Metal Asylum: Stories of Mental Health from Metalheads
I debated the title of this article with myself for quite some time. A pun about psychiatric hospitals seems a little facetious for a topic this serious or a format this personal. In the end, I decided a slightly disrespectful play on words was fitting. Metal takes frequent and deep dives into the darkest places of the human mind and mental illness, moreso that any other genre of music, I would argue. Its treatment of the topic often treads over the line of good taste or good intentions. As a vivid illustration of this, the number of bands on Encyclopedia Metallum with a word as cliche as “Dragon” in their name is 69; the number of bands with the word “Suicide” in the name is 99. In metal, the act of taking your own life is discussed commonly enough that it has become a trope, even a genre tag.
But here’s the thing, the relationship between mental illness and the people who suffer from it is sometimes flippant, sometimes disrespectful. A person’s connection with their disorder can be dark and terrifying, but it can also be sardonic. Mental illness is a harmful companion, but it’s one you live with every day. It’s a volatile relationship, but it is a relationship.
In my mind, metal’s connection with mental illness mirrors this bond. Its candor with the darkness is shocking and off-putting to those who have not been in the darkness, but to some of those who have, it’s refreshing, even familiar. With that in mind, here are eleven stories of mental health battles from Toilet Ov Hell readers, including my own. Each entry is paired with a song that is important to the writer. A huge fucking thanks to everyone who contributed!
Also, importantly, if you are struggling in any way, if any of these stories feel familiar and you need help, please reach out to someone. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is #1-800-273-8255. If you don’t know where to start with treatment, the SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline can hook you up at #1‑877‑726‑4727. You aren’t crazy, you aren’t weak, you aren’t alone, and asking for help and learning how to slay your own dragons is the most metal thing you can do.
Sean Wright (Creator of Esoterica Codex metal blog)
Ever since I can remember I’ve had to come to terms with hearing about the topic of mental illness and dealing with it has been constant and very personal. I’m currently diagnosed with Adult ADHD and Major Depressive Disorder. That includes anxiety, panic attacks, and symptoms that mimics Manic-Depressive-like behavior. I’m a prime candidate for never being fully capable of finding the light at the end of the tunnel.
It also means I’m not the most hopeful or cheerful person at times. I can be downright grumpy. I also have a penchant for self-medication, gallows humor, impulsive and risky behavior. I listen to music that seems to thrive and make bank on exploiting mental illness in the most cringe-inducing of ways. It doesn’t help when you come from an environment that treated mental illness and depression as the norm. I grew up experiencing and seeing the damaging effects it can have on not just you but everyone around you. Experiencing it myself, it makes known that it is a chemical imbalance brought on by different factors and YES it is hereditary. It’s a constant raging war that at times never seems to be able to come to an end even though you might win a battle here and there.
Metal has been the one constant factor in my life that I first discovered when I was 9 or 10 years old that made me feel that I am not the only one dealing with these issues. Even before I was well-educated about my own brain chemistry. Metal music and it’s culture, even in the 90’s when it wasn’t in vogue/fashionable or popular to listen to, felt like a refuge for antisocial misfits such as myself. It made me feel less isolated and alienated than I already was. It still is the one place that I feel at home at any given day as I hurtle closer and closer to the age of 40.
My song is “Exercises In Futility VI” by MGLA. There have been numerous songs that I have a strong emotional connection with. This particular song is a current one within the past couple of years that perfectly describes, from my perspective, the hopelessness and acceptance of mental illness. It’s hard to pick a particular line of lyrics from it, because the entire song hits the nail right on the head. Upon first listening to the song, it felt like I was looking directly into a window of my personal past of dealing with the depths, and the constant daily struggle of mental illness.
“As if everything was to be made right one day
Dreams don’t come true for people like us
As if the gods were bored with peace in our hearts
And their fingers are itchy
As if we never broke people out of sheer boredom
And slept calmly among the wastes.”
I suffer from a disorder called Asperger’s Syndrome. I was diagnosed with it when I was 4 years old. I have a hard time reading social cues and I perseverate on things because of it. I got into music, preferably rock and metal, because of it. I’m relatively lucky when it comes to having Aspergers because most people like me have a hard time socializing. On the contrary, I’m actually really social.
My choice tune is “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent, specifically the amazing 12 minute live version off “Encore: Live In Concert.” It helps to listen to it because it empowers me when I’m sad.
