Family, Meaning of Life, Relationships

In and out of prison five times, it took a four-year-old to turn his life around

By Christine Leow , 5 January 2021

Bruce Stevens Mathieu grew up in a sprawling 8,000-square-feet, two-storey bungalow in Katong, with his maternal grandparents, uncles and mum. His parents had divorced when he was about two years old.

Mathieu grew up without his father who divorced his mother when he was about two or three, leaving her to work hard to raise him on her own.

Bruce grew up without his father who divorced his mother when he was about two, leaving her to work hard to raise him on her own.

“Things were chaotic at home. My uncles drank all the time and I was their target. They would beat me up,” said Bruce, now 50. Bruce who is part French (on his father’s side) and Chinese speaks English that is peppered with Hokkien and Mandarin.

Bruce guesses that he was easy prey as a fatherless boy.

The one bright spark in his life was his grandfather, who doted on him. 

Asked why he thinks his grandfather doted on him, Mathieu kids that it was because he was so cute as a child.

Asked why he thinks his grandfather doted on him, Bruce jokes that it was because he was so cute as a kid.

The only loving father figure he knew would be taken from Bruce when he was eight. His grandfather died within three months of being diagnosed with lung cancer.

Angry child

Having suffered years of abuse, Bruce told his mother that now that he would retaliate if his uncles beat him up again.

A week before his 12th birthday, an uncle accused him of something.

“I didn’t know what he was talking about but I said I didn’t do it. He slapped me.”

After the third slap, an enraged Bruce “sort of blacked out” and ran to the kitchen to get a chopper.

“I believed that all my problems could be solved by violence.”

Coincidentally, his mother came home from work early.

“She told me to put the knife down,” Bruce said.

When he did, his uncle punched him hard in the chest.

“He was an adult and he had a black belt in karate. I was a just a boy.”

When Bruce picked up a nearby beer bottle to defend himself, a tussle ensued. Bruce was punched in the face.

That day, mother and son moved out. 

The violence he had been exposed to since a young age made Bruce a very angry person.

“I believed that violence was the answer to everything, that all my problems could be solved by violence,” said Bruce.

Lonely teen

Bruce entered his teens alone because his mother had to work long hours to provide for him. He felt isolated because he had started going to a new secondary school and knew no one.

“It was a school of gangsters. You don’t go there to study,” he said.

“You go there to defend yourself, to learn how to fight. Every recess there would be fights at the back of the canteen.” 

Away from his extended family, with a mother who had to work hard to provide for him, Mathieu became so lonely he joined a gang. He is 14 in this photo.

A teenage Bruce (pictured at age 14) 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”.

Then, he was recruited by the gangsters in school. “I said yes. I was a lonely child.”  

They would go out for fights and steal.

“I whacked someone. When I got reprimanded, I wanted to whack the principal.”

Within weeks of joining the gang, Bruce was introduced to marijuana. He loved the high it gave him, and was taking it almost every day. Bruce was just 13.

“My gang was selling weed. So, I could get my hands on it 24/7, the best quality weed.” 

At 15, he was expelled from school.

“I whacked someone. When I got reprimanded, I wanted to whack the principal.”

There was little his mother could do.

“By then, she was more concerned about me staying safe,” he said.

“When there’s withdrawal, the shakes will start coming and you just want to get your fix.”

Bruce became a “full-time gangster”.

“Every day, my life was about what I wanted, what I felt like doing,” he admitted.

“Today if I feel like drinking, 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 not in control because by then, he had graduated to using heroin.

“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,” he said. 

The house with loud singing

The teen that Bruce had become was a far cry from the 10-year-old Bruce growing up in Katong. 

“I would cycle around my Katong neighbourhood and there would be this house I would pass by. Every time, I would hear loud singing.”

One day, Bruce walked in to ask what the people inside were doing.

It turned out to be a house church and the people there invited him to join them.

So, for a whole year, he visited the house church almost daily and gave his life to God.

“I was very happy there. There were activities every day. Some days there was Bible study, some days worship,” he said.

But when his mother moved them out of their Katong house, Bruce had to stop going to the church. “When I left church, my life started going downhill,” he said.   

The persistent teacher

In an effort to remove him from the gang, Bruce’s mother insisted that he continue his studies. When he was 17, 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 Bruce just gave in and went.   

Stepping back into church “really felt great”. He met a girl there and they started dating. They would be together for nine years. 

But it wasn’t enough to make Bruce give up his life with the gang. 

“Looking back, I think it was God moving.”

He did, however, manage to give up heroin on his own just before going into National Service (NS). It spared him the ordeal of spending his army days in detention.

 “I actually thought I was very sick. I had the runs, I couldn’t eat. I just stayed home for a week. 

“If I had known I was going through withdrawal symptoms, I would have gone to score heroin” he said.

“Because I didn’t know, that was how I kicked the habit.”

Some people will call it a coincidence, but not Bruce.

“I don’t consider it a coincidence. Looking back, I think it was God moving.”

Stealing a tie he didn’t need

Once out of the army, Bruce went back to his old habit and to his old gang.

By then, he had started working as a driver for a hardware store.

“When you are addicted to heroin, you can’t hold down a job,” he said.

“Every day I had to think about where I was going to get the money for the 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.”

He needed 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. He started stealing to feed his habit which now included tranquilisers and sleeping pills in his quest for more intense highs.

