In and out of prison five times, it took heartbreak to turn him around
by Christine Leow // November 28, 2020, 12:36 am
Nothing could get Bruce Mathieu to kick his drug habit till he heard his daughter cry for him when she was four years old. He could not hold her because he was behind bars. All photos courtesy of Bruce Stevens Mathieu.
With a name like Bruce Stevens Mathieu and features that clearly speak of his mixed heritage – French on his father’s side, Chinese on his mother’s side – you might expect Mathieu to speak perfectly polished English.
“Others can learn from my life and need not go through what I went through.”
Instead, Hokkien and Mandarin phrases pepper his speech. “Being Singaporean, we are minimally bilingual. I’ve always had a love for languages.”
Mathieu is a man who surprises in many ways.
The fierce tattoos that run the length of his arms and peep from the edges of his collar are at odds with his manner. He is nothing if not warm and friendly. Throughout the interview with Salt&Light, he tells his life story with cleared-eyed honesty, sometimes even with wry humour
It is a remarkable story he willingly shares so that “others can learn from my life and need not go through what I went through”.
A fatherless boy
Mathieu grew up in a sprawling 8,000-square-feet, two-storey bungalow in Katong, with his maternal grandparents, uncles and single mum. His parents had divorced when he was two or three years old and his mother had moved back to her family home.
Said the 50-year-old of his childhood: “I grew up without a father. He was never there to support me.
“Things were sort of chaotic at home. My uncles drank all the time and when they were drunk, I was their target. They would beat me up.”
The only loving father figure he knew would be taken from Mathieu when he was eight.
They gave no reason for the abuse, but Mathieu guesses that he was easy prey as a fatherless boy.
The one bright spark in his life was his grandfather, who doted on him. Mathieu remembers Saturdays spent at his grandfather’s Chinatown shop which sold handmade popiah skin and noodles.
“I know how to make popiah skin by hand, too,” he says in a pleased aside.
There would be treats of porridge and pig trotters from a pushcart nearby. “My grandfather would say, ‘Wah, this boy is so small but he can eat!’
“On weekends, when my cousins came to my grandfather’s house, he would ask us all to line up in a row. Then, he would give each of us a dollar but I would always get two. He would tell me in Hokkien: “Don’t let the others know.” But I have big mouth and I would always tell.”
The only loving father figure he knew would be taken from Mathieu when he was eight. His grandfather died within three months of being diagnosed with lung cancer.
“He was an opium addict. He probably didn’t know he had cancer but when he quit after years of nagging from the family, the cancer had already spread like wildfire.”
An angry child
Life changed for him the year he turned 12.
Having suffered years of abuse, Mathieu told his mother one day that now that he was “grown up already”, he would retaliate if his uncles beat him up again. A week before his 12th birthday, he kept his promise.
“One of my uncles came and accused me of something. I didn’t know what he was talking about but I said I didn’t do it. He slapped me.”
The man would go on to slap Mathieu again and again. After the third slap, Mathieu was so enraged, he “sort of blacked out”. Without knowing quite what he was doing, he ran to the kitchen to get a chopper.
“I wanted to chop him up.”
“I believed that violence was the answer to everything.”
Coincidentally, his mother came home from work early.
“She saw me running and told me to put the knife down. When I did, my uncle punched me in the chest very hard.
“He was an adult and he had a black belt in karate. I was a just a boy.”
When Mathieu picked up a nearby beer bottle to defend himself, a tussle ensued. “He punched me in the face.”
That day, mother and son moved out.
“From young, I was exposed to violence. It made me a very angry person. I believed that violence was the answer to everything, that all my problems could be solved by violence.”
A lonely teen
So Mathieu entered his teens away from the only home he had ever known – alone because his mother had to work long hours to provide for him, and isolated because he had started in a new secondary school and knew no one.
“I chose the school because one of my older cousins was there. But it was a school of gangsters. You don’t go there to study.
“You go there to defend yourself, to learn how to fight. Every recess there would be fights at the back of the canteen.”
Then, the gangsters in school recruited him. “Of course I said yes. I was a lonely child.”
