she was around drugs again, and the look and smell of them tempted her. She almost relapsed less than a year after she started the job.
“I bought a $40 bag of cocaine and was getting ready to shoot it, and I took a little of it to snort. As soon as I smelled it, the smell brought back all those awful memories. I wrapped it up tight and took it to the girl across the hall. And I handed it to her and said, ‘It’s yours. Party.'”
Today, Matta works a nine-to-five 40-hour week. She is most at peace when she drives to work listening to classical music or jazz. She hums a tune from Porgy and Bess as she walks the garbage-strewn sidewalks to her office at the Community Health Outreach Project at 4407 N. Broadway. It’s a little before 9 AM, and on her way she smiles at the homeless who’ve left the overnight shelters for the day. They say hello and look at her with respect.
She unlocks the first door to her building and punches in a code for a second locked door not ten feet from the first. She walks past the lobby, an open room with a table and at least ten mismatched chairs around it, to the second office on the right. She puts her bag down, shuts the door, lights a cigarette, and leans back in her chair. The phone rings, and a desperate woman on the other end, a drug user Matta’s known for years, tells her she’s in the hospital, that the door to her room warns doctors to wear masks and gloves, but the hospital staff has not told her if she has HIV or not. Matta speaks to her like a caring mother reassuring a sick child.
“You’ve got to know,” Matta tells the woman. “You’ve got to demand that they tell you what’s going on. I feel so bad for you because I know what you’re going through. You have to be strong now, probably stronger than you’ve ever been before. At least when you know one way or another, you can make some decisions in your life.”
Matta talks to the woman for a few minutes about religion, about life and death. She tells the woman that there is a reason she’s still here and that she should not give up on life.
“If you find out you’re HIV-positive, I’ll come up there and we’ll talk,” Matta says. “I love you, honey. Good-bye.” She hangs up and lets out a deep sigh. “Oh shit,” she says long and slow. She leans against the desk, covering her face with her hands, and sits still for a minute.
Matta has gotten used to seeing her clients die. At first she’d get so broken up she’d have to go home. She saw death as a personal failure: if only she’d said this, if only she’d been there for that. “If only”s were standard.
“In the beginning I would just totally break down and go home. I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t want to think about it.
“But in this job you don’t get cold, you get anesthetized. When I’m told that somebody just died or when I find out that somebody is infected or very sick, I get that bad feeling. I get tears in my eyes and feel sad, but then I’ll just turn around and let that feeling come through me. I won’t hold onto it or try to shake it out. I’ll go into the bathroom and cry for a minute and pull myself together, and I’m OK. As OK as I can be.”
On the wall above Matta’s desk is a xeroxed photo of a woman who looks to be in her 30s, a client who died of AIDS. Under the picture an inscription reads “In loving memory.” Next to the memorial flier is a string of pastel thank you cards from a client who now works as a counselor in a methadone clinic.
“These are from my Andrea,” Matta says, taking the cards off the wall delicately and holding them by their edges. Andrea has written Matta long poems inside, thanking her for the fact that she’s alive today.
Matta met her at a support group, Straight Talk, she started down the street at the Salvation Army. At the meeting Andrea sat with her arms and legs crossed, a cynical don’t-mess-with-me look on her face.
But after many discussions, Matta was able to convince Andrea that she was not like the cold counselors she might have met in the past. Matta convinced Andrea she really did care. Eventually she gained her trust, and Andrea decided she wanted to stop using drugs. Matta served as Andrea’s support system when she started to come off methadone.
“When she was coming off of methadone, she would call me all frantic and say, ‘Matta, am I going to feel like this forever?'” Matta remembered what it was like when she first came off drugs, and she knew Andrea had to find a job or she’d have a hard time staying clean. She helped her put together a resume and organize a presentation on AIDS. Matta gave her several pep talks, took her to a methadone clinic, and helped her give the presentation to workers there. The director hired Andrea shortly afterward.
Matta doesn’t consider Andrea or any other client who’s quit drugs a “success story.”
“It’s not my success story,” she says. “It’s hers. I was just there for her. She did everything herself.”
Matta still runs Straight Talk support groups for current users in three locations once a week–one for homeless IV drug users at the Salvation Army, one for IV drug users at another UIC outreach station in Humboldt Park, and another for people trying to come off methadone at the same Humboldt Park center.
She started these groups because she remembered that when she was using drugs she didn’t have time to think about anything but drugs. Straight Talk gives people a chance to talk–about drugs or about other issues that concern them–and have people listen.
“When I first started this job, I saw all these people, and nobody was talking to them,” she says. “The Salvation Army would set appointments and give them a token and refer them to the foot doctor. But nobody was talking to their heart, to their soul.”
During one Straight Talk meeting in a Salvation Army back room, a homeless man in a ragged flannel shirt that smells like a garbage dump talks about all the misery in his life, all the horrible things he’d done when he was on drugs. Matta tells him to put it behind him. “You ever hear the serenity prayer?” she asks him. He shakes his head no. “‘God grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’ That about sums everything up.” The man smiles, nods, and sits still thinking for a while.
