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Metal Music Saved My Life (And It Might Save Yours Too)

Headbanging as demonstrated by the band “Asphyx”. Image available CC 3.0 from Wikipedia.
Headbanging as demonstrated by the band “Asphyx”. Image available CC 3.0 from Wikipedia.

Content warning: topics include suicide and depression.

People don’t often believe me when I say that metal music saved my life. Some combination of derision and eye-rolling tend to accompany either empty platitudes of inherent “toughness” or “resiliency”. It’s futile to try and explain surviving emotional adversity to someone who’s either never experienced it or reckoned with it.

Let’s try to fix that, shall we? Let’s set the proverbial stage and see if we can get there together.

You’re a prepubescent male in a time where school hasn’t caught-up to the lived experiences of neurodiverse individuals and youth suffering from a combination of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. You’re exceptionally unpopular with your “peers” in your age- and grade-cohort. Teachers call you “difficult” and “disruptive” both to your face and to your parents. Parents tend to leave you to your own devices — they’re too busy trying to make a living and process their own traumatic experiences to help you get a handle on yours. You get sucked into video games because you’ve been cast out from everything else. You’re not athletic or terribly handsome — you’re just “you”.

What those “peers”, parents, and teachers don’t see (or don’t want to admit) is that you’re oscillating between two extremes constantly. On the one extreme, a depression and self-negation that is so brutally complete and finite that suicide seems less like a tragedy than a release from a torment over which you had no control over and had not consented to. On the other, a white-hot rage the likes of which could easily be mistaken for a Viking-era berserker fury. You lash out because it’s the only thing that reminds you that you’re alive and draws attention to your plight, even if it’s fleeting and punishment is always somewhere in the offing. Rejected, spurned, turned-away — you turn to the only thing that allows you to weather it at all: music.

You find that singular friend. One who finally — finally understands you. They take you in, in a sense. Their home becomes your only place to get away. You become dependent on them and seek them out for everything. You grow into puberty together, you become exposed to new and dangerous-feeling information and experiences. You go to your first concert with them — it proverbially flays you alive, vivisects you, exposes everything that lies within. Raw and thundering with unquenched pain and unrequited longing for connection and meaning.

And everyone else at the concert sees it. They see the rage and they smile — because they know it all too well. They know a kindred spirit when they see one. The “pit” becomes a cherished place, one where it feels damn near opulent to enervate yourself in naked emotion with a pile of other strangers. You get knocked over; you get picked back up. You protect another concert-goer from a drunken skinhead; you get a smile and a mouthed-out “thank you”. You and a few hundred fellow deafened emotive bipedal organisms cheer in total ecstasy because the band effectively ordered the event security to hand-deliver a kid in a wheelchair from the crowd to the stage. You feel so fucking alive and righteously so.

The galloping drums. The twin rumble of kick-drums and bass. The manic screeching of distorted electric guitars. The poignancy and immediacy of the lyrics arriving like an apocalyptic cry of vengeance over the top of it all. Your heart races. Memories come roaring back — rejection, despair, powerlessness, desperation. You reckon with them with fresh eyes and the unrestrained righteous fury of a thousand suns. You aren’t that person anymore, that fearful, cowering, brow-beaten youth whose only wish was the sweet, sweet embrace of Death and the shuffling of one’s mortal coil — you’re stronger. Even if it was only an hour or two ago, you feel emboldened. There are others out there like you: hurting, seeking a refuge and a place to forge that pain like steel. To turn it into anything; anything at all to provide a bulwark against everything that life dumps onto them like an avalanche of ten-ton hammers.

You stumble out of the venue half-deaf because you and your friend were too young to remember earplugs (and flat-broke besides). You take almost an hour sitting in the car in the parking lot, drinking out of a half-flat-half-empty two-liter of Coke because you’re still reeling. The creeping stiffness that makes itself known down your neck and into the deepest core of your spine is just a prelude to the week-long recovery you’ll relish like a fine whiskey or cigar as an adult — because it reminds you that you’re alive. That you exist and that you are present in this very moment. The taste of sweat, flat Coke, and sea-air at that very moment seems more like an aqua vita than the gallon of water you’ll end-up chugging before you collapse face-first into your pillow at three in the morning.

