And I was every question that never had an answer
I see right through you
And never even noticed that there always was a reason
That we were never meant to be left alone.
—The Dillinger Escape Plan, “Milk Lizard”
1. “Low Feels Blvd”
I am not what you picture when you think of a metalhead; I have no tattoos, no wide ear gauges, no long hair with which to head bang. There are teenagers who are twice as metal as I will ever be. But I do listen to metal—have done so for years—on both the brightest days and the grayest. I do have a pierced septum; it’s relatively new and more an accessorized front. And I do want a tattoo, though I’ve only committed to the temporary kind. However, skin accessories and a darkly monochromatic wardrobe do not alone a metalhead make. One might assume this crowd to be full of fearless counterculture anarchists who give zero fucks about what anyone thinks. I am not so confident. I am afraid of letting people get too close because I don’t trust others to understand me on a basic emotional level; I rarely trust my own judgment in the myriad of easy and difficult situations that daily life presents; and what little remaining self-esteem I have lies buried beneath a high-rise of self-hatred that manifests in destructive impulses—all of which leads me, on the worst days, to wish I weren’t alive. In other words, I live with major depression.
What does my depression look like?
More often than not, I sleep too late; I’m sad and angry at myself for sleeping in; my whole day is thrown off course. With no established routine or foundation, I become sadder and angrier. Hopelessness sets in like quick-dry cement. Feeling all but ruined, I just want to go back to sleep. Instead of pulling myself out of my emotional quagmire through self-care, I feel paralyzed. I sleep more. With any notion of a regular schedule long gone, once I’m finally awake, I recount every single way I’ve failed myself. Tomorrow feels so impossible I don’t even want to think about it. Then all this repeats the following morning because I’ve stayed up too late worrying about what I cannot control. When this becomes the norm, I tell myself that I simply want to disappear. This is, somehow, the best answer. I know that’s not healthy to think, but I’m still searching for what is healthy. What could make me want to stay here through today’s sadness, loneliness, and pain?
I’ve spent more of my thirty-four years on antidepressants than years off them. Far more. I’ve taken Zoloft, Celexa, Paxil, Effexor, Prozac, Lexapro, Cymbalta, Wellbutrin, Ritalin, Adderall, Abilify, Zyprexa, BuSpar, and even St.-John’s-wort. Yet I’m not entirely sure any of them ever truly worked. Some did keep me out of the subbasement of rampant desperation. But they didn’t enliven me in any meaningful way; they allowed me to minimally survive each day without really having a clear objective why or an excitement for doing so. On most of these medications, I didn’t exactly feel bad, but I didn’t feel good either, which feels like its own version of an inescapable failure to endure, let alone look forward to tomorrow.
I currently take two antidepressant and two antianxiety prescriptions. I worry I’ll be on these for the next thirty-four years. And I worry they won’t be enough. As David A. Karp writes in Is It Me or My Meds?: Living with Antidepressants, “You hope [through medication] to get to a healthy place, but you’re not sure where it is, whether you’ll ever arrive, and even whether that destination exists for you.” When I tell someone I’m depressed, I too often get the response, I’m sorry; I know how you feel. I don’t trust this. The gesture comes across as kind, but it rings empty. This emptiness begets, in me, more emptiness. I begin to believe I’m the only one who feels this way. Similarly, William Styron, who chronicles his own battle with depression in Darkness Visible, writes, “A sense of self-hatred—or, put less categorically, a failure of self-esteem—is one of the most universally experienced symptoms.” When self-esteem is replaced by self-hatred, language begins to fail the depressed person. For much of my life, I did not know the right words of wanting; I knew only the names of pharmaceutical solutions and their milligram dosages.
Chris Cornell, the lead singer of the grunge-metal band Soundgarden, committed suicide on May 18 last year while on tour. His wife, Vicky Cornell, published a letter to her late husband. She writes, “I’m sorry you were alone, and I know that was not you, my sweet Christopher.” Of all the heartbreaking lines in her letter, this one hurts the most. She recognizes how depression misleads one to make remote islands of us all. In the throes of similar melancholia and aversion, I forget all the things that make me me. When I forget those, what is left?
