Since it’s very inception, heavy metal has gone hand in hand with popular party culture. Genre godfathers Black Sabbath owe a solid half of their discography to cocaine and the entire glam metal scene was fueled by strippers, booze and pills. Hell, the best thrash album to come out this century was literally called The Art of Partying and featured a zombie beer bong on its album cover.
But for all its relentless glorification of inebriation, metal always seemed to have an acute awareness of the pitfalls of addiction and substance abuse. From “Hand of Doom” to “Master of Puppets” to literally every Eyehategod song ever, the genre has been littered with odes to the helplessness and powerlessness of drug and alcohol addiction.
But what about those who have made it to the other side, those who have conquered their demons now are looking to alleviate the suffering of those who struggle with the same thing? With our current opiate crisis running havoc in seemingly every corner of this country and with a greater public awareness towards issues of mental health, the presence of individuals in recovery has never been more important.
In the past few years I’ve noticed a growing number of sober addicts and alcoholics in the metal scene (shout out to my boy James Hetfield). In talking with them and hearing their stories I’ve discovered that the metal and hardcore scene actually has played a positive role in how they overcame their substance abuse. Here are but a few of their stories to provide a glimpse of what I hope is a growing phenomenon:
“Addiction is a lot like that song ‘Broken Mirror, by Weekend Nachos” says Jimmy, 22, a recovering drug addict and mainstay in his local powerviolence/grindcore scene. “’Going somewhere, headed nowhere, walking blindly to my grave’” or so the song goes but Jimmy is coming up on two years clean and wants to keep his focus on the positivity in his life. “I’ve met some amazing people in recovery and I feel the same way about the people I’ve met in the metal scene. I feel at home in both environments, we both share this one thing together,” he explains.
Jimmy says that going to shows for him is a “natural high” and that he finds peace in the chaos of a live grindcore performance. His show attendance began in earnest after he got clean and now he spends most weekends making drives of up to seven hours to see his favorite bands play. I can also personally attest to Jimmy’s moshing capabilities, as he often is the sole audience member with the endurance to be pushing and shoving during every second of every band’s set. “Grind is love, it moves me both physically and metaphorically,” he says, “I have a life worth living nowadays and this particular music scene has played a big role in that.”
“Thinking back, it’s kind of ironic that the year I started really using drugs was the first year I really started to get into metal and grind” says T.J., 31, a recovering drug addict who now works as a substance abuse counselor for adolescents. “Not saying that drugs led me to metal or vice versa (although I did cut school to get high and go to the relapse records store in Philly a lot…) but I think that both the drugs and the music were helping me to cope with a lot of painful personal things going on in my life at the time” he adds with his trademark blend of vulnerability and sarcasm that has lead to his moniker of being a “living meme” within the Philly extreme metal community. TJ says drugs took him away from the scene and that towards the end of his addiction he would only rarely attend shows and when he did he wound up spending most of his time dry heaving in the bathroom from dopesickness. Eventually he wound up living homeless in Camden, NJ and though he tried to justify his predicament as being the fulfillment of a Crust Punk fantasy, it was only with the help of a drug counselor that he was finally able to admit he had a problem.
“After several tries at getting into recovery I finally met a counselor who told me that I didn’t have to give up everything to get clean. I didn’t have to become some puritan in order to let go of the factors of my life that kept leading me back to drugs; I could keep my doork-nocker-sized septum ring, get more tattoos, and eventually start going back to metal and grind shows once I was sure that I could stay healthy while doing so” says TJ, illustrating a common misconception about people in recovery having to adhere to a quasi-evangelical lifestyle in order to stay sober. Anyone who’s friends with TJ, either in real life or on Facebook, can attest to what a subversive and irreverent troll he can be at times but knowing it’s all in good fun. At least I hope it is.
TJ recently suffered a setback when he broke his leg stage diving at a Full of Hell show in Philadelphia. It was his first experience since getting clean that he was prescribed opiate painkillers. “It definitely was an eye-opening reminder at how dangerous that stuff can be,” he says. Fortunately with the help of friends and family he was able to take the medication as prescribed and is well on his way to a full recovery.
“After spending the better part of 2 years incarcerated I came to a crossroads, either go back to jail or do whatever I had to stay clean and build a life for myself” says Lisa, 30, a longtime pillar in both the recovery community and hardcore scene in eastern Pennsylvania. I first met Lisa when we were working at the same treatment center and she wore a hoodie for the New Jersey band Lifeless to work one day. Lisa embodies all the promises of positive hardcore: “In hardcore, I found a community outside of recovery that I could identify with. I felt accepted, like I didn’t need to hide my past and could be my true self” she says adding “Hardcore has been a very necessary part of my recovery, without the outlet that it gives me (combined with a 12-step program) I do not know that I would still be clean or have the guts to stand for what I believe in the way I do today.”
Lisa’s story highlights a growing phenomenon of recovering addicts and alcoholics finding refuge in the straight-edge hardcore scene. For many young people, most social gatherings involve drinking and drug, which could pose potential dangers to those in early recovery. Hardcore shows, straight-edge or otherwise, often deemphasize drinking and bar culture and thus provide an outlet to young people seeking to blow off steam without having to encounter any potential triggers.
Lisa says that her work in 12-step programs, her regular attendance at shows and her service for others is what keeps her clean and keeps her moving forward. “Today I work at a treatment facility helping get addicts the help that they need to succeed. I am a full-time student pursuing a Bachelor’s of Finance. I am a daughter, friend, sponsor to other recovering women, and girlfriend and just for today I will never trade in this beautiful life for a high.”
Finally, there’s the author himself. My story shares a lot of commonalities with the others: I was always into the music but it wasn’t until I finally got clean that I could really put my whole heart into this thing I loved so much. At first going to shows was a great way to relieve a lot of the tension and frustration I experienced at the tail end of my addiction and the early days of my sobriety. Hardcore shows also offered the additional benefit of being somewhat of a safe haven due to the strong presence of the straight edge subculture.
As they often do in recovery, things started trending upward at an unprecedented rate: I started a master’s program in counseling, moved out of my parents’ house and eventually was asked to do vocals for a grindcore band I was friends with. I’ve been in Bandit for nearly two years now and find that each time we perform it’s extremely cathartic for a lot of the pain I put myself through during my active addiction. I make it my own personal goal to show people that you don’t have to do drugs to go completely insane. Not only that, but to be able to write songs about my experience and the experiences of people I’ve worked with has been nothing short of spiritual for me.
I had a friend pass away last year from an overdose and channeled the pain into lyrics for a song on our last album. Every time we play it, it makes me think of not only him and the thousands who fall to the same fate, but also of people like Jimmy, Lisa and TJ, people who have fought and prevailed and come out stronger. As Henry Rollins once roared, “From the wreckage of my humiliation, I earned my self-respect.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse please reach out for help, it’s never too late. Call 1-800-974-0062