A 28-year-old Bruce with his mum. At age 22, Bruce was arrested for theft and imprisoned.

Once his brain was so clouded by drugs, he thought that he 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.” He was 22 at that time.

Bruce was sentenced to six months for theft and drug possession. 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,” he said.

“Drugs gave me a sense of fear and worthlessness. And yet, I wanted to just keep on taking it.”

On the day of his release, he took a taxi to his 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,” Bruce explained.

“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.

“But the feeling that it gave me wasn’t a feeling of calmness, euphoria or self-worth,” he said.

“Instead, it gave me a sense of fear and worthlessness. And yet, I wanted to just keep on taking it.”

He has not being able to find the answer to the question he’s asked himself many times: “Why would you do it if it makes you feel bad?”

Unrepentant heart

Within a year, Bruce was caught for robbery with a weapon. He was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in Changi Prison and given 12 strokes of the cane.

“I spent most of my adult years behind bars.”

Conditions were “jialat” (terrible): 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 were enough to make him kick the 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 did not change him. He met his wife, Yovin, while working as a bouncer at a karaoke lounge after his third prison stay.

Though she knew about his drug habit and his past, Yovin stuck with Bruce through it all. “Yovin loves singing and she would come to the pub to belt out a few songs after work,” he said.

They dated for five years. Then they got married in 2008 with the support of her family who are Christian, never mind that the young couple were not financially stable and Bruce got sent to prison yet again in 2005.

“I spent most of my adult years behind bars,” he said.

Broken-hearted dad

Even fatherhood did not change Bruce. When his daughter was just three, Bruce got arrested again – his fifth brush with the law.

Since he was a teen, all Bruce ever wanted was to have a family of his 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,” he said.

Bruce had always wanted to be a father. When his daughter came along, he vowed to always be there for her.

When he was sentenced to nearly four years in prison, he was heart-broken.

“I cried so many times in prison because I missed my daughter.” She was very close to him. 

“Bruce you have to call it a day. I don’t think your heart can take it one more time.”

Yovin and their daughter would visit him every month.

On the day of their daughter’s fourth birthday, the girl started to show off her brand new dress the moment she stepped into the cubicle.

“Look Dada, look at my dress,” she told her father.

Said Bruce: “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.”

They were separated by a partition.

The prison visit on her fourth birthday became a tearful one when she couldn’t understand why her father could not hold her.

“She started to bawl. It was heart-breaking. 

“She was crying so loudly she was affecting all the other inmates.”

Yovin had no choice but to leave with their child. That day, Bruce vowed to change.

Bruce told himself, “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.”

“She was crying so loudly she was affecting all the other inmates.”

Bruce knew he lacked the strength to do it on his own. “I had tried so many times to quit and I couldn’t,” he said.

Desperate, he called out to the God whom he had discovered as a child. “In my cell, I 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,” he said.

In a voice that broke with emotion, Bruce said: “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).”

Alone no more

God would show again and again just how He was there for Bruce.

“Many times in prison, there were many incidents that made me want to explode, tried to force the darker side of me to come out,” he said.

Once, he was with a man he “always joked with every day in the workshop”. The man turned around and punched him.

Determined to change so he would not be an absentee father like his own father, Bruce sought God’s help to kick his drug habit.

He doesn’t know how he remained calm.

“My heart didn’t even beat faster. I said, ‘What did you do that for?’ and I just walked away,” he said.

“It was against the unwritten law in prison to retaliate when you are set upon.”

This was certainly 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.”

The fear of losing his wife and child made Bruce turn to God again just before he was released from prison for the fifth time.

Had he retaliated that day, the remaining years of his sentence would have been very different.

“I would not have had the chance to spend the last three months of my sentence at a halfway house. Those three months made a very big difference in my life.

Had he retaliated that day, the remaining years of his sentence would have been very different.

“Life was so full of doubts and fear then. I was coming out and would be penniless again,” he said.

“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, Bruce turned to 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.

Bruce felt God saying that He would take him out of the place of exile. He felt, “God was telling me He would restore my life.”

Ambassador for change

Bruce clung to this promise. During his three months at halfway house Teen Challenge, he “developed a burning for other people addicted to drugs”.

When his term ended in March 2016, he got a job there as a care worker. He started sharing his story to encourage others who were struggling with drug addiction. 

There was a time when he was sharing his story every week. He also took his daughter, now 11, to those sessions. “I think it’s important that she knows.”

Bruce now shares his story with others struggling with drug addiction.

He also cut off all ties with his past.

“I took steps to ensure my life was changed. Some of them are still on drugs. If I went back …” His voice trailed off.

Bruce shares his life story so that others can learn from his mistakes.

He has also seen how God has worked at his heart. “I still have a very bad temper but if you compare my temper now to before, it’s a huge difference,” he said.

“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.”

The change has been gradual.

He said: “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.”

Bruce 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.”

Bruce (far right) is now a brand ambassador at The Living Well Cafe, a job suited to his outgoing character, and his ability to put customers at ease. Photo from The Living Well Facebook.

Bruce (middle) telling his story on radio.

It has been four years since Bruce was released from prison. It has been four years since he has touched drugs. Every single drug-free day is precious.

“Being addicted to drugs is something I cannot afford. What I want is to be the best father any child can have,” he said.

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared in Salt&Light.

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