The boy who often came home to an empty house – “for a year, every lunch I would cook myself instant noodles until I developed a phobia of instant noodles” – now had people he could hang out with.
“Every day, my life was about what I wanted, what I felt like doing. I lived for myself.”
“Mischief set in. I would go out for fights, steal.”
Within weeks of joining the gang, Mathieu was introduced to drugs.
“They introduced me to marijuana. The high that weed gave me, I really loved it. I was taking it almost daily. My gang was selling weed. So, I could get my hands on it 24/7, the best quality weed. I was 13.”
At 15, he was kicked out of school. “I whacked someone in school. When I got reprimanded, I wanted to whack the principal. So they asked me leave.”
There was little his mother could do. “By then, she was more concerned about me staying safe because she knew I was getting into fights constantly.”
“When there’s withdrawal, the shakes will start coming and you just want to get your fix.”
Mathieu became a “full-time gangster”.
“Every day, my life was about what I wanted, what I felt like doing. I lived for myself.
“Today if I feel like drinking, then I would. Today I feel like taking drugs, I’d take drugs. Today I feel like whacking someone, I’d whack someone. It was all about me, myself and I.”
But he was anything but in control because, by then, he had graduated to using heroin.
“I was addicted. Heroin is in a class of its own. When there’s withdrawal, the shakes will start coming and you just want to get your fix. You would do just about anything to get it.”
A curious kid
The teen that Mathieu had become was a far cry from the earnest boy who had found God on his own and pledged his life to Jesus when he was about 10.
“In the 80s, there was a BMX craze and my mum bought me a BMX bike. This was during the time of the movie ET.
“I would cycle around my Katong neighbourhood and there would be this house I would pass by that was about three or four houses away from the one I lived in. Every time I passed it, I would hear loud singing.”
One day, curiosity got the better of Mathieu and he walked into the house to ask what the people inside were doing.
“They told me they were a house church and they invited me to join them. When I asked my mum for permission, she said, ‘Go, go, go’. Fortunately, I have a mum who believes in religious freedom,” joked Mathieu.
“When I left church, my life started going downhill.”
So, for a whole year, the boy went to the house church almost daily. “I was very happy there. There were activities every day. Some days there was Bible Study, some days worship.”
It was thanks to this Brethren house church that Mathieu attended his first church camp. The naturally gifted story-teller and actor who had won every oratorical contest he had taken part in was given a chance to shine once more.
“The children’s ministry was asked to put up a skit. I remembered every group put up something about the Bible. I decided to do something not from the Bible, something totally different.
“We did Beauty and Beast but my version of it. I was the Beast. Of course, I had to be the lead. We won. It was in that one year that I gave my life to God.”
When his mother moved them out of their Katong house, Mathieu had to stop going to the church. “When I left church, my life started going downhill.”
A second chance with God
At 17, Mathieu got another chance. In an effort to remove him from the gang, his mother “insisted I continue my studies”. She enrolled him in a private Christian school where he met a particularly persistent teacher.
“She kept bugging me to go to church. So one day I just gave in.”
Going back to church “really felt great”. He met a girl there and they started dating. They would be together for nine years.
But none of that was enough to make Mathieu give up his former life. “I was still in a gang. I was living with a dual identity.”
“Looking back, I think it was God moving.”
He did, however, manage to kick his heroin habit on his own just before he enlisted in National Service (NS).
“Some people will call it a coincidence. I don’t consider it a coincidence. I consider all this God’s plan.”
He had been experiencing withdrawal symptoms but had, oddly, not known it. “I actually thought I was very sick. So, when withdrawal symptoms came and I had the runs, I couldn’t eat. I just stayed home for a week.
“If I had known I was going through withdrawals, I would have gone to score heroin. Because I didn’t know, that was how I kicked the habit. Looking back, I think it was God moving.”
Getting clean from drugs before going into NS spared Mathieu the ordeal of spending his army days in a detention barrack.
A hold too hard to break
Though he was physically clean, he was still psychologically hooked. Once out of the army, Mathieu went back to his old habit and to his old gang.
“Every day I had to think about where I was going to get the money for the heroin.”
By then, he had started working as a driver for a hardware store, having gotten his licence while he was in the army.
“When you are addicted to heroin, you can’t hold down a job. It is all about me, myself and my heroin. Every day I had to think about where I was going to get the money for the heroin.
“And when I got the money, I needed to figure out where I could get the heroin. Then, when I got my hands on the heroin, I had to figure out where to get money for the next fix. I would need a fix three to four times day so the whole day revolved around the heroin.”
He lost job after job. He stopped going to church. To feed his habit – by this time he was taking heroin as well as tranquilisers and sleeping pills in search of more intense highs – he stole.
At age 22, he was caught for theft.
“My brain was so clouded by the drugs, I thought that I needed a tie. I went to Wisma Atria, walked into a shop, saw a tie, tried it on and walked out with it.
“I had the money to buy the tie at that time. I didn’t even need a tie.”
Mathieu was sentenced to six months for theft and drug possession. With no prison record, he was placed in a minimum security prison. “It was more like a chalet. There was no impact whatsoever on me. I wasn’t scared at all.”
“Drugs gave me a sense of fear and worthlessness. And yet, I wanted to just keep on taking it.”
Right after his release, he returned to his old ways.
“On the day of my release, I took a taxi to my supplier and got high on drugs again. Physical addiction can be kicked in a week or two. Psychological addiction can remain with you for years.”
Talking about the hold drugs had on him, Mathieu said: “When you are high on drugs, it makes you feel different. It let me feel something I could not achieve anywhere else. It was like drugs was a religion.
“The funny thing is, this brand of religion is unlike Christianity. There were many times when I took drugs, the feeling that it gave me wasn’t a feeling of calmness, euphoria or self-worth.
“Instead, it gave me a sense of fear and worthlessness. And yet, I wanted to just keep on taking it. Don’t you find it strange? I have asked myself the question many, many times and still cannot find the answer till today, ‘Why would you do it if it makes you feel bad?’”
An unrepentant heart
Within a year, Mathieu would return to prison. This time because he was caught for robbery with a weapon, the sentence was three-and-a-half years in Changi Prison with 12 strokes of the cane.
“I spent most of my adult years behind bars.”
Conditions were “jialat” (terrible). Mathieu described nights on floors as rough as the tarmac on the road, shared toilets that could only flush once a day, and being so thirsty he and fellow inmates would flush the toilet just to get a drink. But none of these was enough to make him kick his drug habit.
Each time he got out, he would go back to drugs. “I tried to give up many times in my life. Every time I tried to quit on my own, I failed. The most I lasted was two days.”
Even getting married was no deterrent. After his third prison stay, he met his wife, Yovin, while working as a bouncer at a karaoke lounge.
“She loves singing and she would come to the pub to belt out a few songs after work.”
They dated for five years before they got married in 2008 with the support of her Christian family, even though “we were not financially stable and I got sent to prison again in 2005”.
In all, Mathieu would go to prison five times. “I spent most of my adult years behind bars.”
A broken-hearted father
Even fatherhood did not change him. When his daughter was three years old, Mathieu got arrested again, his fifth brush with the law.
“For the longest time, since I was a teen, all I had ever wanted was to have a family of my own. I told myself I cannot be like my father. I would take care of my family.
“But when I got arrested, my biggest fears came true.”
His only child was “very close to me”. When he was sentenced to nearly four years in prison, he was heart-broken.
“I told myself, ‘Bruce you have to call it a day. I don’t think your heart can take it one more time’.”
“I cried so many times in prison because I missed my daughter.”
His wife would visit him every month, bringing their child with her. It was on one such visit, exactly on his daughter’s fourth birthday, that sorrow finally stirred up resolve.
“My wife had bought her a brand new dress. She was so proud of the dress. The moment she stepped into the cubicle, she started to show off the dress. ‘Look Dada, look at my dress,’ she said.
