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Some Thoughts About Mental Illness in the Metal Community

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NOTE: Emperor Rhombus is not a doctor, or even an emperor. He has no background in psychology other than his own experiences dealing with his own mental illnesses. If you’re considering basing your life off of his opinions, please watch this video and consider whether or not you want to be this man.

Good art is about making people feel less alone. What makes a painting, or book, or song truly great is when its very essence seems to look you in the eye and let you know that it’s not just you who feels this way. But in some ways, that art can be even more unnerving than art with a shallow broad-stroke worldview, because it lets you know that those emotions that seem only yours have a history behind them, one that has been refined, cliched, and catalogued before. It makes you want to define that abnormal thing inside of you with even harder lines. Sometimes, this produces new and exciting art by artists who want to leave their distinct emotional imprint on the world. Other times, it results in people doing horrible things in an attempt to break the rules of a game they never asked to play.

Metalheads fetishize that level of extreme mental illness, for a number of reasons. One is that we so often feel out of touch with the “normal” world around us that we often wonder if maybe we’re just crazy. Another cuter idea is that it seems to take some sort of mental instability to make music as technical, bizarre, and extreme as the best metal is. A third is that, as a genre that (in its best incarnation) promotes honesty and gives refuge to outcasts, metal attracts people that polite society deem unseemly, and so many metalheads know people who live with mental illness, and understand that there’s nothing wrong with it, and that many of the institutions in place to combat it seem worse than the illness itself (that’s certainly a metal trope—needle-happy doctors turning typical rowdy teenagers into zombies slumped in the Game Room).

But more than anything, mental illness is real, realer than any Devil or superhero or message on a tattoo. It is uncontrollable, and immeasurable, and often takes people against their will, and the fear and confusion of those it does this to is very real, and tangibly dark.

Sadly, this fetishization has created a cultural cliché, that of the mopey rocker acting depressed and crazy in order to get attention and seem real in the eyes of those around them. And it’s important to have that cliché, as it allows us to better see when someone is just trying to act hard. That said, it also makes us numb to when someone is actually in pain, and that ignorance can lead to warning signs being ignored or blown off, until someone does something horrible and regrettable.

Obviously, I write this piece because of Chester Bennington. What Chester Bennington did was horrible and regrettable. Hanging yourself is about as horrible a way to commit suicide as possible. It’s certainly the sort of act that seems shocking and gut-wrenching, especially when the person who commits it has everything to live for—family, millions of dollars, a massive career as a world-spanning rock star. That incongruity between Bennington’s life versus his desire to end it in such an ugly fashion causes both stunned shock—How could this possibly happen?—or circuitous reasoning—It was Chris Cornell’s birthday, or even worse, Someone murdered him and there’s a hokey-sounding cover-up—both of which feel safer than admitting and talking about the fact that Bennington was mentally ill, and that his suicide was a symptom of that.

Because if you didn’t know Bennington was mentally ill, what were you hearing when you put on a Linkin Park song? Were tracks like “Crawling” or “Breaking The Habit” about taking your girl to the rock show for a good time? No. And if you thought Bennington’s music was just about being a rock star, you’re lying to yourself. If all you saw was bomber jackets and jewelry, then you missed the forest for the trees. Those things are easier to see, and they’re easier to aspire to. It’s easy to cast a guy like Chester Bennington as a rock star in your mind, rather than as a sick person.

This is hard to understand for a lot of people, myself included. I used to call people who committed suicide cowards. I used to believe that suicide was a sign of weakness; that unless you were suffering from an unbelievable physical injury or and incurable illness, you were the ultimate sucker for going out before your time. Some of that I still believe—I still think that suicide releases a shock wave of pain around your life that your family and friends are forced to endure for the rest of theirs, and that fucking sucks for them. The thing is, a mentally ill person is not thinking that way. Their minds are not functioning properly. Their brain chemistry is out of whack, an idea that many people scoff at but that science has proven true time and time again. And asking a mentally ill person to just see things the way the rest of us do is like speaking very slowly and loudly at someone who doesn’t speak English in the hopes that they’ll suddenly understand. A coward is someone who chooses to give in to fear when there’s a more difficult way out; a suicidal person sees no other way out.

Certain metalheads who learned all the wrong things from gym class will tell you that that’s pandering, and making excuses. They’ll tell you that sure, life is tough, but you gotta tough it out, because that’s just what life is, a gauntlet of discomforts and sadness. Feeling depressed? Deal with it, snowflake, everybody else does. More so, they’ll tell you that mental illness breeds the best art. Would Poe have written all those awesome stories if he wasn’t a depressed alcoholic? Would Starry Night have been painted by someone who wasn’t ready to cut off his ear because he loved a hooker?

But my thinking is, I didn’t get into metal and the culture around it to live a life just like everybody else. If we’re going to proclaim ourselves as standing outside of polite society, then metalheads need to be fucking better than polite society. Meanwhile, as for those artists suffering severe mental illness, who knows? Maybe if they’d gotten help, they would be so much happier. Were dudes Poe and Van Gogh, or like Kurt Cobain and Per Ohlin and Chester Bennington blessed with their anxieties and neuroses, or cursed with them? What would have happened if those people around them had been readier, and better equipped, to talk about these issues?

As a culture of weirdos and outsiders, we as metalheads need to be more honest than the world at large, because let’s face it, most people want to do anything but acknowledge an ugly truth. That’s what metal’s all about, showing everyone the ugliest truths in the ugliest ways at the highest fucking volume possible. So when these truths show up, and they’re complicated, and difficult, and fucking ugly, it’s our job to deal with them in a nuanced fashion. It’s our job, the weirdo and the outsider’s job, to be there when things get crazy, to try and understand what your normal dumbfuck doesn’t want to sully their Instagram feed with, and to offer our help in any way that we can. This isn’t to say that the people in Chester Bennington’s life didn’t do that—suicide is never that easy. It’s never just someone’s fault for doing/not doing something. Just that, when we have the chance, we need to make people feel less alone. We need to be vocal about our ability to do that.

In that respect, a last note to anyone out there fighting mental illness of any kind: you are not alone. There are people out there who want to help you in any way they can. Go find them. Go get help. Try anything. Medications can be awful, therapy can be obnoxious, meditation can seem cheesy, but before hurting yourself you should try everything and anything. Reach out, talk about it, don’t be afraid. You are not alone. I repeat: you are not alone.

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