In Praise of All Things Wild

A Short Autobiography
When I was five years old my mother accelerated onto the on ramp of Willow Road outside of Chicago and the side door, which had been slightly ajar, inadvertently swung open, tossing my unsuspecting body out onto the highway like someone losing control of an empty brown McDonald’s bag sitting in the back seat of the car for days and waiting to be thrown out.

Instinctively, I rolled onto the pavement at 40 miles per hour and tucked into the fetal position when I spied a semi-truck approaching from behind. My outstretched arms hit the pavement, tearing the skin open and leaving a two-foot long trail of blood painted along the white lines of the highway. When I curled my knees into my body the pool of blood soaked into my t-shirt. The truck swerved slightly, trying to avoid me, but the driver realized the futility of such a last-minute adjustment and he swung the truck directly over my now motionless body. Drips of corrosive diesel engulfed my body, the engine wailed and hummed as the brakes screeched in a last ditch effort to right the truck, the muffler grazed my shoulder, shredding my t-shirt and skin, and the semi-truck thrust me out of its entrails without much fanfare.

When the driver pulled over the to side of the road everyone, including my mother, assumed I was dead. Ongoing traffic swerved to avoid my motionless body, still tucked in the middle of one of the busiest highways in suburban Chicago, until I gathered myself, stood up and ran across the road to safety. From across the four-lane divide I could see my mother crying. It was the first and last time I have ever witnessed my mother crying. The truck driver told my mother that he had heard a loud thud sound as his truck careened over my body and he knew I had been instantly killed. It was the muffler swiping my shoulder. The truck driver had been crying too. My body’s brief immobility in the middle of the road only added to the worries.

My mother asked me if I was hurt. I said no. Even then I was learning the value of being stoic. We drove home without any discussion of the incident. My mother never told my father about the accident and there was no visit to the hospital, even though my body hurt for months afterwards. Blood soaked my t-shirt and blue jeans.

From that moment forward the accident was relegated to complete silence for nearly forty years, as if it only existed in some imaginary world that children inhabit, as if the entire incident had merely been a looney-toons cartoon and I was the roadrunner who got up unscathed from under the anvil every time.

Except I wasn’t unscathed. My body had healed, but the emotional wounds from the accident cut an invisibly cavernous swath within my small five-year-old body that ran deep and wide, touching every capillary and blood vessel running into and out of my heart and every nerve ending and axon seeking entrance and exit from my brain.

The nightmares began suddenly and without warning on the evening of the accident. A semi-truck rolling down the freeway, out of control, swerving frantically, plowing directly into my body. On perpetual repeat, over and over. I awaken twenty times on that first night. Every time my head hits the pillow I meet that same semi-truck again and again, rolling on down the road and heading in only one direction. Each morning I awake without rest, my pillow and sheets drenched in sweat. I begin to turn on my bedroom light each night to make the nightmares subside. They continue, unabated. Same truck, same story, same result. On repeat, over and over. Eventually the semi-truck evolves into a train and then the train becomes an airplane. The objects become larger and more foreboding with each passing week, each one rolling head on directly into my child’s body and fragile psyche. The ingenuity of the imagination is limitless, especially if survival depends upon it. As my small head lays down the terror goes up. There are many sleepless nights, many nights when I awake screaming from night terrors. Each dream has the same underlying theme- destruction, violence, death.

Slowly, over time, these objects of death begin to transform. The trucks become wild predators, the trains become amorphous monsters, the planes become vampires. Monsters- those objects of social disruption and mayhem, those objects displacing the status quo, those objects assaulting our safety and complacency- begin to creep into my dreams until they become an obsession. I’m watching monster movies whenever I can, even though I’m much too young to understand them. My mother allows it because she experiences such guilt. My other two siblings sleep soundly in bed as I burn the midnight oil in front of horror movies. I build models of monsters. I clip pictures of the most frightening images I can find, keeping them in a spiral notebook, as if somehow classifying and binding them can keep them at bay. It doesn’t work, it’s too late. The creatures have been loosed upon my imagination.

