By Corinne Mattos
Corinne Mattos dropped out of the University of Nevada, Reno after her brother developed schizophrenia. Now, with her brother on the road to recovery, Corinne is back at UNR and tells the story of her familys dark journey through her brothers psychosis.
Around 9 p.m. on January 21, 2013, Kirsten Mattos was cooking Mexican food to distract herself from the fact that her 16-year-old son, Alec Mattos, had been missing for over 4 hours.
The Mattos family waited. The sun went down when they were just about ready to call the sheriff. Suddenly they received a call no parent wants to hear. Alec had been hit by a car, and was being rushed to Marshall Hospital in Placerville, California.
Alec had been out on his Razor scooter with no phone. Without telling anyone, he had ridden miles away on the small two-lane country roads of Placerville. He was looking for someone to hang out with. Coming around a tight corner, the driver of a Sedan was unable to avoid hitting him—nearly straight on.
After several hours and a litany of tests, doctors had determined that, other than a few cuts and bruises, Alec was in good shape. Ray, Alec’s father, and Kirsten took their son home, feeling relieved and thankful.
This would be the last normal night. The next day would be the beginning of the long, painful roller coaster the Mattos family experienced over the next few months, a roller coaster that would nearly tear them off their foundation.
The next day, despite Ray and Kirsten’s hesitations, Alec insisted on going to school.
“He jumped out of the car and walked into class just like he always did,” Ray said. The school cameras showed that he had then wandered around, very confused. Alec even went into the wrong class. He was in the bathroom and the principal seemed to believe he may have taken all his clothes off. The Mattos’ received a call from the principal regarding this strange behavior. Alec had no clear memory of what happened.
“He remembers hiding in the bathroom stall afraid of strange feelings,” Ray said.
That night, sometime around 3 a.m., Alec woke up, stepped over his mother sleeping on the floor next to him, got ready, and wandered out of the house. From his scratched legs, the family assumed that he went through the brush in the dark, and got disoriented, ending up at a neighbor’s house 15 acres away from home.
Delusional, Alec thought it was his house; he tried all the doors, knocked and sat on the front porch swing anxiously. The startled neighbor, who called the sheriff, related this to Ray later on.
Kirsten was awakened by a deputy shouting through their open front door, asking if Alec Mattos lived there. She bolted up in disbelief, and went with the sheriff up the street to see Alec being hoisted into an ambulance.
“It was like I was having a nightmare,” Kirsten said.
Alec was taken to the local ER, and then transferred to Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Roseville, 45 minutes from home. He stayed there three days with Kirsten by his side. Alec was complaining that his eyes and head were hurting, he could not sleep
complaining that his eyes and head were hurting, he could not sleep and he was exhibiting inappropriate behavior.
“He was exposing himself to nurses, acting very peculiar, and spacey at times,” Kirsten said. “I can’t even recall why we were released without a diagnosis, seems hard to believe now, because he was not okay and got worse over the next couple days. So we took him back in and he was admitted again.”
This time, Ray gave an ultimatum to one of the rotating doctors to figure out what was wrong and to help his son.
After MRIs, a spinal tap, neurologists and other specialists looking him over, he was cleared physically and sent home three days later. Alec was sent home without medication.
Alec was released on Super Bowl Sunday when the 49ers were scheduled to play the Ravens. Eager and excited for his son’s return, Ray was barbecuing up a storm of ribs, hot dogs and hamburgers with Alec’s favorite music playing.
On her way home with Alec, Kirsten stopped at their mailbox.
“Alec completely freaked out,” Ray said. “He jumped out of the car, was in our driveway screaming. He had no idea where he was.”
Alec was panicked about coming into the house and needed much persuading to enter it.
“I held his hand and walked with him slowly,” Kirsten said. “Looking down, I noticed I had on black shoes, and he had white. I repeated ‘white shoe, black shoe, white shoe, black shoe’ to get him to walk with me. I really thought I was holding onto the hand of a preschooler trying to re-associate with his environment. This is only two weeks after the accident and that was just the beginning.
After some time and lots of consoling, Alec calmed down and returned to a rational state of mind.
“That was nothing compared to what happened next,” Ray said.
The next few weeks would push the family to its wits end.
Student’s brother endures difficult recovery
“We had a week of difficulty,” Kirsten said. “Oh my god, of delusion. Having to restrain him, keep him inside, install an alarm system. He was in a manic state so he barely slept. I don’t think I ever slept, maybe rested in between taking care of him.”
The hospital finally recognized that Alec needed to be admitted. The Mattos family met with psychologist Robert Diamond, who was to become an instrumental part of Alec’s recovery and to this day sees Alec weekly. He started Alec on Seroquel, an anti-psychotic used to treat bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and psychosis.
“I mostly just felt sad and confused,” Kirsten said. “Nobody had really explained anything. He was completely driven by delusions. Flat-out psychosis had attacked my 16-year-old son. It will make me cry now, I wasn’t crying then. It was all about doing what needed to be done. It’s like having an adrenaline rush, you feel numb.”
The morning of Feb. 7, on the way home from a surprisingly pleasant family breakfast, Alec lost touch with reality and tried to jump out of the moving car his sister was driving. Cursing and threatening her, Alec demanded she pull over. Ray struggled to keep the situation under control.
“From the backseat I had to yell at her to keep driving while I restrained him,” Ray said.
Once home, Alec became very verbally abusive, pacing the house, cursing at his father.
“He became violent,” Ray said. “He pulled a knife from our block in the kitchen and tried to stab me. He eventually simmered down enough for us to get him to the hospital. At this point I thought, ‘you have demonstrated that you are a danger to yourself and others.’”
