Fucked Up Inside: My Death and Life With Spiritualized

Spiritualized Dead All Illustrations by Olivia Ascione D'Elia.

I was 29 years old when I died.

I wish I could tell you it was the result of a valiant act of self-sacrifice on my part. But, truthfully, the mechanics of my demise weren’t heroic or even all that dramatic. I simply overdosed on a cocktail of drugs, my heart stopped beating, and then I dropped dead, on a hospital gurney, on a Wednesday evening.

My death wasn’t remotely accidental, either. I deliberately ingested a lethal amount of drugs because by that night I’d been staggering between mental health crises for well over a decade. I was wracked with substance abuse issues, overwhelmed by guilt, anger, and self-loathing, and a ceaseless voice whispered in my ear that none of the misery would ever end––unless I took my own life.

So I did, and in that instant my life and all its chaos disappeared. For at least a couple of minutes, I was dead. But then my heart was given a kick start, and I opened my eyes to see the faces of the concerned medical professionals who’d wrenched me back from the Grim Reaper’s clutches.

At which point I said the first thing that came to mind: “Fuck…you“.

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That was me, 15 years ago, a deeply troubled guy who tried to kill himself because all the connections in his life had either been worn down and exhausted, or brutally severed. Long-term mental health issues had left me feeling uncomfortably self-aware and estranged from society. Anything that allowed me to feel more connected or secured to the world was obviously critical, but my mental illness hungered for isolation and alienation and it drove me towards inexorable self-destruction, eradicating all those crucial connections along the way. As I became increasingly unstable and emotionally volatile my behavior grew ever more exasperating and unpredictable, straining and burying my friendships and relationships as I did everything I could to drive people away from me.

For years before I ended up in hospital, I tried to mask a mountain of pain and fix my own problematic chemical makeup by adding even more hazardous chemicals into the mix. The obvious problem with self-medicating like that is that what I imagined was an antidote very quickly became a poison. Compounding that issue, is that mental illness is also surrounded by myths and misunderstandings. Which left me feeling vulnerable and judged. So I retreated, searching for oblivion in the bottom of a glass, a bottle of pills, a syringe or a pipe.

In the end, I felt like everyone in my orbit detested me as much as I detested myself, exactly the chaotic climate my mental illness desired to thrive. It soon engulfed me in a fog of ceaseless instability and misery, with killing myself the next logical step, an act that would explain everything, to everyone. But I was unsuccessful in making any definitive statement in that regard.

Failing to take my own life didn’t spark any sudden or life-affirming epiphanies for me. And when I was brought back to life, I definitely wasn’t thankful to be alive. Far from it. I was emotionally exhausted, haunted by an abject sense of failure. And I was entirely unprepared for the consequences of not being dead.

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While I returned in a physical sense on the night I died, my mind had yet to follow. Desperately in need of a rest, it shut down all but my most basic systems. I was left stranded in a weird liminal limbo, so dissociated and emotionally numb that for a time I simply acted in a mechanical way.

I could hardly feel at all, let alone express anything. All I knew for sure was that getting well was going to be a long, hard and painful crawl.

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. Listening to the first three albums by English psychedelic band Spiritualized – 1992’s Lazer Guided Melodies, 1995’s Pure Phase, and 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Spaceencouraged me to take those crucial, cautious first steps on the journey to wellness. They are albums of maximalist-minimalist rock & roll both galaxy-gazing and intro-nautical, combining frontman J ‘Spaceman’ Pierce’s narcotized drawl with a frequently-ecclesiastical atmosphere of meticulously-arranged and multi-layered songs. Pierce is well known for crafting mesmerizing tunes, be they ethereal or explosive, but there’s a fragility to Spiritualized as well, especially when Pierce’s voice sounds utterly fatigued, as if life has worn him down.

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I drew enormous therapeutic strength from all of those elements.  I got caught in the ebb and flow of those albums, and discovered a deep sense of solace in Spiritualized’s music. I hung on as they dived into the depths or ascended skyward. And there’s no question that Lazer Guided Melodies, et al helped to drag me screaming out of the black hole of mental illness.

Those albums were (and are) repositories of gut-felt, restorative rock ’n’ roll. And listening to downcast and dreamy tracks like “Take Your Time” (from Lazer Guided Melodies) “All of My Tears” (from Pure Phase) and “Broken Heart” (from Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space) certainly altered the dazed and anaesthetized state that followed my suicide attempt.

Humans have been making transportive and transformative music for millennia. To worship, commune, love, lust, heal, celebrate, fuck, fight, or smash shit up. Music transports you to destinations and transforms you along the way. It lifts you up, brings you down, tweaks your consciousness, and endeavors to alter your reality all at the same time. There is no question that Spiritualized took me on just those kinds of journeys, and right when I needed a break from my normal consciousness the most. They allowed me, vicariously at first, to be connected to emotions that I felt but couldn’t yet express.

