“I Overdosed On Cocaine Twice In The Space Of Four Weeks…”
This Mental Health Awareness Week the Mental Health Foundation are asking people to especially focus on stress as a theme to explore. This illuminating and moving interview with Thy Art Is Murder’s CJ McMahon – which we’ve been sitting on for a while for one reason or another – deals with a broader range of mental health and addiction issues, but we hope it adds to this week’s conversation.
Thy Art Is Murder frontman CJ McMahon has endured a lifetime of mental health difficulties. He hasn’t always coped with them in the most constructive of ways, however, and in 2015 he left the band to enter rehab for drug addiction and to reassess where his life was headed. Now very much back in the fold, healthier, happier and better equipped to deal with the challenges he still faces, he tells us in candid, no-holds-barred detail, how he’s managed to turn everything around.
“I just want to make sure that everyone knows that it’s okay to not be okay,” he insists we relay to anyone reading. Well, that and the fact a certain song from a certain animated movie might just be a lifesaver…
When you left Thy Art Is Murder in 2015, your statement mentioned the tremendous mental and emotional toil it took on you just being in the band, what was that like?
It was a lot of things, but my mental health was definitely a big part of the reason I left. I was a pretty full on drug addict. Historically, my mental health hasn’t been good. Money was a problem then, as well. But mental health was the big one. I have bipolar, as well. So my highs are extremely high and even the smallest of lows can be absolutely crushing. I’ve definitely got on top of it now. I’ve been talking about it and being really open to my family, my friends, the fans and the band. It’s not so people will treat me differently. I’ve always just been a strong believer in speaking about what’s inside of you. If you don’t talk about things that bother you, they build up and they fester.
The biggest thing for me, related to my mental health problems, was drug addiction. It all spiralled out of control. I noticed a huge change once I gave up drugs. I have anger management problems, I can be very aggressive and sometimes have violent outbursts. That has been a lot easier to manage and control without drugs. Drugs were my way of covering up the problems. At the time I thought they were helping me, that they were chilling me out, making me relax and feel better, and more positive. In the long run though, they were making me deteriorate.
Have you always contented with bipolar and anger management issues or did they come to the fore more recently when you stopped to work out what the problems were?
When I was growing up I had a lot of problems at school. The principal wanted me to get tested, but my father was very strongly against it and said, ‘He’s fine, he’s just going through a phase.’ So I never really got checked. I’ve been with my wife for 10 years now and her mother is stage IV bipolar, so my wife kind of picked up that I was very much like her. I went to see my doctor and psychiatrist and they confirmed I have very mild bipolar, but it’s not something I want to take drugs for. Some bad shit happened when I was younger and I was put on antidepressants that just made me numb and feel blank. I never had any emotions, which affected my relationships with previous girlfriends and friends, because I was just… I was never upset and I was never happy. I never felt anything so I wouldn’t go down that path again.
Thy Art Is Murder – The Son Of Misery
What was it that made you realise you needed to kick the drugs and face the underlying problems?
I overdosed on cocaine twice in the space of four weeks. I was so lost. But looking back on it now, just before that I felt so good. I fucking loved it. Then I had those two really close calls, when friends around me thought I was dead. That’s when I thought, ‘I’m getting married soon, I want to have kids, I want more in life than being this pretend rockstar that people think is killing it with money.’ I was fucking broke and away from my family for nine months of the year. People in bands are just like everybody else: we’re no different, no cooler or no better than anyone. I’m just as equally good and as equally bad as someone you bump shoulders with when you’re in the supermarket. The only difference is I feel like a fucking God when I’m onstage for an hour every night. Other than that, I’m exactly the same as everyone else. I was masking everything with drugs, but didn’t think about it until those two close calls.
Friends of mine were saying, ‘Dude, you’re doing more cocaine than five bands put together,’ and that was every single day. But I liked it, it made me relaxed and it helped me not deal with all the negative shit in my life. It was my escape from all of that. After the first overdose, I thought, ‘Well, that was scary but I’ll be okay’ and two days later I was back on it again. Then the second overdose happened and I didn’t even know where I was. I didn’t realise I was in America. I thought I was back home in Australia. It took me about a half an hour to realise I was on tour, on a bus with a group of people who thought I was dead.
Was that the wake up call you needed to sort things out?
