Meet Matthew - Lessons From a Bloody Hand
Hello my fellow humans!
You might not believe it, but I wasn't always a therapist, let alone an author or content creator (or whatever you want to call what it is that I am doing here). Once upon a time I used to work at a video store and attended community college, walking around with fragments of a dream. It was a time of learning to survive as a young adult, juggling responsibilities, and figuring out what goals I had or could imagine having. Compared to my childhood and adolescence, it was peaceful. There was an excitement in the stress of this time. This was me beginning to "adult".
In the beginning of my collegiate journey, I filled my class schedule with a mix of gen-ed courses and electives that made my heart sing - music, psychology, and writing, mostly. Still, I couldn't escape the clutches of the dreaded PE requirement. So, I decided to get crafty and choose archery. Yes, it's an old-school, super cool art form, but honestly—I was just trying to avoid a strenuous workout (this was a "low-sleep" chapter of life). I was clueless as to the challenge of archery and clueless to the painful lessons ahead of me. It would be a lot of fun and at the very least, I got to pretend to be Link for a semester.
These archery classes kicked off at the crack of dawn. We'd gather in a bright green and sprawling field, the kind used by any sports team or activity in desperate need of a lot of grass. Our shooting positions were marked, and targets were set up at increasing distances. Our equipment? Well, it was basic—plastic or silicone longbows and thumb pins for sights. We had to bring our own arrows. I'd picked out these sleek, sharp, and, I thought, awesome deep-blue training arrows.
The significance of my supplies would be oddly connected to my childhood trauma and played a meaningful role in this story. I had always been a fear-driven achiever, built around anxious thoughts that would regularly convince me of my unworthy/unlovable character. For a long time this fear and insecurity manifested a desperate need to prepare for all outcomes in life, big or small. I felt deeply that it was necessary for me to be PERFECT in any evaluative situation. I aimed for nothing less than perfection, lest I fail (and die, as my anxious nervous system had become convinced would happen). This character trait meant that I was all about preparing just right. The moment I signed up for archery, I used all the little money I had to invest in the beginner's essentials—a quality quiver, leather fingertips, a wrist guard, the works. Some kind of unconscious "fake it 'till you make it' process happening live.
We started with the basics—mastering form, honing our draw, syncing breath with action, and eventually hitting targets. Every day was practically the same but as we improved, targets moved farther away. Form was evaluated and improved. Muscle isolation and release made more and more sense. It fascinated me for many reasons, beyond the most satisfying 'thunk' of your arrow burrowing into the target after a moment of deep concentration. But this was still a college class. This meant we had to be graded. We'd set an ungraded score at the beginning of the semester, and be graded based on our improvements between test days. Our form and accuracy (hopefully) improving as we move along.
So there's the rub—I mentioned I'm a perfectionist. I don't self-label or diagnose carelessly either. In a setting like this, there was an overwhelming voice inside me insisting on outshooting everyone-filling me from head to toe with anxiety. Again, to fail publicly is to die, or so my nervous system deeply believed. Having overwhelming worries about the opinions of others was not a healthy pattern to default on—but this was my wiring at the time.
And so, there was a little hiccup that would be very important as the course proceeded—I hadn't gotten all my gear at the start. The leather fingertips seemed especially important given that the bow string would slowly wear out the skin on your fingers. My fingertips didn't arrive for several weeks-while I noticed every single other student was equipped with some version of them. So far though, it hadn't much of a problem since we were mostly drilling basics and not shooting a ton. Sure, my fingers were a bit sore, but it was bearable, for now.
The first test day rolled around, and I was ready to step up from my initial score. Like a lucky twist of fate, the fingertips had just arrived. This would be the first day I was going to use them which meant no more painful shooting and hopefully more accuracy! I was stoked. Thoughts of how much better I'd be able to focus when my hands weren't aching filled my mind. I was going to kick ass.
But then, reality hit—these new leather fingertips were stiff and unyielding, sending my initial shots haywire. This was the first test day, and these first three shots were the three worst shots I'd taken in the class up to this point. I was frustrated, to say the least. Back then, I didn't have a good handle on managing my emotions. In a huff, I unbuttoned the fingertips, angrily swung my right hand towards the ground, and ushered them into the dew-covered grass. My anxiety was through the roof, and now I had to shoot with fingers that were close to blistering or had already begun to.
It seemed daunting. It was quite scary. But not as scary as failing or making a complete fool out of myself. I pushed through, elbow out, bow fully drawn, fingers screaming in protest. I didn't have a choice, as far as I was concerned. For better or worse, life has taught me that willpower is simply refusing to stop putting one foot in front of the other. So I would keep shooting. If a nurse asked me what the pain was out of ten, I began the test around a 2 or 3 and finished at a 9 or 10.
It was in that first moment of intense discomfort that I gained access to something I never knew I had—an incredibly sharp focus, a grit that didn't waver, and a determination that would've put Hercules to shame. You know that 'flow state' that athletes often talk about? Yeah, I was right there. Suddenly, my world narrowed down to me, the bow, and the target. The pain, well, it started to feel more like background noise, no longer the deafening siren it was before. It was trance-like and meditative.