I remember playing the wistful and woeful “Stay With Me” to a psychiatric nurse because I didn’t have the energy to explain how low and lackluster I felt. And she got the point, straight away. On the flip side, gruntier songs like Lazer Guided Melodies“Run” or the barnstorming “Electricity” from Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space became vast sonic purges for the frustrations I felt from being so emotionally wrung out. These songs allowed me to open my heart, at first tentatively, and not even to talk about how I felt but certainly to explore how to feel again.

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When I overdosed, and my heart stopped, it’d be fair to say that I died an agnostic. But I came back a confirmed atheist. There was no light at the end of the tunnel waiting for me, and all that death brought was an instantaneous obliteration of absolutely everything, which, after a life filled with uncertainty, certainly cleared one important point up for me.

Initially, after failing to terminate my existence, the welcoming void of death lingered as an attractive prospect, but, slowly, I came to see that brief experience of nonexistence as an encouragement to appreciate those moments that matter right here, right now. Problem was, right here, right now happened to be an utterly miserable place to be.

I first headed to rehab to detox, and given I had dual-diagnosis issues – that is, long-term mental health problems compounded by addiction – I began that process via the custodial environment of a psychiatric hospital.

There’s no question that I needed to be in an institution at that point in my life. But everything about my first few days there was terrifying. Every atom of my being was either screaming for any relief, or exploding with anxiety about my surroundings. Not to mention that my mental health issues were crashing down around me, without the buffer of drugs and alcohol I was used to.

It was a deeply unsettling, if important, experience. During the first few days of detox I had vivid auditory hallucinations where unnerving music played constantly. It gave me pause and made me consider how music’s role in my life would change, if I ever got clean and sober at all. Music had featured strongly in my life since I was young, as a place where I could hide when my real-world circumstances became too frightening, confusing or difficult to deal with. Those early days in hospital were filled with all sorts of delusions and illusions as I sweated out toxins and tried to gather my wits. And the prospect of getting through it without music was both real and utterly terrifying.

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I’m no believer. But that doesn’t stop me appreciating or enjoying the wonderfully reverential ambiance of Spiritualized tracks like “Angel Sigh”, “Shine a Light”, “Cool Waves” and “Come Together”. Those songs might not be divine per se, with Pierce often spiking his most heavenly music with narcotized metaphors. But, nevertheless, those songs, and others, sound like devotional hymns and have thus become my gospel in the most trying of times.

When I entered that psychiatric hospital and the doors were locked behind me, I desperately needed to hear meditations on mortality, and more importantly, redemption. What I needed most was an affirmation that music would always be there for me. Something to offset the terror of being confined.  The uplifting dimension of Spiritualized’s music provided that.

Especially where the band soared so seraphically, with such enlivening intensity, on so many songs. I found it impossible not to have a profound emotional to reaction to that. Which made for times when hopefulness really did triumph over horror––however tentatively.

After trying to take my life I had to explain a lot of things, to a lot of people, at a time when talking about my problems was the very last thing I wanted to do. I was simply worn out when I overdosed, exhausted by years of mental instability. One support strut after another had been demolished by a never-ending series of crises––most entirely of my own making. Then, when everything finally collapsed, it felt like salt was being poured on an open wound to have to talk about the reasons behind my suicide attempt or the ramifications of it. I needed somewhere I could retreat to after a distressing counseling session, somewhere that provided comfort, and consolation.

Those early days in hospital were filled with all sorts of delusions and illusions as I sweated out toxins and tried to gather my wits. And the prospect of getting through it without music was both real and utterly terrifying.

The music of Spiritualized offered me a place to get lost, any time of the day or night. I could disappear totally into tripped-out songs like “Symphony Space” and “Electric Mainline,” while a yawning maelstrom like Ladies and Gentlemen’s epic closer “Cop Shoot Cop” was a golden opportunity to switch my real world problems off, and just enjoy the music as its 17-minute run-time extended out away from me.

On those days where I felt at my worst, I found myself listening to Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space over and over again because of the raw and heartbroken emotionality Pierce displays all over it. It is an elegant album, a giant album, an album where love, heartache, anger, addiction, and loneliness collide on a massive canvas. It is in parts bitter and twisted, with Pierce ripping out his heart and filling the hole with drugs and booze. Even if all of that was just a creative illusion, a halfway-truthful reflection of Pierce’s own pain, I could relate to the love, loss, and suffering depicted.

All of that was inherently attractive to me. I took drugs and drank heavily because I was looking to be exorcised or cleansed of my troubles. Some of my issues came from very traumatic circumstances, and attempting to kill myself had been my means of escaping from them. And rather than hide from that, there were times where I needed to indulge those feelings, to revel in madness and in misery, free from the exhaustion of detox or trauma of therapy. The music of Spiritualized allowed me to do that, but it also expressed the pain and suffering that I felt far more eloquently than I ever could have hoped to.

In that sense, Spiritualized helped to reset my emotional being. They stripped away the numbing confusion, and encouraged me––whether through bombastic choruses or intimate passages––to begin to build connections again. One moment in one song led to a couple of calmer breaths, a few tears, and a tentative smile. I could build on that. Gather more connections. Pile them all up, until I had enough emotional ordnance to face the world all over again.

