On Pain and Perseverance: Q&A With Of Mice & Men's Austin Carlile

It's been a grueling year for the Of Mice & Men frontman.

Austin Carlile owes his life to music. And by his own admission, he’s lucky to be alive.

After enduring the death of his mother at an early age, and the subsequent diagnosis for Marfan syndrome—the same rare tissue disorder that claimed her life—Carlile became the protagonist in his own redemption narrative, finding solace in songwriting, and success in the music industry. When all seems lost: “Rise and rise again—just because life has knocked you over once, doesn't mean you stay there.” 

But the body can only be the vehicle driving the ambitions of the heart and mind until the physical shell crashes. Which is what Carlile feared at the end of a tumultuous 2015, a year that began with a broken rib and culminated in a hip surgery. These health concerns were compounded by the Marfan syndrome Carlile was diagnosed with as a teen. As he explains: "It causes the 'connective tissue' (which makes up most of your body) to stretch, pull, and rip easier than the tissue of a normal person.”

Music—specifically the metal band Of Mice & Men, with whom Carlile has recorded and produced three studio albums, with another on the way in 2016—has remained a steadying constant in a life of dizzying change.

Another part of Carlile’s treatment regimen relies on non-psychoactive CBD pain relief medication. Which is where our paths crossed, and why we reached out to Austin to share his experience.

KINDLAND: You’ve had a pretty tough year, in regard to your health. Care to walk us through everything? 

Austin Carlile: 
Before heading out on our North American tour with Linkin Park, I broke one of my ribs. So for the entirety of that tour, and another one that OM&M headlined, it would pop in and out of place—tearing the muscle and cartilage each time.

KINDLAND: How did you deal?

Austin Carlile: During the shows I wore a big rib brace. Even that didn't hold it in all of the time. During most sets, I'd smile to the crowd, turn around grimace-faced, pop my rib back into place, and then keep the show going. Throughout the course of that tour, I received three "epidural nerve blocks" in my spine, and on the back of my ribs, in order to numb the pain in my side. Every couple of weeks, I took a trip to the closest medical facility to get the shots before playing the show. I specifically remember a festival we played pretty early in the day, where after leaving to pop my rib back in place, I made it back to the festival in time to sing "Ball Tongue" with Korn.

KINDLAND: What else plagued your health this year? You mentioned a hip surgery, as well.

Austin Carlile: The entire time I was suffering from pain related to the broken rib, I was also dealing with a tear in my dural sac, in the back of my head. Basically, it’s the sac that holds your brain fluids. It was torn (from head banging), and the fluid was leaking into my spine and the surrounding areas. Every night on stage was simply grueling for me. There wasn’t a moment without pain. My body was breaking down. Luckily, after the tour I had both things fixed. I also had a major hip surgery at the beginning of 2016, which has caused me severe pain since childhood.

KINDLAND: How did you first learn of your Marfan syndrome diagnosis?
Austin Carlile: I found out with a DNA test around five years ago. The test found the actual "mutant gene" in my body. Forever being a fan of X-Men, this was pretty cool for me to hear. Though [my family] already knew it was in our genetics, when my mother died from complications related to Marfans when I was 17.

KINDLAND: That must have been difficult.

Austin Carlile: She was only 38 years old. She had dissection [a rip within the aorta], and within hours she was gone. The doctors were unaware of how to treat it at the time. Hearing the news, and then also hearing: "You probably have it too. You have to change your lifestyle, or it's going to be fatal," completely rocked my world. That's when I put down the baseball and abandoned any dreams of playing NCAA ball—or even going to school to become a teacher. I was angry. I was confused. Luckily I found myself again, in music. Which became the only thing I had left. Music saved my life. God knows I wouldn't be on this earth today if I hadn't discovered a love for it, back then.

KINDLAND: How has Marfan impacted your performance on stage? In the studio? In general?
Austin Carlile: Last year, even with all the injuries that no one knew about, apart from my band and crew, Of Mice & Men won Metal Hammer magazine's Golden God award for Best Live Band. To me, that says it all: I was at a total disadvantage. We, as a group were getting through day by day. But at night: We would spill it all out onto that stage. That’s what it's all about. So unless Marfans takes my life while we are playing, it doesn't affect anything.