When the Straight Talk meeting is over, Matta encourages the people there to stop by the outreach center to talk or to pick up condoms and bleach. As she walks out of the building, she stops at the tables of men playing cards in the dayroom. “Come to group next week, huh?” she says. One man looks up and says that he might. Others just stare at their cards as if they don’t hear her.
Then Matta walks back to her office and fills her big black nylon bag with hundreds of condoms so she can do her work on the streets. On this warm, breezy day, Matta walks several miles in an hour, handing out about 500 condoms. To everyone she passes she says, “Free condoms?” Unless they shake their heads no, she puts a couple packages in their hands.
One man on Wilson holds the condoms she gave him up high in the air and parades around the street chanting, “I’m not gonna get AIDS tonight! I’m not gonna get AIDS tonight!”
People now pay attention to the AIDS literature that was once strewn across the street. They’re aware. When Matta goes into apartments, she sees empty bleach bottles on tables with cookers and other drug paraphernalia. The people who initially snubbed her when she came around talking about AIDS now listen and ask her questions. “I know people who used to share needles and have changed their behavior and started using bleach because of what we’ve said about AIDS,” she says. “The people they shoot drugs with are HIV-positive now, and they aren’t.”
But Matta knows she can’t make people listen–they’ll listen when they’re ready. When a client lets her down, she no longer takes it personally.
Once a client who’d just had a baby told Matta at her west-side Straight Talk group that she didn’t have any clothes for the child. Matta made some calls and drove to the Saint Vincent DePaul Center on the north side to pick up a whole Hefty bag of clothes, diapers, and blankets. The following week, when she lugged the bag to Straight Talk, the woman didn’t even show up.
“At one time I would’ve taken that as a personal attack,” Matta says. “I would’ve been crushed, and I would’ve delivered them to her house. There were people who had me living their lives for them. Now I’ve learned to set limits. I find out what they need, and I help them do it themselves. If she wants those baby clothes, she’s going to have to pick them up.”
Matta still isn’t living in the champagne and chiffon world she once dreamed about. Every day she faces the temptation of drugs–she sees them, smells them, and hears about them.
“There are times when I’m doing outreach, and I’ve walked into a building and knocked on a door, and they’ll say, ‘Come on in, come on, it’s just Matta.’ I’ll step in, and I’ll see what’s going on, and I’ll just get my stuff and leave. Because the smell of drugs cooking, the sulfur smell, it hits the pit of my gut, and I don’t want to feel that. I don’t want to feel that temptation.”
She has a routine to avoid succumbing to those feelings. “In my head I’ll do this,” and she lets out a big gulp of air. “If it’s a long feeling, and it keeps nagging me, I’ll say, ‘OK, Matta, now if you get high, what could happen? You’re going to want to get high again. You could end up with a habit. Think about your habit. Think about how horrible it was. Think about all the bullshit in your life then. Think about what you have now.’ And then I’ll probably go eat something. You have to do something, otherwise you might feed into that feeling.”
Everywhere she turns she sees reminders of her drug years. On her way to work every day she passes the wealthy businessman’s apartment where she used to turn dates. She also passes what used to be the three strip joints she worked at. One is now a restaurant, another is a Chinese meat market, and the third one burned down.
Matta now lives in a beautiful Edgewater apartment overlooking a park. Michelle, who’s 18 and works in an Old Town card shop, and Matta’s second husband, whom she married two years ago, live with her. Matta still feels an incredible amount of guilt for what she put Michelle through. “It’s a horrible thing for people who use drugs. You don’t understand while it’s happening, but you look back on it and you say, ‘My God, I put all that responsibility on a little tiny kid.’
“She said to me once, ‘I never had toys when I was growing up. I never had a Barbie doll.’ I gave her a Barbie doll last Christmas, and she cried.”
Because of Michelle’s anxiety, Matta has to leave the bathroom door ajar when she’s in there. When she stays too long, Michelle pounds on the door.
“My daughter is very hard. Or at least she thinks she is,” Matta says slowly. “But she has her guard up all the time because she doesn’t want to get hurt anymore. So I have affected her whole life. I can’t make it up to her, but maybe I can make it a little different for her now.”
Since Matta has been off drugs, she has seen the two children her ex-husband took. Although at first Matta didn’t know what to say to them, she now talks to her son on the phone frequently. Her first daughter stayed with her for a few months after she got out of high school. Matta took her on a vacation to Iceland three years ago, and she decided she wanted to stay. She lives there now with her daughter, whose middle name is Matta’s middle name, Kristianna.
Matta wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when memories of her drug years haunt her in nightmares. The sight of a diapered child eating a raw onion, the feelings of fingernails gripping the sides of a hospital bed for dear life, the sulfur smell of heroin cooking–all of these Matta has learned to leave behind her, “to accept the things she cannot change,” she says, quoting the serenity prayer. She has gone on with a life that was stuck for almost ten years.
Today Matta spends a lot of time working on her self-image, trying to break out of the old patterns that once led her to drugs. “I always felt like I had to take care of everybody, so I try not to do that as much. I can feel good without always getting rewards from people. Now I do things to make me feel good.
“There’s a reason for me being here today. That keeps me going. Don’t you see? Somewhere out there, there’s a person only you can touch. That’s why I’m still here. I believe that.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.