In late 2009, I left an abusive relationship and returned home (a 1200 mile drive). I attempted not only to piece my life back together, but myself as well. My journey to an undying love of metal was spurred during this tumultuous time, thanks to some internet randos and my desire to find absolutely anything that would make me feel something again.
On top of the traumatic experience I had managed to escape, I lived with depression. Depression is a complicated amalgam of self-loathing, sadness, guilt, isolation, hopelessness, and a yawning abyss of nothingness. Nothingness, in particular, had a powerful grip on me. During that time, I felt as though someone had scooped out the essence of who I was, leaving me a dank, heavy, hollowness. I had days (okay, who am I kidding, weeks) of being physically unable to get out of bed.
There was an aspect of failure and loneliness in everything I attempted to do. Having set out to accomplish much, and returning home a shadow of who I was, I had expertly managed to push everyone away, alienating friends and family alike. My parents didn’t seem to understand why I was “behaving like this.” But I found some solace in music. Music was the one constant in my life.
At some point, a friendly internet stranger introduced me to all things HevyDevy. I latched onto Strapping Young Lad and the Devin Townsend Project. I don’t know what it was in particular about that music, but after months of feeling absolutely nothing, I felt a glimmer of… Something. It scared the hell out of me, but it was also fascinating.
It can be easier to be numb. Emptiness can’t lead to disappointment. But I knew if I continued on as I was, I would commit suicide. The ideation was already there, I simply hadn’t committed to it yet. That spark of something made me realize that, perhaps, I wasn’t a degenerate who was dead on the inside.
After a deep dive down the Devin Townsend rabbit hole, I discovered that he had a show scheduled in my rinky-dink home town. I hadn’t been leaving the house, except when forced to, but I bought a ticket and played all his albums on repeat in anticipation. I clung to that concert like it was my last hope. Honestly, it was.
I went to the concert, and not only did I love it (hooray for feeling things!), but it changed everything. Before the show, I waited in line behind a pair of super nice metalheads. We chatted, and hung out. They even kept an eye out for me while we were in the pit and made sure I could see the band. Everyone I talked to that night was friendly. The guy who booked the band was so excited to share his own enthusiasm, it was infectious. There was a sense of community that I still experience, to this day when attending shows. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever known outside of metal. That concert gave the groundwork to heal from an abusive relationship, and vital a reminder that it’s okay to feel.
My song is “Hyperdrive” by Devin Townsend Project. During this period of my life, Hyperdrive stuck with me. It has a pretty a melody and vocals, but it’s undercut with a sense of melancholy. It was the first piece of music I heard that expressed how I felt. Outwardly, it seems upbeat, but if you listen and pick apart the lyrics, you’ll find sadness and a sense of struggle (in this case, probably Devin’s drug addiction). I had made it far, and had broken away physically intact, but in mental shambles. Hyperdrive was helpful in that it let me acknowledge my low points. It was a reminder that what I was (or wasn’t) feeling was legitimate, and I needed to allow myself room and time to sort through it all.
Metal music (and aggressive styles music in general; I’m not picky) has pulled me through a lot. I had fairly crippling depression when I was younger; nearly driving me to suicide twice. If I didn’t have good genes I would be an addict. Getting over my sexuality from being raised fairly conservatively was a big part of it, as was figuring out my gender issues – both of those helped me “find myself”, and writing music has been a huge outlet for me.
I suffer from crippling migraines and for a while I was on a fairly nasty medication called Amitriptyline – it worked like a charm for preventing the migraines but also imbalanced my hormone levels and aggravated my depression seriously. Quitting the drug helped a little but it took a long time for my psyche to recover, and substance abuse and general apathy became rampant. Emotional disconnect prevented me from seeking help and I spiraled down deep and eventually dropped out of college. I’m not 100% perfect now, and I still have my ups and downs, but I have a decent side career now and I’m a fairly successful musician, and those have both helped pull me out of my pit.
My song is “Beautiful Mourning” by Machine Head. I was an edgy motherfucker when I was depressed. This is one hell of an angry song and it really resonated with me. Very few albums from my “early days” of listening to metal have stuck with me, but The Blackening is one that has.
I have anxiety and depression issues and have for a long time, plus none of my friends live close by/in the same city. I don’t think I was aware of my anxiety/depression/social isolation ’til high school but Metal music helped me a lot even though back then I had just a few friends. Metal made me connect with them and others who I was pen-pals with.