2. “Symptom of Terminal Illness”
I never listened to Soundgarden. They’re a hugely influential band that came to represent a particular sound and scene unique to Seattle in the early nineties, but they weren’t a formative group that spoke to my inner teenage angst. In late high school—when my depression felt more and more like an extricable part of me—I would go watch local hardcore bands play across the river in an old porn cinema. I still remember the sheer abandon of attending such shows. But I was shy, cheap, and dedicated to school, so I didn’t pursue it. I ignored those concerts’ aural charges and cathartic releases because I didn’t yet know the questions this kind of music answered in me. Nor did I know how desperately I wanted those answers.
On May 19, 2017, when I drove by the Fillmore Theater in Denver and the venue’s marquis simply read, RIP CHRIS, I did not know who Chris was. His death was sad, but any kind of mourning would have been performative rather than genuine. (Same goes for the more recent suicide of Linkin Park’s lead singer, Chester Bennington, a friend of Cornell’s.)
The New Jersey mathcore band the Dillinger Escape Plan (DEP) were opening for Soundgarden on their tour, and both bands were slated to soon play Denver. DEP had made it very clear that, after twenty years, this was their farewell tour. They also planned to play a small Denver show alone. I already had a ticket to this smaller venue, a Colfax pub called Streets of London with a six-inch-high stage no wider than a grand piano.
On May 19, DEP tweeted a picture of a young Cornell. The caption read, “We love you and have been immensely affected like no other death has affected us… ” That same day, the band later tweeted, “Denver. Three days in a row now. Tiny tiny tiny spot. Possible really bad idea. Place may not be standing on the 25th. Apologies to the owners.”
I attended all three nights.
“You look like you needed that,” my neighbor said upon seeing me return from one. He couldn’t have been more correct.
Before these concerts, I was planning on moving away from Denver (but had no idea where), quitting teaching, and even changing medications for something more powerful. Commercials for antidepressants kept cycling through my mind—images of bright green fields, mostly cloudless skies, and lots of smiling people gently touching each other. My depression had settled in for the long haul. I wanted big changes.
Here is where a writer would usually include a David Foster Wallace quote about suicide, one in which Wallace compares the suicidal person to a person trapped in a burning high-rise: “When the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors.” But I didn’t feel as if I were in a high-rise. I was safely on the ground, searching for something I could love in myself. When I couldn’t find it, I wanted to disappear out of sheer disappointment.
In my experience of living with major depression, I’ve never dipped so low as to attempt suicide. It’s always been more of a what-if than a logical exit. What would happen if I did step out in front of the 15 bus? I veer up to the dangerous edge of the hypothetical so I can return from it feeling a little more in control. Metal, in my opinion, does a vicarious job of leading me to that same edge, sonically instead of hypothetically.
On a reptile-brain level, listening to metal feels better to me than the best sex, the best drugs, or the best memories of childhood, that time before the word depression became one of my defining characteristics. When I play metal vinyls at home, alone, I fight the urge to crank the volume, scale the furniture, and scream at the ceiling tiles. When I attend metal shows, I’m the one down in front among the hot press of moshers, crowd-surfers, and hardcore dancers. Every so often, I turn around. That way, I see I’m not the only one totally reveling in a double-bass-pedal breakdown or the climactic chorus of, “This feels like never-ending!” If I don’t leave the venue with my eardrums ringing and my T-shirt dripping with the sweat of strangers, then I haven’t experienced the outlet the band is providing. The sheer physical deliverance of a metal crowd is heightened by the music, which gives voice to the desire to confront the very mortality our bodies represent.