The X-men are superheroes: I can tough it out. Superheroes go through the same things as others on a daily basis. How they handle and overcome difficult situations sets them apart from the rest. My own band is "heroic" to me. I owe my life to Of Mice & Men. Coughing a little bit of blood and dealing with pain, while we deliver who-and-what-we-are, is nothing.The show must go on. Especially when it's our fans making up the crowd. They are the reason we are here in the first place. I will never deny the importance of that.

KINDLAND: So when it comes down to it, how do you make the call to cancel a show?

Austin Carlile: This past year, we knew my body needed mending. And that takes time. We were basically on tour for a few years straight, when my body had enough. Someone better be dying or have a bone sticking out of their spine if they want to cancel on us. We played our shows each night, and I toughed it out. Eventually, however, we made the call to keep me at home for the rest of 2015, in order to heal. Which was a great idea, as much as I hated it at the time. Now it’s 2016, and I'm already working on vocal ideas inside my room while I heal. Rise and rise again: Just because life has knocked you over once doesn't mean you stay there. You get up. You fall again, you get up again. This is called perseverance, and its tattooed on the back of my head for this very reason. My body isn't able to do what my heart and soul desire; so I live a constant battle every day. It’s up to me to get up and fight each day.

KINDLAND: How does medical marijuana factor into your treatment regimen?

Austin Carlile: Between heart medications, physical therapy, water therapy and exercise; pain medication, protein supplements—I’ve seen it all. But I'll never forget the first time I heard: "You should try medical marijuana." I was appalled! It was shortly after my first heart surgery, and I was tired of taking the conventional pain medication they were giving me. It was making me sick. The person who first recommended I try medical marijuana was actually the cardiologist who I still see to this day. If I can trust someone with my actual heart in their hands, I should trust when he says to try cannabis, instead of chemical remedies and medications that only mask the problem.

"I don't care much for the typical 'stoner lifestyle.' I don't talk about cannabis much, nor do I promote it. But I will say this: Make it legal and tax it."

KINDLAND: Did you speak with your regular doctors about medical marijuana treatment?

Austin Carlile: Every surgery, every trip, I tell them everything. Even before my hip surgery, I wasn’t allowed any food or drink for 24 hours in advance. I couldn’t take any supplements or pills in the five days leading up to the surgery. Yet I was allowed to use cannabis even on the morning of it. I’ve been to more hospitals and doctors than you could imagine, and what's funny to me, is hearing them all agree on the same thing: The positive medical benefits of Mary Jane.

KINDLAND: What is your "Mary Jane" process like? Do you visit a dispensary?
Austin Carlile: Smoking is bad for your voice. And I'm not a fan of THC for pain relief—CBD is where you'll find me. I enjoy the relief on my body, joints, and aching bones, without the psychoactive effects of THC. As a kid, my mother would have to rub my legs and feet every night, as I would scream and contort my body in pain. Even now, sleeping is something I struggle with. Pain loves coming out when you want to pass out. Pain loves keeping you awake. But with the help of a CBD Cheeba Chew, or THC/CBD bath-salt-soak in hot water, or with any of my various creams—I find the relief I've always needed, without taking pills that don’t lead to anything good.

KINDLAND: So then cannabis wouldn’t necessarily play an active role in your creative processes, such as when writing new music?
Austin Carlile: Being exposed to it for so long, my tolerance is pretty high. Life and what I get to live through, is more than enough motivation for me [to write new music]. That being said, I won't deny a communal "tour smoke" every now-and-then. It's nice having everyone gathered around, burning time. We've had some of our best conversations like this.

KINDLAND: You don’t have the traditional relationship with weed that many artists or musicians embrace.
Austin Carlile: Absolutely not. I don't care much for the typical "stoner lifestyle." I don't talk about cannabis much, nor do I promote it. But I will say this: Make it legal and tax it. Legal cannabis represents a new way for Americans to earn income, and is an alternative to medicines that only make people more sick. The pharmaceutical industry should take a harder look at the people they are poisoning, and not to their own growing wallets.

KINDLAND: Now that you’re on the upswing, what comes next? 
Austin Carlile: New music. And touring. Both of which I couldn't be more excited about. I have a lot to get off my chest. And we owe a lot of new places an awesome show. So that's what we're going to give to them!

Special thanks to Bronson Olimpieri.