I did a pros and cons thing on my laptop. I’d always spoke about leaving the band for years. I had a talk to the boys about money and stuff like that, and it didn’t really go my way. Then I flew back to Sydney and thought, ‘Fuck this, I’m done.’ I was nearly killing myself to try to mask the fact that I miss my friends and family, that I make less money than someone sitting at home watching TV taking government benefits home, and I was about to get married, I wanted children and if I kept living the way I was, my mental health was going to go so far south everything else would suffer. I was in danger of destroying my future.
Your priorities changed?
For the most part, guys I know in bands aren’t in my position. Most just want to drink beers, smoke weed, fuck girls in different cities and play shows. If that’s what they want to do, that’s fine, but I want something different and more meaningful. I want to come home to children, I want to come home to a wife that misses me and loves me, I want more. It’s extremely hard to balance that with band life. So I had to make a conscious decision about what was more important: doing something that I love, or being with somebody that I love? The wife, future children, mental and physical health all won and convinced me I had to go and get away from the band. It was never anything to do with the band members themselves, we’ve always been good. It was more just me creating a bad, black hole of anxiety, depression, bipolar, money problems, drug addiction…
Given how grim things had gotten, it must have been a difficult – and risky – decision to go back, especially after you’d turned things around on a personal level.
It was all an accident, to be honest! I hadn’t really spoken to the band for about six or seven months. It wasn’t intentional, they had to keep the machine moving forward and I was working three or four jobs back home to pay for my wedding. The boys came back from a European tour and I went to my best friend’s house and he’s also friends with the band. Sean [Delander, guitar] was there too, and it was just really weird. We’d always been the tightest in the band. We asked each other about how our lives were and how things were going. I went home that night, I couldn’t sleep, so the next day I texted him and said, ‘Look man, it was really hard seeing you last night. It brought up a lot of feelings and I miss you guys and I wish things were different’ and he said the same and eventually said I should just come back. I was worried about what it would look like initially, as if [me] leaving was all a publicity stunt, but he encouraged me to be straight and honest with people; about how I nearly died, how I went into rehab and tell the world everything.
I was reluctant, I didn’t know if the boys wanted me back, my wife was stoked with having me home everyday. So then it was two or three months after that initial conversation, the band were monitoring my progress, where we’d have Skype meetings and chat through how hard my work week was, check on my mental health and ask if I was still clean from drugs. It was a process, which was for the security of the band and that made sense. It took my wife a while to come around to it and realise, but it was her encouragement and saying, ‘You can’t not do this, this is who you are and you have to go back to the band. Go to rehab, sort your fucking life out and get back on a plane and go on tour.’ She was really supportive and of course she was also really upset because it took me a long time, but she knows this is what I’m meant to do with my life.
Thy Art Is Murder – Puppet Master
Now that you’ve returned to the band and you’re on the road again, is it hard not to fall back into old habits?
If the boys are on the bus smoking weed, I enjoy being there smoking a cigarette and drinking a coffee. If I’m being honest – and I probably shouldn’t be this honest, but fuck it – I miss the camaraderie of looking for weed on tour or coming back to the bus like a hero with a gram and a half for everyone. I have drugs thrown at me every day on tour, even now, people are like, ‘CJ come have some of this,’ or, ‘Hey man, wanna smoke this?’ and that’s tough. I miss the actual feeling of being high. I miss the rejoicing of it bringing everyone together.
As someone who has been through a lot, do you have any advice to pass on to someone suffering from mental health issues?
I recommend seeing a really good psychologist. That was something that helped me get through traumatic times and drug addiction when I was really young. Now, if I get aggressive or violent feelings I have to go away and, not so much meditate, but I sit or kneel and I do breathing exercises to calm me down. Also, I have a very close connection to the ocean and I live about 20 minutes from really nice beaches in Sydney. When I’m home I go to this one particular cliff-face and I talk to myself. There’s this running joke in the band now, I have this little song that I sing. It’s funny. My father-in-law loves animated kids movies, so last year I bought him Finding Dory, and me and my wife watched it with him. That was a really good day for me, mentally. Dory has this song that she sings that goes (singing), ‘Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…’ so I sing that when I feel like I need to go back to a happier place. As stupid as it sounds, it really does help and gets me through a lot of hard times. Everybody has different ways of dealing with things.