I now understand that these monsters symbolized death, plain and simple, staking a massive claim on my naively impressionistic mind. No child should have to face the constant threat of death every day, whether real or imaginary. I had joined admittance into an unenviable club of children facing terminal illnesses, war, cancer, and severe abuse, although no one understood the magnitude of my symptoms at the time. Today I would have been diagnosed with childhood posttraumatic stress disorder. My symptoms were classic- constant flashbacks, nightmares, depression, anger, isolation, fear and insomnia. On most days the PTSD club door remained locked and there was no way out except to venture into my turbulent dreams, which greeted me with the slight relief of engaging the monsters head on. At least in my dreams I could confront my enemies head on, even as I lost every battle I ever fought. During the day my flashbacks were incessant, bombarding me with a frequency and intensity that would be hard to describe. I remember one day in first grade when my body was so soaked with sweat that the teacher believed I had just fallen into a pond. She asked me if I had somehow during recess taken a swim in a nearby pond. I said no. I had stayed inside the entire time. The constant sweats became an uncontrollable anxiety now pervading every night and day of my young existence. By age 6 I had lost control of my body to an unrelenting anxiety, my mind refused to focus on thoughts other than traumatic ones and my shame from these perverse concessions was becoming unbearable. I fell into a dark childhood depression.

My response to these circumstances was isolation and spending increasingly large amounts of time in nature. A small tributary of the Chicago river ran behind our home and I spent most of my free time either in or on the river, trying desperately to fathom its secrets. Perhaps a glimpse into the mysteries of the river might assuage my pain, if only momentarily. If the heart is a lonely hunter then I had been marooned on an island in the middle of the Chicago river, unable to swim to shore even with my home in sight. I was lonely beyond compare, trapped in a body and mind that only knew despair and pain. At 6 years old I saw no way out. My mother always watched me from afar, aware of my suffering and isolation, aware of our secret. She felt powerless to intervene and afraid to broach a taboo topic.

One evening six months after the accident my mother entered my room with a book. It was a slim book, but vibrant with pictures and strange creatures. At the heart of the book was a small boy named Max. The book was Maurice Sendek’s Where the Wild Things Are. My mother pulled me close and began to read. I was mesmerized. By the end I had begun to cry, at first only imperceptibly, but my tears quickly gained momentum until they refused to stop. My mother was taken aback, confused. “Everything’s okay,” she said. “It’s just a book.”

But it wasn’t just a book. It contained all the magic and mystery and romance of all the greatest novels wrapped up into one, especially for a child. No book before or since has had such an impact upon my life. It was my hero’s journey, my odyssey, my lifeline. The plot: Max is sent to his room by his mother without his dinner for being unruly and acting wild. In his room he takes an imaginary journey to visit the wild things where he both plays with and rules over them. He leaves when he misses his family, returning home to a hot meal. He returns home to maternal love. The level of recognition and hope I experienced after that first reading was indescribable. The tears were real, deep and heartfelt. I had connected to a profound sense of possibility in Max, one capable of ending my torment. I had my mother read and re-read Wild Things every night, sometimes two or three times each night before sleep. I wanted to venture into the land of nod with Max every evening. He was my guide, my compass, my soulmate.

Max is sent to his room for being too wild. I was sent to my room so many times for being too wild, consumed by the rage of a child stricken with PTSD. On one occasion before Sunday school I barricaded my door and refused to attend church. I was six years old. That evening I was forced to remain in my room as punishment, even after the barricade had been removed. On my first day of school in first grade I threatened to hurt the teacher if she was “too mean” to the class. My mother sent me to my room that evening without dinner. Alone in my room I again barricaded the door and refused to come out. I had only been protecting the other students from harm, I protested. My mother disagreed. To my room I went.

Max traveled by private boat to visit the wild things. During a torrential downpour and with the floodgates to the Chicago river open, I decided to launch the small family rowboat into the angry Chicago river. I was swept downstream into swirling rapids, barely staying afloat. Near a small bridge some thirty minutes later the Chicago fire department pulled me to safety as the rowboat had already taken on so much water it was miraculous it had remained afloat. My mother referred to this incident as my second life. We now had another secret. Max’s boat never came close to sinking in a raging storm. He played it safe.

