How Black Metal Saved My Life -- Or At Least, My Sanity

I turned up the volume on my stereo, and a devil’s choir of dissonant riffs and unearthly howls poured out. Nothing made sense anymore, except this. The raw, seething hatred spoke to me in a way that my friends and family could not.
Publish date:
February 1, 2013
music, Black Metal, Brain Surgery

“Your mom’s in the hospital.”

My immediate thought was, no big deal. She worked on the cafeteria staff at a high school a few towns over, and often came home bearing small angry cuts and blisters from daily mishaps. I assumed she’d burned herself, and would be coming home in an hour or two.

It did seem strange that my grandparents were there at the house waiting for my sister and I to get home from school, but not unheard of; we are close, and see each other often. Still, my small, sweet-faced Nanny looked worried.

“What happened?” I asked, dropping my heavy backpack and coming closer. “…It’s something in her brain,” came the tremulous reply. And suddenly, everything was different.

That was before the diagnosis, and the surgeries, and the hours upon hours spent in that stuffy waiting room, biting my nails off and snapping at my little sister whilst waiting to hear whether or not my mom was going to die.

That was before the brain hemorrhage, or the coma, or the months of rehab. That was before I heard my grandfather -- a 6’4” barrel-chested big game hunter and ex-Marine with a shaved head and booming voice -- weep like a child. That was before my mother’s personality changed, before she became a stranger to everyone who’d known her. It was after the aneurysm.

Aging is a capricious process, and sometimes a lifetime may flash by in an instant if it’s given enough cause. Seeing my mother’s newly frail body speckled with dried blood, threaded with tubes, and lying in a ICU bed with half her skull sawed off forced me out of the last vestigial moments of childhood, and out into the harsh realities of the adult world. I was 17. I am 25. Nothing gold can stay.

This isn’t about my mother, though -– not entirely. Her ordeal changed everything about her life and ours, and dealing with the aftermath has been a Sisyphean struggle. We’ve all dealt with it in our own ways.

My dad had his whiskey and his hunting trips deep in the isolated wilderness; my little sister, her field hockey and punk rock. For me, that saving grace and guiding light has burned blacker.

My best friend was there for me, but I couldn’t open up. My friends couldn’t understand, my family members were coping with their own grief and fear, the counseling services at my high school were of no use, and the boy I was dating was at a loss.

They didn’t know how to help me, and I withdrew, refusing to show any weakness or accept their well-intentioned pity. That first day, after things had calmed down enough for me to slip off and collect my thoughts, I stole down the hallway into the bedroom that had held my dreams since the day I was born and threw myself down onto my uncomfortable mattress.

Staring blankly at the sickly blue-green walls that a younger me had insisted upon, I turned up the volume on my stereo, and a devil’s choir of dissonant riffs and unearthly howls poured out.

Nothing made sense anymore, except this. The raw, seething hatred, bottomless despair, and chaotic nature of the music itself spoke to me in a way that my friends and family could not. Only this cold, lightness music that celebrated death, destruction, and elitism could articulate the suffocating, bleak feelings that consumed me.

Life as I knew it had shattered, and the only thing left that made me feel even a semblance of sanity was black fucking metal.

Xasthur, Leviathan, Darkthrone, Blut Aus Nord, Vlad Tepes, Kult Ov Azazel, and countless others were my comfort and my confidantes during those dark days, and metal has remained a massive, all-consuming part of my life.

It’s almost too cliché to say it, but heavy metal –- specifically black metal -– saved my life. Without this crackling, razor-edged hellnoise, all the horrible emotions and thoughts and questions that perpetually swirled through my consciousness would not have had an outlet, and I could easily have succumbed to the pressure.

As far as I was concerned, all I needed was Malefic’s hoarse submerged cries, Nocturno Culto’s chainsaw riffs, Manheim’s wet cardboard drumming on "Deathcrush," and the knowledge that, no matter how bad things were at home, there was a whole world of escape just within my reach.

I’d loved heavy metal in various forms since I was 11 years old, obsessing over death metal and goregrind up ‘til this moment, but now, it sank its claws in deep –- down to the bone, into the marrow. It went from an interest to an all-consuming passion, and has ended up enriching my life far more than I could have ever dreamed the first time I picked up a Bathory CD.

My career, my relationship, my appearance, my travels, my day-to-day existence are all inextricably bound with threads of silver ore and gaffe tape. Metal is my life, and nowadays, life is pretty good.

If my strong-willed disciplinarian mother hadn’t suffered a cerebral aneurysm in 2005, she would have been there to curb my various adventures. If my sad, bewildered father hadn’t been too overwhelmed with the task of caring for his irreparably damaged wife and juggling the whims and needs of two headstrong teenagers to lay down any real restrictions, I wouldn’t have had the freedom to bop out to metal shows in Philadelphia, spend hours digging through outdated promo CDs at the used record store 30 miles down the road, or invest as much time as I have into devouring every available printed word that extolled the virtues of extreme metal.

My life would have turned out very differently. Of course I wish I still had my Mom as I knew her; our relationship is troubled, to put it lightly, and the sense of loss that comes with losing a parent is indescribable.

The area of her brain that saw the most damage is that which controls emotional and logical functions, and she underwent a total personality change, to the extent that her former self is really just a shadow and her behavior can be excruciatingly frustrating and alienating.

She’s lost most of her abilities to empathize and control her impulses. Most of the time, she’s utterly ambivalent to my existence, save for flashes of baby talk and cloying overenthusiasm.

Before the aneurysm, she was a ballsy, headstrong, whip-smart woman who ran our lives and her own with a lovingly ironclad fist; now, she lacks the motivation and desire to do anything but watch TV and munch on peanut M&Ms.

It’s a jarring change, and time’s passing hasn’t done much to ease the shock.

Things could be so much worse, and so much more difficult, that it almost feels ungrateful to lament her condition. I mourn for the lost memories we could have shared, but the fact that she’s here at all is miraculous enough.

Despite everything that’s happened, glints of who she used to be shine through every so often, and I know that she is proud of the woman she still calls her “devil child.”

That knowledge is worth more to me than anything, even the fabled mint condition yellow goat Bathory LP. Though if you know where I can find one...

Kim tweets @GrimKim