Steve Duin: Scholarship winner in constant search for a regular life

By Steve Duin, The Oregonian, August 12, 2014

Sarah Mathieson

Sarah Mathieson

Sarah Mathieson‘s kinesiology class was a hands-on experience.  So that students at East West College of the Healing Arts would appreciate the difference between healthy and scarred tissue, the instructor asked for volunteers who would allow classmates to feel the muscles that flow over both.

“I was always the negative example,” Mathieson says. “I have a lot of past injuries, broken bones, that sort of thing. They stack up.” Because she was the youngest student in the class, the size of the stack surprised her classmates. Not her professors. “They know what abused tissue feels like.”

“My muscles are a map of my past,” Matthieson says. She remembers the concern on one professor’s face when he realized how difficult it was for her to raise her arms above her head. “What was the injury here?” she remembers him asking.

“I was going, ‘I don’t know. Life?'”

When we met 15 months ago, Mathieson was still living in Canby. She had just won the $4,000 Al Forthan Memorial scholarship that eventually allowed her to attend massage therapy school. The Oregon branch of Volunteers of America handed out $50,000 that spring to high-school graduates who grew up in families hammered by drug and alcohol addiction.

“It’s my terrible-family scholarship,” Mathieson, 19, says, sitting Sunday outside a West Linn coffee shop. “‘Congratulations! Your family sucked enough! It paid off!’ That was the weird thing for the normal part of my family. They’d ask me what the scholarship was for. And I’d say, ‘Basically, my life was worse than other people’s.”

Her voice is calm. It is what it is. Or was what it was. You don’t obsess on the bruises. You push past the things that go wrong. You build on the things that go right.

She left home this spring, and that was tough. Since she was 13, Mathieson has helped her mom take care of two preschoolers, the children of the brother responsible for many of the cracked bones and her half-dozen concussions.  “The first one when I was four,” she notes, going down the list.  “My brother pulled me off a chair.  My brother tackled me into a fireplace.  My brother pushed me off a bike.”

Her fear for his children kept her too long in the house.  “Living there was really toxic,” Mathieson says.  “I was their second foster parent. How am I going to make my life work if I stick around here?  How am I going to become a functioning member of society?”

She needed a fresh map, a new roommate, a job that would fill the gap between the scholarship and the rest of her East West tuition.  As she and Ryan, her boyfriend of three years, prepared to move in — and share rent — with another couple in a house off Highway 43, Mathieson began working at a burger joint.

Nothing is easy, of course.  “By the second or third day, I realized it was a bad place.  I don’t think they ever cleaned behind the grill.  The manager was doing cocaine in the bathroom.  A part of me was thinking, ‘It will get better. It’s a job. Deal with it.’ But I was getting stressed to the point where I would randomly cry during the day.”

She quit in December, and took a term off from East West so she could work as a full-time supervisor at Jamba Juice.  Six weeks ago, she resumed massage therapy classes and began working as a store manager and cake decorator at Baskin-Robbins.

“Money-wise, me and Ryan are doing OK,” she says. “I’m pretty good at saving my tips.  We limit ourselves to $45 a week for groceries.  Money has been an issue my whole life.  I don’t want to be rich; I want to be secure.  I want to make sure I have enough money to go through regular life.”

She is visited now and then by the echoes of what she went through growing up.  “I get really weird when I’m in a confined space,” she admits.  “I can’t be under blankets.”  The memory of being trapped under one, choking on her hair, forever has her pulling the hair off her face.

But more often than not, the past keeps its distance.  The muscles grow stronger.  And she is comfortable volunteering herself once again, so that we might understand that bones mend.  Wounds heal.

“I feel pretty good,” Mathieson says.  “West Linn isn’t that far from Canby, but it feels like I’m on another planet.  I’m 19 — it’s okay to be a little confused as to where I’m going.  I’m trying to do better for myself, and for me and Ryan.  I like to have a plan.  For each step.  But I don’t know what my next goal is right now.