Max tamed the wild things with his stare and was appointed king of all wild things. I dug up a 110 lb. alligator snapping turtle during one drought season on the Chicago river and appointed myself king of the river. I held a stick high above my head, just as Max had waved his staff over the wild things, and declared my victory over the same river that three months earlier had nearly taken my life. The snapping turtle was later donated to the Chicago aquarium because it was such a massive and wondrous creature.

Max leads a parade of wild things, each one dancing and jumping with glee and abandon, until he sends them to bed. I led a procession of frogs and turtles and hamsters and rabbits in and out of the house with reckless abandon until I set them free back into the wilds of the Chicago river.

Max feels lonely and wants to be “where someone loved him best of all.” He gives up his crown and returns home, even as the wild things threaten to “eat him up.” More than anything after my accident I wanted to feel love, to be acknowledged and held and reminded of the truism that love conquers all.

My mother, who held our secret for so long, later confided to me that her mother never held her, never told her how much she loved her, always holding her at the puritanical distance required for relationships to feel safe. Love is implicit and unspoken, she said. It’s just bad manners to be too effusive with one’s emotions.

I realize now my mother lived with an inexhaustible guilt. On a humdrum spring morning, without warning, on the way to pick up her son and with the door slightly ajar, her son falls onto the highway. Only inches and seconds and pure luck saved his life. She forgot to check the door. She accelerated onto the highway. She knew, although never spoke about it, that her second son should have died that day. The son would inform you, as a psychologist, that if you replicated that same accident in a tightly controlled experiment you might expect, with slim probability only, one survival for each 1000 trials. No other words needed to be spoken about the accident. The odds spoke for themselves.

Every sleepless night, every sweat soaked sheet, every nighttime scream, every agonized yell and angry outburst- my mother knew what each and every gesture meant. We alone shared this secret- a terrible secret that both strengthened and detracted from the parent-child bond. From the moment of the accident our relationship would never be the same, wrapped in an ambivalence and love and hatred all at the same time. I needed a love and a nurturance she simply could never provide and she needed a forgiveness I could never give her. In most ways our relationship always remained at an impasse, stuck in the limbo between an avoidance and acknowledgment of a love both taken and given at the same time, but, somewhere in the unspoken truce of trauma and secrecy between a mother and her son laid the remnants of healing from a book with a boy named Max who conquered the wild things and returned home to the place where he was “loved best of all.” Reading the wild things itself to a wounded son became a place of healing, a gift my mother could only show, but never tell. Finding Max, it turns out, was the greatest gift my mother had ever given to me and his reach in my life started small, but began to spread with a slow intensity like the tremors from a small ocean earthquake gaining momentum and moving towards the shore as an unassailable tsunami.

There was the family trip west at age 12 with massively open skies and spaces and the hope that maybe life, even in its brevity, offered freedom from all the confines of concrete jungles; with spicy Mexican food so hot I could barely breathe or believe humans could consume such fiery enticements; with oceans and body surfing in Los Angeles and cliff diving off of Dana Point.

There was the Grand Canyon, a gorge so deep, impenetrable and unimaginable I could only watch in awe as we hiked into the lower strata of the canyon. I realized at age 12 not that the canyon was too vast, but that my imagination had been too small to envision it. I needed to somehow enlarge my imagination, to rethink the possible, merely through an encounter with a canyon. After that first trip West my nightmares began to lessen in intensity.

There was the grizzly bear in Glacier National Park at age 16, protecting her cubs. She charged, but never followed through with her initial threat when I ran for cover and never looked back. My actions were unsafe in every way. I’m glad I lived to tell the story.

There was the mountain lion who followed me up a desolate trail in Arches National Park at age 17 without my awareness and, when she turned around and made herself known, we stared at each other for several minutes before she decided to move on. That stare lasted an eternity.

There were the pre-dawn swims at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound school in Maine during the summer before my freshman year in college. How I hated the frigid cold waters and the suspicion of dangerous creatures lurking below my outstretched body gliding over the surface of the ocean. Like Max I had no desire to be eaten up by wild things I could not see.

