Smoker turned inspirational speaker finds meaning, joy late in life

Forgiveness, giving back to others prove key in dealing with trauma, Michael Patterson says

Walking to his car after speaking to a group at the Yurok Indian Reservation, Michael Patterson saw a man waiting for him in the parking lot.

 

Patterson, a former smoker who began traveling the country talking to schools and on reservations in 2012, said he was a little nervous when the man blocked his path to his car. The nerves quickly subsided when the man spoke to Patterson.

“I’ve been stuck for a very long time,” the man said. “I didn’t believe that I was ever going to be unstuck. After hearing you today, I’m no longer stuck.”

As Patterson looks back at a life that’s included abuse, homelessness and disease, memories of interactions like the man in California are the ones that he’s recalling. He sat in a bed at Bartlett Regional Hospital on Wednesday, recounting some of the highlights of the past six years — which he thinks might be his last.

‘Broken’ and ‘bad’

Patterson, 62, was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD, which causes obstructed airflow from the lungs) 18 years ago. Doctors gave him five years to live when he was diagnosed with COPD, and he dubbed himself a “ghostwalker” for outliving his expectancy.

The combination of COPD and hypertension (high blood pressure) have doctors estimating that Patterson’s time is running low. There’s also a spot on his lung that could be cancerous, Patterson said.

[Alaskan ‘Ghostwalker’ speaks against smoking]

Friends and family of Patterson’s have organized a going-away party of sorts at 5 p.m. May 5 at Glacier Valley Church of God, where they’ll gather to have a celebration of his life. Patterson said a friend mentioned the idea to him, of having a gathering while he’s still alive. Patterson said he thought it was a bit odd at first, but has looked around and found that a remembrance with the person still alive is becoming more common.

It’s a life that Patterson never expected to be celebrated.

Patterson, who grew up in Juneau, said he ran away from home when he was 9 years old after being physically, mentally and sexually abused. He said he used to sneak into apartment buildings and sleep next to furnaces that drowned out the sound of his snoring so people wouldn’t catch him. He shared the space with bugs and rats, and said he felt he belonged with them.

“There was no one there to talk to me or reason with me,” Patterson said, “so what I figured was that I was broken, that I was bad, that I deserved everything I was getting, so I never shared it with anybody.”

He began smoking at that age, and continued long into adulthood. He even continued smoking after he was diagnosed with COPD. Patterson said he carried anger with him along the way, along with depression and post-traumatic stress from his childhood.

Patterson said he began to realize anger was doing him no favors. He said there were people he hated for “introducing me to hell and leaving me there.” Over the years, it became clear that forgiveness — of others and himself — was the only way to move forward.

“Everybody has to deal with pain,” Patterson said. “Nobody’s excluded from it. There’s a right way to deal with pain and a wrong way.”

Finding joy

He began giving back. Patterson was featured in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advertising campaign called “Tips From Former Smokers” in which he shared his story through videos and print advertisements. Those appearances made him a recognizable figure, and he began speaking at high schools throughout Alaska. Then he was asked to speak at schools and reservations in the Lower 48 as well.

He helped inspire people, like the man at the Yurok Reservation, and those people helped inspire him. He said his grandchildren have motivated him as well. Patterson said he picked up advice along the way and spread that advice to people who were struggling with addiction, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Giving back, he said, has helped finally bring joy to his life. On paper, he said his life didn’t turn out as planned, but the final years of his life have given him something he said he has never truly had.

“I didn’t get anything I wanted,” Patterson said. “I didn’t get married, find my soulmate. I didn’t get the nice house or the real nice fancy car or any of my dreams. And yet, I’m at a place now … (I have) joy on the inside. Nobody gets to touch it. Nobody gets to take it away.”

As he approaches the end, he’s doing so with a sense of calm that he said has surprised doctors. After all, he said, he already had brushes with death. The closest was when he was in the military at age 25 and was having what was supposed to be a routine surgery.

The doctors gave him the wrong dosage of anesthetic, though, and he flatlined during the surgery. Patterson remembers being in a tunnel, and hearing voices that sounded like rolling thunder. The doctors were able to revive him before he saw any light at the end of the tunnel, he said.

Nearly 40 years after that, he feels much more prepared to return to that place.

“Even though I’m this close to going back there, I’m not really worried about it,” Patterson said. “Now I get to find out what’s waiting for me where that light is. Now I have the right to go from the edges of darkness to where that is.”


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or amccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.


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