The level of relief in discovering a song that expresses exactly how you feel after having your emotional storehouse decimated by mental illness is indescribable.

For me, that song is Spiritualized’s “Medication”. Many years after I tried to end my life, I would wake up every morning and grudgingly swallow a handful of prescribed pills. Then, just like in the song, I would sit around all day, swathed in a desensitizing fug, waiting to feel anything.

My medication certainly wasn’t the illicit substance Pierce was singing about, but I had tried to kill myself with the very same. So I felt a strong sense of kinship with that song.

There is a deep sense of meaning in that shared experience. And “Medication” vividly displays the paradox that sits at the heart of Spiritualized’s music, and in my own life. The song shapes a melancholic mood around beautiful, ascendant waves of music. And in that I recognize the often prepossessing and alluring nature of my own sadness. It does me good to acknowledge there is a great deal of beauty in pain. It does me good to indulge those feelings too. But when “Medication” bursts into the chorus, the song transforms from the utterly sublime into a thundering tour de force, with the cathartic power of music suddenly lit by all-amps-ablazing rock ‘n’ roll.

I’ve been listening to “Medication” for 20 years. And every single time I hear that song I want to howl the line, “Makes me feel so good. Makes me feel so fine. Makes me feel so good. Leaves me fucked up inside”. That song speaks a simple truth. A truth that is both tragic and comforting. A truth I need to hear. Every. Single. Day. lyrics6

I suppose there’s some irony in my turning to Lazer Guided Melodies, Pure Phase, and Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space as a replacement for my previous substance abuse. After all, drugs are a thematic mainstay for Spiritualized. They played a pivotal role in the crafting of the band’s music, and its songs are liberally dusted with psychoactive ingredients.

Of course, therein lies the appeal. Because although drugs and alcohol very nearly ended my life,  I still hunger for oblivion and ecstasy. More so because there is no cure for any of my mental health difficulties. I can explain their root causes, and their diagnostic properties, and I can try and mitigate the effects. But none of that means any of my mental health issues will disappear. So I still desire blazing highs, baked-to-the-gills lows, or needle-in-the-arm shuffles to ease my afflictions.

That comfort I seek is all there in Spiritualized’s psychedelic, fevered, rapturous, and lachrymose sonics. The physicality and multi-layered depth of  Spiritualized’s sound conjures a never-ending search for tranquility via transcendence. Bringing me more long-lasting relief than any temporary high ever has. Those elements have become an even more important medicinal for what ails me. And all of that guitar-fueled bliss rocketing into infinity is the perfect foil to cast off those pains and stains of mental illness without, crucially, any of the regrets of my past drug or alcohol use.

The morning after my suicide attempt I, very much against my doctor’s advice, walked out of the hospital, shut myself in my bedroom, and swore I’d never tell another soul what had happened. Then, I put on Lazer Guided Melodies and pressed play. There, in amongst the heavy-lidded organ swirl and trippy guitar notes of “You Know It’s True,” Pierce sung, “You know I’ve been here before / And I don’t like it anymore.”It was a moment of perfect synchronicity, a brokenhearted song manifesting my world-weary state of mind. It was incomparably resonant, this song opening its arms to me, giving me pause. The remnants of my drugs still sat on my bedside table, and I could have tried to end my life all over again.

I didn’t.

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Full disclosure: In late 2014, after many years of successfully managing most of the psychological difficulties that came my way, I descended into the abyss of mental illness once again.

By the beginning of this year I was overwhelmed by feelings of self-hatred and hopelessness, and thoughts of self-harm arose many times. My emotional armory is far better equipped to battle those kinds of thoughts nowadays. But to have come so far in life, yet to have sunk so low, so very quickly, has made for a harrowing time.

However, dominating my headphones, and bolstering my resolve to fight on, has been Spiritualized. The band is reminding me daily of the pivotal restorative role that music plays in all our lives.

Spiritualized are by no means alone in offering me support in the worst of times. But none of the music that I listen to cures any of my mental health issues. What bands like Spiritualized do is keep me tethered, connected, to life, and that strengthens my resolve to try and wrestle control out of the chaos.

That’s the healing power of music in action. Transporting me away from the often-unbearable depths of my own mind. Encouraging me to keep on climbing out of the pits of disorder and despair.

On some days, it would be very easy to give in to the demands of my mental illness. But albums like Lazer Guided Melodies, Pure Phase, and Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space are there to help lift me out of the darkness. The moments of solace, melancholia, and bliss they bring have been invaluable.

When all grows dark I can collect them.

Compile them.

Hold on to them.

Connect them.

For they are building blocks of a life worth living.

— (For El. For everything.)

Craig Hayes
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Craig Hayes

Craig Hayes is a New Zealand-based freelance music writer, radio producer, and radio broadcaster. Craig loves ear-splitting, rabble-rousing, and outré music.
Craig Hayes
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