There was the buffalo stampede just west of the Sage Creek campground in the Badlands National Park when I was 23 years old. Hiking along an elevated, grassy embankment the morning after a damp evening spent sleeping in a miserably wet tent, I felt the ground begin to rumble. A herd of buffalo had been grazing several miles below in the river, but I did not pay much attention to them. When the first three-ton buffalo appeared over the edge of the slightly elevated hill and stopped for an instant to make eye contact with me, my heart rate accelerated like a runaway train. Two thousand buffalo emerged from the mist and I took cover behind a small sagebrush about 15 feet from my hiking position. The herd parted along the sagebrush, dividing equally between left and right with me in the center, and they left me unscathed. I now consider the American buffalo to be a kindred spirit.

There was the summit of Mount Baker in Seattle, mountain biking the white rim trail in the Canyonlands, delicate Arch outside of Moab, rafting on the Green River, canyoneering Pine Creek in Zion and Neon canyon in Escalante, mountain biking the uncut trails in Yellowstone, ice climbing outside of Telluride, and too many nights to count spent alone in vast, lonely, desolate and austerely beautiful desert places. All things wild.

As these many wild things pierced my soul the symptoms of PTSD began to lessen their grip on my psyche. The nightmares decreased, as did the fitful sleep. Fewer monsters paid nightly visits and my dreams became populated by rivers, canyons and mountain tops. As I entered graduate school to become a psychologist, an inevitable step in my personal evolution, the journey evolved from outside landscapes to internal terrain where the wild things hid beneath tough exteriors, addictions and mounds of fear reaching far beyond anything the visible eye could detect. These internal landscapes were just a treacherous and equally wild. Max knew this terrain well.

In my third year of graduate school there was Martin, age 8, who had been repeatedly raped and beaten by his uncle for over two years. He climbed under a chair in the fetal position and began to scream. And scream and scream some more. Unholy, wailing, mournful screams, screams so sad and dejected I wanted to disown being a human being, to disavow the possibility that any human being might be capable of inflicting such pain upon a defenseless child. I pulled up my chair close to Martin and handed him a stuffed animal tiger. His screams gave way to tears, bundles of tears, tears so profound and deep and moving it was hard to imagine any child could have survived for so long with such suffering. Martin began to heal once he could begin to acknowledge the wild things he so desperately wanted to hide. I knew his tears all too well. I knew those wild places inside him. I was on my way to becoming a psychologist.

There were so many wild encounters as a psychologist. There was Bonnie, the middle-aged CEO, who controlled everything in her life, including me. Only after acknowledging the wreck her life had become with numerous failed relationships, three divorces, five estranged children and multiple harassment claims at work did she begin to awaken. She never wept and never mourned the past. “No regrets,” she said. “I’m so rich I can buy my happiness.” She couldn’t and she knew it. Love- true, authentic, genuine love- has no price tag. Feelings were not her strong suit, although over time and across several years, the hard exterior began to crack and she let some tenderness in. She fell in love and everything changed. The controlling, overly harsh and punitive self gave way to a gentler internal wilderness, a wild guided by self-compassion held at bay for so many years because of the fears of being weak and taken advantage of by men. Bonnie had been molested by her father for many years as a child. Now she could finally engage that wild part of herself that had so frightened her and kept her feelings of sadness and rage buried behind a solid veil of control and equanimity.

There was Bob, whose father had ferociously belittled and abused him until he could fight back as a young adult. He remained helpless and ashamed throughout his life, devoid of any real self. Everyone was out to get him. Every girlfriend was cheating on him. Paranoia sets in when the self disappears. On one drunken evening Bob found a rope and climbed onto his parents’ roof top where he used his considerable fixing skills to loop the rope around the chimney with a noose on the other free end. With the noose secure around his neck, he ran straight and true for the full moon and, for a brief untethered moment, Bob took flight. He finally found the freedom he so intensely desired. Sometimes an ugly wild prevails, a wild that knows no boundaries and has no limits. That wild only destroys, refusing to obey any logic or compassion, like a cancer unmoored by natural constraints. Bob has been the only client I have ever lost and it haunts me every day.