You spend the next few years seeking that feeling, not because you’re an addict in search of another hit, but because it feels so damn vital — so incredibly necessary that the notion of living without it feels like telling a drowning sailor that they’ll be fine without fucking oxygen. You find that it’s impossible to relay to someone (anyone) what you’ve experienced. It’s as if you’d been abruptly awoken from somnambulance and realized the horrifying truth of your circumstance: you’re not the one that’s broken, everyone else is. You recognize that your parents are abusers and you’d been justified in every instance of your so-called “antics” and “episodes”. You eventually come to understand that those teachers you tried so hard to appeal to weren’t interested in your pain or your brilliance obscured by a lack of social graces — just your test scores.

That music becomes the soundtrack to your escape. Every rejection, every failure, every misstep, every misdeed framed as a struggle, unholy in its length and breadth but wholly yours. You come to grips with your reality and lived experience as a non-heterosexual in a society hell-bent on seeing you suffer and die. You truly start to understand and grapple with what it means to be an outlier. You develop a deep vocabulary of emotions and empathy so that when people turn to you, they know they’re getting feedback completely unvarnished and unrestrained. You discover that as soon as you’re old enough, you not only become a more whole person but a force of nature that has been unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.

Every musician and band name becomes a quiet litany, a thankful prayer to the universe because you firmly believe that an Abrahamic god doesn’t exist and has abandoned you in your hour of deepest need. Hatebreed. A Perfect Circle. Judas Priest. Metallica. Animals As Leaders. Static-X. Mercenary. In Flames. Soilwork. Disarmonia Mundi. Tool. Andrew W.K. Shadows Fall. Angel Vivaldi. Straight Line Stitch. Eluveitie. Pendulum. Pelican. Elizabeth Colour Wheel. 36 Crazyfists. Periphery. Monuments. On-and-on-and-on the list goes. The sounds, the lyrics, the emotions they evoke, the resolution they bring to your demeanor — they become the way that you get through the day. They become the 12 Steps to self-actualization and self-acceptance.

You survive a suicide attempt — and a second one several years later. Because you remember the precious few friends you’ve made. You remember how hard you fought to make and keep those friends, how you showed up in the middle of the night dozens of times without a second’s hesitation to provide aid and comfort, how you made it a point to spend money and time with them because they saw you. They didn’t just see the Facebook photos of you doing interesting things, they saw the real you. Warts-and-all.

You fall in and out of love. You come to realize and appreciate the variety, color, and depth of lived experiences beyond your own. You reflect, empathize, and develop bonds with people who wouldn’t ordinarily even give you the time of day. You find the strength within, buried under two decades of trauma, to reach out and start working on your problems. You breathe life into that ember of who you were before all of the pain, bringing it to a calm, slow burn. You come to understand that life is regrettably short and brutal — but it doesn’t have to be. You resolve to be the opposite of what inflicted that pain upon you: a paragon, stronger than steel and twice as sharp.

Then finally you recognize what you needed all along and what all of that “angry” music granted you: hope. Sometimes dark, often full of rage, but hope nonetheless. The burning hope that there will be a brighter day, that there will be a reason to open-up to someone and embrace that vulnerability, and that ultimately the world isn’t some Hobbesian-Darwinian-Nietzschean nightmare. That there is some good in this world — and it’s worth fighting for with bloody-tooth-and-nail.

Now do you understand? Now do you know why metal music saved my life?

Maybe it can save yours. It’s not too late.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate help, don’t wait to act. Call the toll-free, 24-hour hotlines below:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1–800–273-TALK (1–800–273–8255)
  • TrevorLifeline (LGBTQ & Youth) 1–866–488–7386

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