Keeping It Real

Matt Connolly spent 10 years with schizophrenia and 20 more helping others.

Writer: Michael Morain
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

A guy was doing backflips off the ceiling. One after another. And another.

Matt Connolly (pictured) could see him, plain as day, during a group therapy session at Broadlawns Medical Center. It surprised him, for sure. But the real shocker came when he realized that maybe the acrobat wasn’t real.

After a decade of dreaming up strange visions, this was the first time Connolly’s brain fired off a tiny signal of doubt. Hold on. Wait a second. Does that make sense?

This was 20 years ago, around the time Connolly had been poking around online and happened upon a list of symptoms associated with schizophrenia: hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thoughts, emotional withdrawal. He recognized every one. When he told his mom about it one day, out on the deck, she started to cry.

“I still get emotional about it,” said Angela Connolly, one of the Polk County supervisors. “The doctors said he’d probably never realize that, but he did. He finally figured out that the people on TV weren’t talking to him. The people on the sidewalk weren’t trying to hurt him.”

It’s been a long, tough journey since then, but Matt Connolly never wants to forget it. He’s proud of his recovery and wants to help others who are struggling. And most of all, he said, “I don’t ever want to go back there, not for anything. It was scary.”

The Trouble

Connolly was a good kid at Dowling Catholic High School. He started a lawn mowing business with a buddy. He wrestled at state. He was elected class president. “Everybody thought he was wonderful,” his mom said.

But he started to wobble off course after he headed off to the University of Iowa in 1992. He couldn’t focus. He skipped class. He just couldn’t pull it together. “People thought I was on drugs or that I was drinking too much,” he recalled.

He dropped out his sophomore year and went to work for his uncle in San Diego, but it didn’t last. Sometimes he didn’t show up, and when he did, he seemed scattered. He drifted across the country, unable to hold down a job.

One time back in Des Moines, he was driving down Beaver Avenue chatting all the way with an imaginary pedestrian on the sidewalk. Sometimes when he’d watch the TV news, he’d step outside to chat with the news anchors through the clouds. He even had olfactory hallucinations, when he could swear he smelled stuff that wasn’t actually there.

He lived off and on at the old YMCA and spent more than a few nights on the streets. Often, when his family or friends tried to help, he’d push them away.

“You always hurt the ones you love the most,” his mom said. “The doctors told me that was normal.”

But for a long time, doctors weren’t really involved. It wasn’t until Connolly’s behavior spun out of control in the summer of 2003 when his family finally, reluctantly, hauled him to Broadlawns. The staff there sent him over to Iowa City to see experts at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

The Turning Point

Those were “the worst two weeks of my life,” Connolly said of his hospital stay. “It was heavy. Really heavy.”

But it probably saved his life. After running a series of tests and interviewing Connolly’s loved ones, doctors determined he suffered from schizophrenia and warned his family that he may never fully realize it. But still, it was a breakthrough.

“I just wanted it to be something,” Angela Connolly said. She had wondered if her son had sustained a brain injury during high school wrestling. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think he was suffering from a mental illness. Nobody in my family had a history of mental health issues, so we just never talked about it.”

Doctors charted a course for Connolly’s recovery that he now refers to as “the five pillars of support”: medication, therapy, family, community and advocacy, which keeps him on track by helping others. At first, he also leaned on support from social workers, whom he called “godsends.” It took him about six months to crawl out of the fog and fully feel like himself again.

“It was a full 10 years of being sick,” he said. “I’m lucky to live in recovery as fully as I do.”

The Recovery

Early during his recovery, Connolly’s dad, Tom, gave him a job building houses, which provided both a routine and a source of income. “That was huge,” Connolly said.

A few months later, he met his future wife, Jodi, in her native Okoboji. She was helping her parents run a restaurant a few blocks from where the Connollys were building a house. About two weeks after the couple started dating, Connolly told her about his schizophrenia.

“That’s a big scary word, and I didn’t know everything it entailed,” Jodi Connolly recalled. “But I gave him a big hug and said, ‘Whatever it is, we’ll get through this.’”

And they have. They married in 2007 and have two kids, in fifth and eighth grades. Connolly became a foreman in his dad’s construction company and then set out on his own in 2008. He now sells real estate for NAI Iowa Realty Commercial. He was one of the Business Record’s Forty Under 40 in 2013 and the Des Moines West Side Chamber’s Citizen of the Year in 2018.

About 10 years ago, when he was feeling really good — exercising, eating well, the whole works — he decided to see what would happen if he stopped taking his medication. He was fine for a few months but then started slipping. He turned moody and withdrawn.

His wife didn’t notice anything until a couple of family members mentioned it over the holidays. “If you’re living with someone who goes down a slow slope like that, you just don’t see those changes,” she said.

She checked his pill bottles and, sure enough, they were full. Fortunately, the couple had already discussed a plan for just such an occasion: She pulled out a folder and called one of his counselors “who was so helpful,” she said. “He knew exactly what Matt was going to do, so I could stay one step ahead.”

She admitted there were hard days, especially early on. “Sometimes I just wanted to run,” she said. “But the one thing that’s really kept me going is knowing that it’s an illness. If he were in the hospital with cancer, I’d be right by his side.”

But these days, Connolly feels good. He’s healthy. He’s surrounded by family and friends.

And he takes care to keep it that way. He got involved with Mindspring Mental Health Alliance (formerly the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness) and currently serves as the president of its board. He’s participated in its walks and golf tournaments to promote mental health and destigmatize mental illness. Even his license plates say NOSTGMA.

“I’m proud of my recovery,” Connolly said. “And the second I try to forget, the next second it’ll come back rearing its head. You just can’t forget about it.”

He is heartened by the way people are more open about mental illness than they were when he was struggling.

His mother is, too, and has made mental health care a priority of her public service. Therapists are still relatively scarce in Iowa, but there are hotlines and telehealth options that didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago. She said people are more willing to talk about it, too, especially since the Covid pandemic.

But she knows her son’s story is rare. On their way to lunch a few months ago, he spotted one of the guys he met through the Iowa PATH program (Positive Alternatives to Hospitalization), which helps folks who struggle with homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse.

“Matt saw one of his buddies — he still calls him a buddy — who still suffers and never got the help he needed,” Angela Connolly said. “Matt is a total success story, but it’s always in the back of my mind. He works at it every day.”

By the numbers

Matt Connolly currently serves as president of the board of Mindspring Mental Health Alliance, a local nonprofit that provides free mental health education, support and advocacy programs. According to their statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

50% of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.

1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year.

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