“Then, she sat down and looked at me with those big eyes and said, ‘Dada, carry’. I was so shocked. I just sat there looking at her. She looked at me quizzically and said more forcefully, ‘Dada, carry!’ I just shook my head.”
His daughter’s reaction was heart-breaking. “She started to bawl. She was crying so loudly she was affecting all the other inmates.”
His wife had no choice but to leave with their child. That day, Mathieu finally vowed to change.
“I told myself, ‘Bruce you have to call it a day because if you don’t, this is going to happen again. I don’t think your heart can take it one more time.’”
Despite a stronger motivation to quit drugs, Mathieu still had “one problem”.
“I’m never alone because God has promised that He would always be with me.”
“I lacked the strength. I had tried so many times to quit and I couldn’t. I knew that, on my own, I cannot do it.”
Desperate, he called out to the God whom he had discovered as a child, the One who had sought him out in his teens. “One day in my cell, I cried out to God and re-dedicated my life to Him.
“Actually, God had never left me. Looking back, He had always been there in every moment of my life guiding me so I wouldn’t get myself into so deep a trouble that I could not get myself out.”
In a voice that broke with emotion, Mathieu added: “I always take comfort that I’m never alone because God has promised that He would always be with me, that He would never leave me nor forsake me (Hebrews 13:5).”
No longer alone
God would show again and again just how He was there for Mathieu.
“Many times in prison, my faith was put to the test. There were many incidents that made me want to explode, tried to force the darker side of me to come out.”
Once, he was with a man he “always joked with every day in the workshop”. That day, when Mathieu joked with him, the man turned around and punched him.
“I don’t know why I remained very calm. My heart didn’t even beat faster. I said, ‘What did you do that for?’ and I just walked away.”
“Jeremiah 29:11-14 calmed me down, gave me a lot of comfort and solace.”
This was against the nature of the boy who had always thought that violence was the answer to everything.
“It was certainly against the unwritten law in prison to retaliate when you are set upon.
“If I had retaliated that day, the remaining years of my sentence would be very different. I would not have had the chance to spend the last three months of my sentence at a half-way house. Those three months made a very big difference in my life.”
Just months shy of his release, God showed Mathieu once more that he was not alone.
“Life was so full of doubts and fear then. I was coming out and would be penniless again. I didn’t know if my wife would stay with me because she had hinted that she would leave me and if she left, she would take my daughter with her. I was so scared.”
Once more, he laid his life before God. “I told him my fears. God gave me the verse Jeremiah 29:11-14. Those verses calmed me down, gave me a lot of comfort and solace.
“He told me He would take me out of the place from which He had sent me into exile. God was telling me He would restore my life.”
Ambassador for change
Mathieu held on to the promise. During his three months at half-way house Teen Challenge, he “developed a burning for other people addicted to drugs”.
When his term was completed in March 2016, he got a job with Teen Challenge as a care worker and started sharing his story to encourage others who were struggling with drug addiction.
There was a season when he was sharing his story every week. He would even take his daughter, now 11, to those sessions. “I think it’s important that she knows.”
“All my change, I attribute to God. I could never have done it on my own.”
To make a clean break, he also cut off all ties from his past.
“I took steps to ensure my life was changed. Some of them are still on drugs. If I went back …” He trailed off.
More than keeping him clean, God has worked at his heart. “I cannot say that my temper is very good right now. I still have a very bad temper but if you compare my temper now to before, it’s a huge difference.
“In the past, I felt that I could use violence to settle anything. I would never walk away from a fight, not even an argument. Now, I can just walk away and not be perturbed.
“All the change has been gradual. I wish I could say that God just ka-ching and my life was changed, but not for my case. Some things are still work in progress. But all my change, I attribute to God. I could never have done it on my own.”
Mathieu now works as brand ambassador at a social enterprise café, The Living Well.
“It’s named for the well in Samaria where the woman met Jesus (John 4:1-42). We want it to be a place where people can also come and meet Jesus.”
It has been four years since Mathieu has been released from prison. Four years since he has touched drugs. Every single drug-free day is precious to him.
“Being addicted to drugs is something I cannot afford. What I want is to be the best father any child can have.”
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