Through raw and existential lyricism, metal embraces the finitude of life while simultaneously wishing for its infinity. My vinyl collection includes metal acts with names such as the Bled, Every Time I Die, and Between the Buried and Me. This music turns introspection inside out without regressing into maudlin self-help clichés like, The best way out is always through. Better to use a DEP lyric: “Your heart was trying to bleed, and you’re taking the right road if you’re talking to me.”
At its core, metal doesn’t offer a solution to dying; it instead asks: If we are here for only a short while, why should we suffer alone, confused, and scared? For a depressed person like me, this empathic reach means far more than the patronizing “I know how you feel.” It’s a transmission of willpower that says I can—and should—make it through to the next day.
3. “Understanding Decay”
I can remember feeling so depressed that I would just drive and drive and drive, and then I’d park somewhere and cry for reasons I couldn’t explain.
I can remember not eating for three straight days, preferring substance abuse to food.
I can remember biking to the nearest graveyard with a bottle of Jose Cuervo Black in my bag and then proceeding to drink as much as I could before I threw up behind a headstone.
The medication I take now still falters. Depression saps me of any active desire. And yet metal lifts me out. It’s rare, in my experience, to know the desire and to have the means to fulfill it. It gives perpetual purpose to living. This music isn’t a temporary reprieve. There’s no withdrawal, no separation anxiety, no psychiatrist’s signature required. Listening to metal, I think of all the other people listening to it: “We were never meant to be left alone.”
In Darkness Visible, Styron, upon hearing Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, writes, “This sound, which like all music—indeed, like all pleasure … pierced my heart like a dagger, and in a flood of swift recollection I thought of all [my] joys.” To pierce their hearts and think of their joys, most don’t choose metal. Yet perhaps that’s what makes it all the more invigorating for me. By drawing on the power of a personal craving, I retake control. I can decide. I can decide to be myself.
Taking one’s own life is the last desperate act of agency. When one believes there is no answer, suicide becomes the only answer.
The Scottish writer John Burnside writes in his poem “Taxonomy”: “There is something we love in ourselves that a meadow answers.” The meadow, for me, is metal.
4. “Setting Fire to Sleeping Giants”
During the second song on the second night of DEP’s three-night Denver stand, I was in the front row. Everyone lifted the lead guitarist into the air. He kicked down several ceiling panels and then hung from the rafters by his legs—and throughout, he kept playing the song. This was a typical night with DEP. The goal wasn’t total anarchy or heightened anger. What they created was a collective atomic release. Even the band’s name contains the phrase escape plan. Metal’s urges are founded in a desire for immediate connection (“I gave you everything you wanted / You were everything to me”) and the way those connections grow out of reach (“I’m frightened in sleep, thinking my world will be gone / Promise me I won’t die”). Vicky Cornell writes that her husband was “excited for life”—that’s the same excitement I’ve long wanted for myself.
In the wake of Cornell’s suicide, DEP might have canceled its remaining tour dates. But that wouldn’t have been metal. Everything this type of music encompasses (catharsis, community, care) reaches deeper into me than any other extended hand—prescription or otherwise. During those three nights, my voice joined two hundred others.
Toward the end of the third concert, DEP played one of my favorite songs, “Sunshine the Werewolf.” The lead singer pushed his way into the tight crowd, still screaming the lyrics into the mic while shoving people away. There’s this breakdown in the song where he sings, “Destroyer! There’ll be another just like you. You’re not the only one. I’m not the only one.” I’d pushed my way right up to the singer. He turned to me, held the mic between us, and we yelled these lyrics together. “You’re not the only one. I’m not the only one.” It was a delicate synaptic bridge, crossed in the sweat and sloshed beer of a strobe-lit mosh pit on a Tuesday night. It opened in me the question I’d so longed to ask without knowing the words: Can I make it to tomorrow? And the answer: Yes. I’ve found something I love in myself, and that makes me want to stay here.
Alexander Lumans was a 2018 NEA Grant recipient, a Philip Roth Writing Fellow at Bucknell University, and a participant in the Arctic Circle Residency.