Ever since high school (which was during the friggin’ Reagan-era, good lawd!) I’ve loved getting lost in Fates Warning’s “Guardian.” There’s really something about feeling not completely alone when John Arch sings “I will remember you…” And I really want to live in that album cover with the space-lemurs.
When my father moved the family, I was 9 years old. This isn’t to say that my anxiety and manic-depression wouldn’t have manifested if we stayed where we were, but I didn’t have social bonds half as strong as those of my peers.
At 12, a lot of the fabric of what I had been led to believe about the world was tearing apart. There was the missive of school, wife, work, death and the suburban neoliberal icing of everything being perfectly fine which was growing increasingly incompatible with what I was learning, both through the reported world of print, and my experience of the world I lived in.
Confused and enraged, I would self-mutilate regularly and, as I moved into my teen years, seek out drugs and toxic women, all the while developing views on love, power, and geopolitics which were at odds with the white walls around me. Something was very wrong about the world and all these adults pretending otherwise while expecting my respect was baffling at best.
Though I couldn’t articulate it this way at the time, I was finding solace and strength in the expressions of punk, metal, and gothic music that were helping to reinforce my character. A local radio station (WJSE 102.7, but it doesn’t exist anymore) was introducing me to heavier thrash bands on a show called The Mosh Pit which they aired at midnight. Living, as I was, in the rural suburbs of South Jersey, I don’t know that this would have come to me otherwise.
The journey towards feeling okay more or less would see me through a stint in a mental hospital and years of chemical experimentation, of both the prescribed and self-administered varieties. It has cost me relationships and jobs. This has never really ended but, at this ripe old age of 26, I have more tools under my belt to deal with episodes as they occur. This world, however, is no less fucked.
My song is “Propaganda” by Sepultura. This song doesn’t deal with mental health directly, but with power structures and the nature of truth. Critical reasoning has come to be a great friend of my mental health by allowing me to form my own fucking narratives of my own fucking mind and body.
In my early twenties, after flunking out of college and returning to my hometown in defeat, I presented with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Not the cute, daytime TV OCD where you like to arrange your pencils in order of length and carry around a bottle of Lysol, mind you. The kind where you are constantly bombarded with a lurid vision of your sister being brutally raped and murdered, convinced it’s absolutely going to come true, and deciding that the only way to prevent it is to bang your head on each wall of your house exactly 45 times. Did you miscount just then? Shit, you’ve got to start over. Wait, did you miss the door jam of the bathroom? You’ve got to start over completely. What do you mean you have to sleep now? Do you hate your sister?
OCD is a disorienting mixture of doing insane things, being fully aware that they are insane, and being filled with animal terror and shame if you don’t do them. The banging your head on the wall thing wasn’t my tic (my things mostly involved glasses of water and telephones), but it’s a common one. Over a year and a half of being undiagnosed, OCD tore my mind down, and it would have torn my life down if I hadn’t sought help. I’m recovered now. Well, “recovering.” It’s a little like alcoholism in that regard. I fight urges on occasion, and relapse is a horrifying possibility.
Metal didn’t factor into my recovery, but it was what allowed me to rebuild my identity. Coming out of the other end of that hell and isolation, I had burned most of the bridges I had with friends and employers. I didn’t know who the fuck I was, how I wanted to look, or where I belonged. But at a metal concert, things were different. It was the one place I felt comfortable, the one place where didn’t feel like a secret freak trying and failing to wear a “functioning person” costume convincingly. I was still in a headspace where I could feel every old lady in every checkout line clucking their tongue and shaking their head behind my back, but a sweaty, fat guy elbowing me in a circle pit? He just wanted to throw the horns. He felt like family.
The other music I was listening to began to trickle away. I got some piercings and threw away every non band shirt I owned. Adopting a metalhead identity wasn’t the act of trying to fit into a group, it was the act of trying to fit into my own skin. For the first time in my life, I really love who I am, and that man is built on a foundation of heavy metal.
My song is “In Self Ruin” by Lychgate. Musically and vocally, it mimics the feeling of an OCD panic attack better than anything I’ve ever heard. The desperation and violence in Greg Chandler’s voice is eerily familiar.
