Matthew Litton struggled to find work that accommodated the disabilities he sustained during his nine years with the Marine Corps. Unable to connect with an employer willing to adjust to his medical conditions, the 32-year-old veteran took matters into his own hands -- literally – when he opened his own custom woodworking business in January.
"You get so focused into the woodworking that you forget about everything else," said the Philadelphia native and owner of Litton Woodworking. "I find that it is therapeutic for myself and my doctors noticed a great turnaround, as well as my partner and family."
Prior to starting his own business, Litton held other jobs, including one as a tools and parts attendant at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.
"I worked for not even a year when my disabilities just started affecting what I could and couldn’t do,” he said.
Litton says he experiences pain in his back and legs if he sits in the same position for too long.
“It just kills my back and my legs start going numb,” he said. “It just snowballs.”
He was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and suffers from short-term memory loss due to a traumatic brain injury.
"I have to write down where I left off so I know where to pick it up again," he explained. "If I couldn’t find something, I start getting frustrated and angry because now the PTSD and traumatic brain injury are kicking in."
Unable to modify his Naval Yard position to meet his medical needs, Litton left his job in January 2013 and opened his business a year later.
He operated out of his home’s garage for the first half of the year. Using skills he gained working with his uncles as a teenager, he makes one-of-a-kind jewelry boxes, shadow boxes, wine cabinets, tables and more for about five clients a month.
In mid-June, he relocated his workshop to a space within the Lower Bucks Senior Center at 301 Wood St. in Bristol. The new location is more than double the size of his garage and gives potential customers a chance to stop by and see his products, he said.
"Now I have four new clients," Litton said. "And thus far, my disabilities have not gotten in the way."
Even though running a business brings about its own stresses, being able to set his own limitations has helped Litton manage the conditions that held him back in other jobs, according to an expert with the Philadelphia VA Medical Center.
"He is able to titrate what he can tolerate in relation to his symptoms," said Dr. David Oslin, the VA’s Chief of Behavioral Health, who has not treated Litton.
And having a passion for one’s work also aids those dealing with mental illness, he added.
"Having a purpose in life is important to all of us," Oslin explained. "When a veteran with a mental illness, like PTSD, finds a role that they are confident with and can do – that is a substantial benefit to them."
Oslin cautions that becoming an entrepreneur is not the solution for all veterans adjusting to life after their service. Instead he suggests any veteran struggling on the job should seek help.
"Get treatment," urged Oslin. "Don’t try to do this alone."
Along with providing medical treatment, the VA helps connect veterans with work that matches their skills in an environment that does not aggravate any of their symptoms.
"Veterans are folks that volunteer and contribute to society in a very powerful and meaningful way," Oslin said. "When they come as civilians, they want to continue to do that."
For local veterans who want help getting their conditions under control, call the VA Medical Center’s eligibility office at 215-823-6000.
Litton, who regularly checks in with his own doctors, says his woodworking business is the best treatment for him.
"I’ve been a lot less anxious and stressed since I’ve started the business," he said. "Just being able to do something that I love...it’s something I take pride in doing."