Wild, wilderness, wild things come in many forms and shapes with endless variations. What they all share is uncertainty, unpredictability and adventure. In the wild you might just perish, but you could just as easily make peace with a few unruly monsters who refuse to be tamed. My mother, watching her son spiral into helplessness and despair and unable to reach him, purchased a book about wild things so many years ago. Perched by her side the act of reading and togetherness created the safety to bring the wild things into the light of day, into awareness, and forever changed that little boy’s future. Psychologists always pull up that chair beside their clients and take in the stories and wild things that compose a life.

So let me praise all the wild things that make life precious, unpredictable and adventurous: to the raging rivers and the untamed canyons, to the rhinos and elephants and tigers, the grizzlies, buffaloes, leopards, mountain lions, sharks and snapping turtles; to the endangered species and diminishing glaciers; to the visionaries, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, and leaders who risk everything for an uncertain reward; to the extreme athletes and explorers of the unknown out on the edge of life and death; to the trailblazers and pioneers of the mind; to those game changers who push towards the edge of the known world- physically, mentally, emotionally; to the scientists pushing back the frontiers of knowledge and science; to the books, universities, and professors who seek to upend the status quo and to push beyond the barriers of quotidian paradigms; to the survivors of trauma and atrocities who provide examples of unimaginable resiliency and courage; and to all the children who dare to dream of a better future and a world without violence, racism, rampant inequality, and climate upheavals.

Wild things all and all wild things. Some may be tamed, but most will not. Wild things can destroy, but they also have the power to heal, which brings me to the wildest thing of them all- Max.

You saved my life, and although I could never have known it at the time, I have spent my entire adult life trying to save you. I hope I never give up trying, because you are worth it. You are the enduring child in us all, unafraid to follow your imagination wherever it leads. You are the story about the sometimes turbulent relationship between an unruly child and his mother, who wants her young son to remain wild, but still sends him to his room to tame him.

I still struggle- and always will- with a lifelong depression. Some days are worse than others, especially when my body refuses to cooperate with my mind. There is this debilitating paralysis that engulfs my bad days, a swirling pervasive vortex of numbness and pain that refuses to subside no matter how much I wish it away. This pain does not succumb to positive thinking, self-talk or similar such ruses and mental tricks- it’s stubborn, smart and unrelenting. Staring endlessly at the ceiling fan is sometimes the best I can do on those dark days.

And the nightmares still come and go. Occasionally, unexpectedly, a train will run through my dreams and over my motionless outstretched body. Sometimes an unidentifiable creature will tear into my flesh or eviscerate my heart. No matter, I’ve already befriended them all, brought them into the wild rumpus of my life and dreams. In spite of my bad days, my heart has become more resilient over time, in part thanks to Max and the wild things, in part from carrying a lifelong pain coexisting with my mortality and frailty, in part from discovering the unconditional love of finally being a parent. The heart, it turns out, can only be bent, but never fully broken. The heart refuses to stop searching for those untamed places where healing occurs, where wounds can be soothed and mended.

On my worst days I pick up Where the Wild Things Are and read it. Max still gives me hope for this planet of diminishing wild things. And I’ve recently begun to read the Wild Things to my son, as a gift for his first birthday. I prefer to read the Wild Things to him on those bad days when I can’t shake a deep abiding agony burrowing itself into my body and mind, following me everywhere. I want my son to know Max, to grow up with the wild things. I want him to discover all the wild things hidden beneath the surface, lurking in the depths of the unconscious, stirring with the mystery, creativity, tumult and vitality of life.

On those bad days when my soul aches and my mortality and fragility bring me closer to the edge of the cavernous abyss of the human heart, I close the book after reading the last page, turn to my son and say:

For as long as you remember me, for long as blood streams through your wild heart, for as long as you remember all your adventures and days and loves and heartaches, for as long as you can touch and taste and experience all the wild things, you can always return home again and again to the place where you are loved best of all.

Let the wild rumpus start.

Let us together set the wild things free.

Dr. John Matthias

“My body had healed, but the emotional wounds from the accident cut an invisibly cavernous swath within my small five-year-old body that ran deep and wide, touching every capillary and blood vessel running into and out of my heart and every nerve ending and axon seeking entrance and exit from my brain.”