I’ve suffered from serious mental health issues for most of my life. Until this past year several of my conditions (borderline personality disorder, PTSD) had been undiagnosed. When I’m suffering through any sort of depressive episode or wrestling with the symptoms of my disorder aggressive sounding music with stereotypical heavy metal lyrics (i.e, Satan, war, partying) will help me feel better. I tend to listen to a lot of Slayer, Dissection, and Gojira during these times. The sound of the music offers catharsis a and gives me a chance to focus on something other than what I am feeling at the time.
Conversely, heavy music with lyrics that are “sad” or somehow relate to my illness tend to exacerbate my symptoms. A song like “Gravedancer” by Pig Destroyer, which features the line “I could cut myself to pass the time” reinforces the negative feelings and thoughts that I am having. Hearing lyrics that speak about self mutilation, suicide, or other facets of mental illness usually just serve to help me wallow. Hearing my thoughts and feelings expressed by another person through music reminds me that I am not alone, but also allows me to give myself permission to refuse to get any sort of real help for my illnesses.
My song is “Gravedancer” by Pig Destroyer, as mentioned above. It has some fairly suggestive (at least to me) lyrics that hit hard when I am suffering. Another song that has been significant to me is Distractions of Living Alone by Woods of Ypres. The lyrics really illustrate some of the thoughts that go through my mind when I am feeling particularly low. The song has definitely not helped with my mental health issues as it reinforces negative feelings.
Turk E. Burger
There are a lot of people with some definite screws loose, and I am one of them. Maybe metal music attracts those with shitty childhoods? I don’t know, but it made me feel better as a kid, blastin’ whatever death metal I got my hands on.
As a musician, lyrics in metal have always been a secondary thing to me. A lot of times in death metal, they’re hard to understand anyway. Certain chord progressions pull on different heartstrings of mine, and the riffs of a song and the aggression makes me feel better.
For my song, both “Zombie Inc” by In Flames and “Death Certificate” by Carcass come to mind. Both those albums were everything to me in that era (the mid ‘90s), while my parents were divorcing. Hard times, but aggressive riffs and killer chords make me feel better inside.
This might come across as sappy, but I’m speaking completely off the cuff while stoned/drunk, so bear with me…
From age 12 onwards, I’ve struggled with depression, anxiety, and anger. I first got into metal in High School. Coming off the heels of a miserable Middle School experience (overweight, obsessive compulsive disorder, tourette’s syndrome, bullied everyday, parents getting divorced, just lots of fun stuff), I was both directionless and highly impressionable. For better or for worse, my highly impressionable younger self was up late one night channel-surfing and came across a cartoon called Metalocalypse. I’ve been a Metalhead ever since.
Regardless of what was going on in my life at the time, metal has always served as a sort of “constant” for me. None of my family or friends were into it; metal was the first “interest” that I actually carved out for myself as opposed to being introduced to by someone else. It was this independent, completely separate space that I could spend time in and flush all of the negativity and toxicity and self-hatred out of my system. It was therapeutic.
My tastes have changed a lot over the years. I used to be super obsessed with Mushroomhead, then I discovered that they’re just a cheap Faith No More knock-off and I’ve since moved on to greener pastures altogether like Dismember and Revocation. But the relief is still the same. I put on an album or playlist and I just feel better.
My song is “Drawn to Black” by Insomnium. This was one of the first songs without any clean vocals that I really enjoyed (my high school self had very “basic” tastes). I associate it with a sense of weightlessness, like I’m immune to any negative internal vibes or external stimuli.
Like all of us, my path to wellness is long and complicated and riddled with fucking potholes, and I’m nowhere near the end and have basically no answers. So here’s the short version. I find that the surest path is the one that is most true to myself, and every time I like the way I look, or hear things I like, or get to talk with like minded people about music, I feel better. On the darkest days, when I forget to eat and am virtually unreachable, heavy metal is often the only thing able to flip on that “enjoy stuff” switch. It also helps harness that dark energy, and steers it away from self destruction and towards creativity and expression. There’s a lot more to say but that’s really the gist of it, I love you, heavy metal and I love you Toilet dudes!
My song is “Deathbed” by Agoraphobic Nosebleed. This album is actually a bit of an aberration for me, I’m not really an ANb fan, but this album is so raw and emotional that it’s been my coping jam since it came out. In bad times and good, it helps me remember that pain is a part of life and that beauty can come from darkness.