Alec was ultimately admitted to Sierra Vista Mental Hospital again for 10 days on a 5150 hold, an involuntary psychiatric hold administered by a physician over a person deemed to have a mental disorder that makes him or her a danger to self or others.
Alec was far from stabilized once released from the hospital. The long sleepless nights, violent episodes and constant delusions were part of daily life with no end in sight. At this point, it was clear Alec would not be able to attend high school.
Concerned for Alec’s privacy and lacking an explanation to offer friends and family, the Mattos’ kept to themselves. The family was strained and many sacrifices had to be made.
“Ray and I both work full time jobs to support our family,” Kirsten said. “With our daughter in college, neither of us could afford to quit. So we split our work days. I lost hundreds of hours. My work means everything. I love it. It gives me purpose outside of my house. It’s a local newspaper so it’s detailed and I love that. That I might have to quit hurt.”
After a particularly belligerent, violent and manic night in April, the family figured they’d need to take him to the hospital again.
“I stayed home from work, Ray had a conference call,” Kirsten said. “ Alec threw stuff all over his room, busted out the screen to his bathroom, threw his phone out the window telling me he needed to go get it. I tried to stop him, he busted the front door bolt and ran up the street. Ray caught him. I drove after in the car, Ray got him into the car but Alec kicked the windshield repeatedly.
“It shattered like fireworks and he ripped the visor off. He did not want me driving him back home and I waved for Ray to get away. I stayed parked on Mewuk Drive and managed to calm him down while Ray called 911. The sheriffs came. My son went off in handcuffs that day. I was sick. The whole next month my son spent in the hospital.”
Although seeing Alec in handcuffs and knowing he would be locked up for an extended period of time was hard to swallow, knowing he was getting the help he needed was a breath of fresh air, Kirsten said.
“Having put him in Sierra Vista again, I was relieved from the immense stress upon our family,” Ray said.
During the first few nights Alec spent in the hospital, he was taken off his medication, which caused him to completely go off the rails.
“Oh my god, we’d get calls from the nurse. He was masturbating in the hallway,” Kirsten said. “It was like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” It was a ward full of crazy people and my son was the craziest.”
Dr. Jason Bynum, of Sierra Vista Mental Hospital, diagnosed Alec several times over the course of his 30-day stay, finally settling on a derivative of schizophrenia called schizoaffective disorder. Finding the right medications is a slow, tedious and painful process. These powerful anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers take a toll on the mind and body, according to Bynum.
“He was very over-drugged,” Ray said. “He seemed like a zombie: drooling, pupils completely dilated, unable to communicate at all. The first week we visited him, he screamed, ‘Get out!’”
Eventually toward the end of his 30-day stay, the right cocktail of drugs began to bring him out of the haze.
“He could sit in a room of people and once in a while say something,” Kirsten said.
Although thankful for the improvement in Alec’s mental state, his stability came at a price.
“Meds were a great concern and still are,” Ray said. “These drugs and dosages are meant for adults and they could affect his growth. They are helpful and hurtful. At the peak, we were taking 12 pills a day, which caused vomiting all the time, loss of appetite, and he had unbelievably terrible shakes and tremors.”
Alec had a whole team of people in his corner during the transition from hospital to home: two doctors, a psychologist, a school administrator and a big-brother figure who would take him out a couple times a week to integrate him back into the community and become comfortable in social situations.
“The special education department of El Dorado County is awesome,” Kirsten said. “Things went straight up hill from there.
“Alec is now enrolled in a special classroom at Union Mine High School in Diamond Springs California. The classroom is full of light and art. The students are surrounded by caring and unbelievably helpful teachers.”
Each week he gets better. Over time he was taken completely off lithium and his anti-psychotic. Seeing such improvements in Alec has brought so much joy to the family.
“This is my light at the end of the tunnel,” Kirsten said. “This is what I get now: a cooperative, loving, appreciative, funny, open-hearted (boy); compared to the sullen, sad, quiet, don’t-touch-me kid he was a year ago. He still has developmental delays, still in a special class and we’re still trying to screw down his sanity, but he’s striving. He’s OK with who he is, and that’s huge. He’s my little boy. Nobody pictured this path for him, but I think he’s gonna do well.”
Trying to talk to Alec about what happened is like trying to put a puzzle together in the dark. His thoughts are disconnected and scattered. His speech turns to nonsense and his body language is uneasy. He wrings his hands his hands with shaking knees, clearly struggling to recall his journey through psychosis. Despite this, Alec is eager and open to telling what he remembers.
“It felt like a dream,” Alec said. “I was on the couch, spiders were everywhere, I couldn’t stop writing things and I was aligning the planets. I couldn’t stop seeing the number three. I was scared. It was like “Inception” (the 2010 Christopher Nolan film). Like I was going down different levels down into limbo. I had this pink thing. I knew its weight and it kept me sane. I liked having delusions. I was on top of the world.”
When asked how he feels now that it’s over, he said, “Yeah. It’s about time. I’m over it. I’ve moved past it.” He concluded with another abstract thought. “Scary. And I can talk like Lil’ Wayne now. That’s the price of seeing aliens.”
Though Alec’s journey in life is not going to be an easy one, he seems to have come through the worst of it, Kristen said. The family now feels comfortable opening up to friends and family about Alec’s condition. It is a puzzling thing to explain and for people to understand.
“When people hear about what happened to Alec, they often say ‘How did you do it? You’re so strong,’” Kirsten said. “I don’t feel strong. I just did what I had to do. Falling apart doesn’t help. My son’s crazy right now. That’s unusual, but I need to handle it. I don’t find it sad, I just see a problem I have to solve for my child. I’m so proud our family didn’t fall apart and we’re all there to support him. I have so much hope for his future.”