Tommy Vext and the Deafening Sound of Self-Termination
How the Bad Wolves frontman avoided suicide.
Posted August 21, 2018 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
“Slave away, it’s just another day
It’s just another day without meaning
Blue to gray, another bill to pay
Until you die under a glass ceiling.”
–From "Learn To Live" by Bad Wolves
Six years ago, Tommy Vext had resolved to take his life by stepping in front of a moving train.
The despair that Vext felt at that moment is a far cry from where he is now. Vext is the lead singer and lyricist for the band Bad Wolves. The band released their 2018 album Disobey, which includes the single “Zombie,” a Cranberries cover that immediately shot up to #1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs chart. Blabbermouth raved about the album, saying, “There has been a massive void on the contemporary side of heavy music in recent times. Bad Wolves is poised to move in for the kill.” And Bad Wolves is currently in the middle of a North American tour with Breaking Benjamin and Five Finger Death Punch.
So how did Vext find himself in such a dark place? And perhaps more importantly, how did he find his way out?
Vext has faced many challenges that may have contributed to his suicidal intent, including his history with substance dependence and violence. But as he explained the story of his life, it became clear that he attributes a great deal of the hopelessness he felt when he was suicidal to his relationship with his family–particularly his twin brother.
Despite being abandoned by his birth mother, Vext described a very happy childhood with his adoptive family, which consisted of his adoptive parents, he and his twin brother, and his adopted sister. “Our birth mother abandoned us at the hospital. My adopted parents were on a waitlist for two years. When the hospital called and asked if they would take both of us, they did,” Vext told me. “We had a normal childhood. My dad is a Vietnam vet, works in the school systems, and my mother was a stay-at-home mother…We were really smart kids. We went to class, had really good grades.”
And yet things changed for Vext as he witnessed what he described as the deterioration of his brother’s mental health. “Somewhere around 11 or 12, my brother really started struggling…Nobody really knew what was going on,” Vext explained. “He would have certain anxieties like driving too far away from home at some point. He would do weird rituals where he’d have to touch a door or a park bench a certain number of times.”
Vext explained how his brother’s anxiety eventually gave way to violent episodes. “He would have really violent outbursts…He’d hurt family pets, hit my sister and my mother and myself,” Vext recalled. “We were driving the family car and he took a phone and reached over and bashed my dad’s head in while he was driving the car.”
According to Vext, his brother received several diagnoses—including bipolar and obsessive compulsive disorder—as well as a very chilling prediction from the doctors at Holliswood Hospital, a psychiatric facility where his brother briefly received evaluation and treatment. “Their diagnosis was that he was going to be a serial killer,” Vext said.
Soon, a cycle started in which Vext’s family either denied or enabled his brother’s behavior. This dynamic was particularly salient in what Vext described as his brother’s abuse of their adoptive mother.
“It was very confusing because my parents had no idea what they were dealing with. My brother’s physical abuse of my mother—we didn’t believe her…He would do things like beat my mom or hurt my mom or hurt her dog,” he described. “And then he would act completely sane. And so she would be acting frantic and panicking, and then he would be like, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with mom.’ And then we’d come over and she’d be like hysterical and he’d blame it on my mother. And everybody thought she was crazy.”
Vext explained that even when his family accepted that his brother had a mental illness, the illness was used as a rationale to excuse his behavior. “I remember when my brother hit my mom when I was about 14. And I just hauled off and started beating the shit out of him. And my dad kicked my ass! And I didn’t understand why,” Vext explained. “And he said, ‘You know that he’s sick.’ That’s when I learned that my brother is exempt from the rules because he’s sick.”
Vext feels that this cycle of violence and enabling resulted in the destruction of his family. “With his behavior demanding constant attention and never progressing and never getting better…my father just gave up. My father was sober for 20 years—he wound up going to the bottle. My dad became crippled by his alcoholism by the time I was 16, 17,” he said. “It became too much for my mother—she took my sister and moved away because my brother was so violent that she was worried about what might happen to her...So the family split up. My foundations got pulled out from under me.”