Now, I'm not fishing for sympathy, but I don't want to downplay the situation. With each arrow that took flight, my fingers ached like they were on fire. Picture this—my skin, already tender and raw, was blistering under the relentless friction of the bowstring. It was as if I could feel every layer of my skin tear open, revealing a painful rawness underneath. It didn't just stop at blisters. I wish it had. Halfway through the exam, my skin broke, and my fingertips began to bleed. It was as though every nerve ending in my fingers was screaming in protest, begging me to stop. I knew if I showed my instructor my hand, he'd likely have let me retake the exam another time. But that was quitting in my mind. That was failure.
That was death.
So, with each shot, I found myself sinking deeper into that focused state. The pain, though intense and nearly overwhelming, started losing its edge. I acknowledged that it was there, that it was going to get worse, but I knew I would endure it. My mind seemed to have turned into an impenetrable fortress, barely registering the desperate pleas for mercy emanating from my torn fingertips.
This realization hit me hard—the pain wasn't solely driving me. The burning desire to outperform my peers, that relentless perfectionism, and the anxiety around being observed were all pushing me beyond my limits. It was as if these external motivators had kindled a fire within me that not only steeled me against the pain but also helped me find that 'flow state' or that 'extra gear' that I mentioned before
And then it clicked. I found this "mindful control" of my reactions to discomfort and pain for the wrong reasons, but I found it. At least this was a moment in my life it was completely crystallized. This was my first experience of what true acceptance felt like, even though I didn't know it, yet. There is a power in the human spirit to know in your nerves that the storm will pass and to not resist the uncontrollable. The next decade of my life involved a great deal of learning to accept the things I have no control of, including whatever pain and discomfort is acting as a barrier between me and my next goal.
This hard-earned lesson, learned on the bleeding ends of my hand on that brisk morning of my first exam etched itself deep into my physical and emotional muscle memory It's a piece of wisdom I'll never lose and one that rushes to the forefront of my mind whenever life truly backs me into a corner. There's always that extra gear, that hidden reserve of focus, mental discipline, and sheer grit—all built on acceptance. It is always within reach, waiting for us to tap into it. You cannot control all the things that happen to you, but you can control how you respond to them.
Everyone has a different path to their grit and it might manifest in many different ways. But in a world flying at the speed of light with immense technological and cultural changes, we undoubtedly need and will continue to need new tools to keep our heads on straight and some form of grit or resilience to endure whirlwind of change around us. If we get caught up ruminating or analyzing our pain with endless problem-solving, we are only putting more attention on the pain and less attention on the things we value in life. We end up playing the role of a side character in our own story, mired by our fear, sadness, pain, and so on. Our survival instincts drive us to avoid pain and discomfort, ironically disengaging us with many of the vitality-filled activities and goals that would ground and heal us. If we let the pain beat us once, we know it can beat us again, and spiraling our mental health further into a self-loathing vacuum we're afraid we can't escape on our own.
Until you steel yourself such that no inner-dialogue is going to stop you from living the life you want, you will always be vulnerable to life throwing you around with its whims and chaos. We try to always follow the smartest path but sometimes we must walk right through the fire to get to the sanctuary beyond.
Life is going to push us to our limits. If it hasn't tested you yet, it will. It is in those moments that we end up in a battle with our own fortitude. In those moments, we're asked if we accept the challenge. Can we do what is right for those we love in the long term, even if it hurts in the short term?
Can we do what is best for us, even when it hurts?
And there you have it. This silly story from my youth is the first official entry in a blog series I'm beginning, "Meet Matthew."
It is here I will open a door to my life experiences and the lessons within. These stories will hopefully reveal aspects of what it means to be human—to face and overcoming adversities, embracing vulnerabilities, and finding strength in the most unexpected places. This blog is about those lessons that life serves us, sometimes rather harshly, in moments of personal trials. It will also be a way for others to see the real human in me and hopefully weave together a community of kind individuals on their own journeys of growth and healing.
You may be wondering, why share something personal or raw? Well, that's precisely the point. It's through these experiences, as simple or complex as they may be, that we learn, grow, and evolve. The best lessons I've ever had have all come from life itself, and if I can, I want to share them with anyone who might benefit. What could be more valuable than shared growth, right?
So, as we journey together through these stories, my hope is that they spark reflections, conversations, and maybe, just maybe, inspire a 'moment of discovery' or two for you, as they have for me. Maybe, like that one chilly day on the archery field, you'll find your own moments of resilience, focus, and determination that you can draw from as a reminder of your power whenever you need it.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this story, the lessons it brought to light, and how it may have resonated with your own experiences. And of course, if you enjoyed this, stick around! There are many more stories to come, each one offering a unique perspective, a fresh lesson, and a glimpse into the person I am today. So, make sure to follow along as we continue this journey of discovery together. After all, what's a story if it's not shared, right?