A Dispatch from the Depths of Anxiety: How Music Helps Me Connect to the Outside World
Ryan Wilson—the black metal mastermind behind The Howling Void and Pneuma Hagion—opens up about his dark battle with mental illness
People often write about their struggles with anxiety or depression after they have found some sort of lifeline. They often reflect upon a darker time while standing in the glow of a newfound light, adding context and perspective borne from a successful campaign against their particular affliction. Not me.
I'm writing to you today from the depths.
I have suffered from a relatively high level of anxiety my entire life. I used to think of it as being similar to the buzzing of a refrigerator: it was always there, but it always blended into the background noise of life and I only noticed it when I stopped to listen for it. But suddenly, about five years ago and for no identifiable reason, the buzzing turned into a deafening roar.
The anxiety suddenly became acute; it became something I could no longer avoid or even navigate around. The course of my everyday activities was irrevocably altered; the anxiety was like a tempest that blinded me and tossed me about, this way and that, robbing me of all control and self-determination. And what was worse than the reality of the panic disorder itself was the realization that I was no longer a relatively "normal" person; I was now one of "those people." I had a mental disorder.
I became a germophobe (or what is more accurately termed a bacillophobe); I am terribly and irrationally afraid of becoming sick, and I will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid contamination. Technically speaking, I have been diagnosed with both OCD and Panic Disorder. It seems strange that I can't pinpoint a single moment, or even a single day, when this all happened. You would think that such a seismic change in one's psychological equilibrium would leave some sort of identifiable scar, but when I look back I can find nothing of the sort.
It is a truly a strange feeling to think back and realize that, just a few years ago, I was relatively normal. I can still remember, vividly, the days before I became this neurotic mess. More frustrating is that fact that I know damn well that my fears are irrational, yet there is nothing I can do to suppress them. As a very rational, logical person, I find it incredibly distressing to be governed by irrational fears. Indeed, it is a strange feeling to tell yourself that you are being irrational and then watch as you complete the irrational act anyway. The sense of powerlessness is extremely discomforting.
So I don't know when it all started, even though there are several events which must have helped this disorder to form. For one, there is a genetic history of panic disorder in my family. Secondly, I've suffered through some very rare and strange illnesses in my life, from viral meningitis all the way to cat scratch fever. All I know is that, somehow and at some point, I started carrying a bottle of hand sanitizer around with me in my pocket at all times. I started sanitizing, and washing, my hands over and over and over again throughout the day, after touching every little thing.
This seemed relatively mild, if somewhat odd, at first; if all I ever did was sanitize my hands after touching anyone or anything, I suppose I could live with that. But the problem only metastasized and got worse over time, growing new heads, hydra-like, as it sought out new ways to complicate and ruin my life. At one point I became terrified of sweating, because I started to believe that wearing wet clothing for a long period of time would give me a cold. In a truly twisted turn of events, the fear of sweating would actually cause me to sweat, causing me to carry a bag with up to four complete changes of clothes with me to work and school. Many were the times when I found myself rushing to a restroom to change my entire outfit because I had started to sweat while walking from one building to another.
I have skipped my own birthday dinners for fear of catching someone else's germs in the close proximity of a dinner table. I have lied and made every excuse under the sun for why I had to cancel a date or a night out with a friend; I have abandoned my office at work and spent up to five hours sitting on the floor in a hallway because my officemate coughed. As a teacher, I have let students go early because someone in the front row was clearly sick, and all I could think about were the viruses floating through the air at the front of the room, trying their level best to infect me. As a musician, I stopped playing shows. I've even stopped singing (or screaming) on most of my records because I am afraid that tearing and straining my vocal chords will make me more susceptible to infection.
I started withdrawing from friends. Even one cough from a friend would be enough to send my mind into a panicked frenzy as I wondered, "Are they getting sick? Am I sitting helplessly in this room, breathing in a bunch of floating viruses? Should I run? How can I get out of here?" I withdrew from all social situations; the fear of contamination turned me into a hermit, a recluse. My love life became barren as I withdrew further and further into the darkness of my room; I've gone years without the touch of a woman, without so much as a hug or a kiss, because my anxiety has kept me locked in my room. In fact, I've been alone and isolated for so long that I'm still too ashamed to admit exactly how many years have passed since I last had a girlfriend. No matter how lonely I am (and believe me, it is an excruciating solitude), the discomfort is not great enough to overcome the discomfort I feel when I going out into the world amongst the germs.
The only relief I have ever found is in my music. Since I was a recluse anyway, I had plenty of time to sit in my room and write and record music—lots and lots of music.
Despite feeling as if I'm totally disconnected from and rejected by the world, I can still communicate through music
I've released many, many albums over the years with various projects, primarily one-man bands. Music has become the only way I can communicate with the outside world when I'm too terrified to set foot outside. I've never been very successful, and most of my projects are completely obscure, but simply going through the motions of composition and recording is enough to keep my mind occupied, and to keep me from worrying about getting sick. Although I have always written music primarily for myself, lately it has become more and more helpful to share it with the world just in case there might be someone out there listening. My entire discography for the last five years has been one gigantic, deafening cry for help. There's too much shame involved in simply telling people that I'm anxious as hell and it is ruining my life. It's too embarrassing to tell people that I'm one of "those people." So instead I communicate in a coded way.
The shame is the worst part. Nobody wants to feel like an anomaly, like an outlier. I certainly didn't want to think of myself as someone with a mental disorder; the stigma is simply too strong. Even today, though I have taken the first step of admitting that I have a disorder and have begun seeing a psychiatrist, I still feel the shame all too keenly. When I am at work, I carry a pocketful of tissues so that I don't have to touch doorhandles with my bare hands; I rue the moment when I walk up to a door and pull out a tissue, feeling people's eyes on me as I use the tissue to open the door. It's almost as if I'm telegraphing to the world, "Hey, look at me, I'm a weirdo!"
But the shame has to be overcome, and that is why I am writing this article. I've made significant progress with my psychiatrist over the past year and a half, and although I've come to realize that I will never be free of this disorder, I can still fight back and regain at least some of the normalcy I have lost. As clichéd as it sounds, it is immensely helpful to know that there are others out there suffering under similar burdens, carrying similar crosses. We can take comfort in knowing that we are not alone, and that we are not so strange after all.
So here I am. I'm locked in my room, where I will spend almost every minute of every day (the only exception is when I am at work). I'm going nowhere and I'm staring at a future filled with nothing but the excruciating monotony of repeating this same reclusive pattern day in and day out for the rest of my life. I don't have a solution; I don't even have any good news.
But I do know that I am not the only one, and I know that, despite feeling as if I'm totally disconnected from and rejected by the world, I can still communicate through music. I hope that if you find yourself in a similar situation, you might consider finding your own unique way of reaching out and making yourself heard.
Illustration by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia