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What Is It Like to Play in a Band When You're Living with a Mental Illness?

"Why wasn't anybody writing about the thrill of cancelling plans just so you could safely sit clothed in the shower for six hours?"

Photo by Tom Connolly

Hi. My name is Andy, and for the last ten years, I've played music as Caïna. My mental health issues include manic depression, numerous anxiety related disorders and an autism spectrum disorder.

I've been listening to metal for about twenty years—over two thirds of my life. I've also been mentally ill for roughly the same amount of time. Either as a side-effect or just because I was an asshole kid, I didn't make friends easily and found my escape in heavy metal tapes and poring endlessly through lyric booklets. Metal unlocked my juvenile imagination, and its stars became my role models. I responded to its strength, its power, its lack of compromise. But as I got older, a nagging doubt began to grow. Sure there were songs about being locked up in asylums and theatrical stories of tragedy, but nothing that really reflected my experiences. What if I was wrong for loving this powerful, dynamic music when I was such a callow, frightened little dweeb? What if it just wasn't supposed to be for me? It never really got any better; when I first discovered black metal in 2002, a whole new world revealed itself. Here, there was a whole sub-sub-genre dedicated to depression! And, nope, it still didn't speak to me. Where were the songs about not being able to get out of bed for two days rolling belly-button fluff through your fingers? Why wasn't anybody writing about the thrill of cancelling plans just so you could safely sit clothed in the shower for six hours?


The answer, of course, is because it would a terrible idea and the songs would be unlistenable. Somehow, I navigated this turbulent period and have managed to carve out a career in metal. I've recently come under fire for daring to be a black metal musician who is also a real person, so this might seem like a disingenuous article to write. Why do it? I turn thirty next year. In the mirror, behind the premature worry-wrinkles and the scars of brawls long past, I can still see the teenage me, and I feel like I owe him something.

I'm not claiming to speak for everyone who has similar conditions to me, only outlining my own personal experiences, but for future generations of maladjusted, lonely metal kids, this is what it's like being insane in a band.

1. You don't want to do anything

A big part of any successful career is doing stuff when you need to do stuff. A big part of a major depressive episode is not being able to do stuff when you need to do stuff. I hope I'm not being too subtle but, to me, there seems to be a conflict of interest there. It might seem like all the color draining out and the world becoming a featureless gray fog would be the perfect way to start off writing some wicked bleak jams, but unfortunately, being a metalhead doesn't inoculate you against the associated feeling of total entropy that comes with it. Picking up a toothbrush feels impossible, let alone grabbing the nearest guitar and busting out some sick licks. Or answering emails, or remembering gigs you booked in a fit of idiot optimism. Speaking of which:

2. You want to do everything

Whilst the more up-to-date DSM terminology 'bi-polar' may have captured the public's imagination in recent years, I still prefer "manic depression," because when the fog of a depressive episode lifts, an often euphoric sense of urgency and vitality can replace it. You need activity, any activity. Gig in Portugal next Monday? Awesome. Gig in Lonson next Monday? Double awesome. Studio time on Monday?…you get the picture. Eventually you set up so many events that they become dominoes. It's not a question of if everything will collapse but when, often catastrophically. And so the cycle starts again.

3. "Can you be a Satanist with a therapist?"

This is an actual question from an old fanzine interview I did. Although I've sometimes been accused of disregarding or warping them in my career, I have a huge amount of respect for the traditional tropes of metal and its culture. Unfortunately they can prove challenging for people like me. Metal is inarguably synonymous with power, dignity and extremity–a lack of compromise in all things. When a person is mentally ill, they are very often robbed of their power and their dignity–and it's their own brain, their own flesh, doing it. When I first started to think about this as a teenager, there was a palpable sense of shame associated with it. Can you really belong to such an intense, extreme, individualistic identity when you rely on other people so much? When you need to confess to a doctor about how much you sleep, how many times you masturbate, how many times you thought about hanging yourself this week? But then I realised: what the hell is so noble about not needing anyone? Maybe getting your power and dignity back can be something people help with. Most metal bands are…bands. Everybody needs someone, sometimes, and maybe that's alright.


4. You constantly ask yourself, why do a job that terrifies me?

I had a major nervous breakdown in February 2013, and in many ways I'm still recovering from it. It took a while, but the way in which I chose to try and get over that event was to continually scare the shit out of myself. I invited other people into my band, which at that point had been a solo project for nearly nine years. I started playing shows for the first time since 2009, all over the country, sometimes completely alone. To put this in context, I have previously eschewed challenges, conflicts and human contact to the point that I have locked myself in the house for weeks at a time with no phones and a small store of food, essentially becoming a hermit for long stretches. I've found that stretching the boundaries of what I'm comfortable with has been instrumental in improving my mental well-being. I do things that terrify me because it's healthy to be scared sometimes. If you're not frightened it means nothings changing, and when you feel like you're at absolute rock bottom, feeling nothing is worse than feeling molten hot shit boil in your guts when you break a string on stage.

5. When is a metal brother not a metal brother?

I got some negative attention from the metal community recently when I expressed some particularly left-wing and liberal views in an interview about my band. My ASD leaves me more susceptible to misreading or misunderstanding other people, and I'm generally either super naïve or super paranoid in my everyday interactions. Aggression and negativity shake me because I find it extremely hard to predict how people are going to react, which makes it impossible to prepare. I've had to face the fact that some of the things I believe are at odds with a lot of the metal community. But what's metal about agreeing with everyone all of the time? And where's the fun?

Conflict is a part of life and a part of metal (not just because it's a key subject matter), and everybody including me needs to just suck it up sometimes. We're not going to all get along, because a lot of us are obnoxious misanthropes who prefer loud music to eye contact.

And I think that's great. But then again, I am crazy.

Caïna is on Bandcamp and released a new album, 'Setters of Unseen Snares,' on January 20th via Church of Fuck, Skin & Bones Records, and Broken Limbs Recordings.

Andy is occasionally on Twitter.