In many ways, Vext was surrounded by substance dependence and violence not only at home but also in his neighborhood of Gerritson Beach, Brooklyn. “I grew up in a neighborhood where people were selling drugs, and that was the only way to make money,” Vext explained. “I got robbed at gunpoint when I was 13…It’s so funny because it was normalized—it was just normal. I never really felt bad about the situation. I wasn’t the only person going through it. It was very different from most people’s realities.”
The prevalence of substance use contributed to Vext starting to drink and use drugs at an early age. “I probably started drinking at 12, 13. But in my neighborhood, that was normal. We would steal from our friends’ parents’ liquor cabinet. Most of our friend’s parents drank. And it wouldn’t be irregular to go to a block party and see kids drinking with their parents. That’s just how it was,” he recalled. “And I was drinking and smoking weed and when I was 15 or 16 we found out about acid and started taking mushrooms and ecstasy. One of our friends’ moms was a heroin addict and she let us all stay in the house and do drugs. And she would lock herself in her room. I hit the wall with hallucinogens. They didn’t work well for me.
“I had a couple of bad trips–jumped out a second story window and called it quits.”
What's more, Vext found that he had picked up another bad habit from his family and neighborhood—a propensity for violence. At the age of 21, Vext, who had become a heavy metal fan, had developed his own skills as a singer and songwriter, eventually tried out for and became part of the California-based band Divine Heresy. Vext was convinced he would leave his problems in New York, but realized that he took the violence with him, including an incident in which he attacked Divine Heresy guitarist Dino Cazares.
“I was in a place where all of those regulations and rules of survival were no longer necessary and didn’t apply—they were a hindrance…Where I’m from in the time I grew up, if somebody is at a bar and looking at you too long, it means something’s going to happen—like someone’s going to get stabbed or there’s going to be a fight or someone might have a gun or whatever. Being in a crew mentality, suddenly I’m 3,000 miles away and I don’t have backup. The insecurity of moving and being on my own…it made me hyperaware and hyper-aggressive,” Vext explained. “So there are times when I’m at a bar in LA, and someone’s looking at me because they don’t know who I am and they’re just staring cause people stare. And I’ll throw a bottle in someone’s face and then all of a sudden it’s like chaos. And then the people who you are in the band with are like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And I’m like ‘What do you mean?’ I’m completely unaware that my behavior is completely and utterly insane…I was in Heresy on Roadrunner Records and I’d beaten my guitar player up two times—once on stage and I beat him up again for something he said in the press.”
Vext eventually joined another band—Snot. By that time, he had developed full-blown alcohol and drug dependence, which became particularly evident while on tour.
“I wound up in a situation where I was basically drinking while I was taking diet pills to go onstage. And I would take pills to wake up–and I would go onstage, play the show and I couldn’t calm down,” he described. “So I’d have to drink—I’d have a bottle of whiskey. So I’d drink to come down, but then the pills would wear off and I’d be so drunk that I would make a fool of myself. So I’d have to have cocaine to come back up…A few times I’d make the mistake of having methamphetamine…I’d have to take Xanax or Valium or something to pass out."
More, Vext found himself in a difficult relationship marked by substance dependence and violence. “When I joined Snot, I had met this girl and we got engaged. We lived together in San Francisco. We were both alcoholics…I think one of the reasons we hooked up was we never met anyone as f*cked up as we were,” Vext explained. “And she got pregnant and she wound up losing the baby a little after six months pregnant. She relapsed on heroin—lost the pregnancy, almost lost her own life. It was a very traumatic situation. We wound up breaking up…We were both drinking and using and it was falling apart. We had started having physical altercations and it was time to stop.”
In 2009, Vext decided to make a change, and began his path to sobriety. Vext’s explained how his Snot bandmate Sonny Mayo (previously of Sevendust) brought him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
“I ended up going on a successful tour—ended up homeless after it. I had no money, no place to live, nothing to do, nowhere to go. And I ended up on my guitar player’s couch—Sonny from Snot. He’d been sober for a long time, I think seven years at that time. And he brought me to a meeting and I started going to Alcoholic’s Anonymous,” Vext said. “I quit the music industry for a year to focus on sobriety. I was on the scholarship program from MusicCares to stay in a rehab program called Genesis House.”
Emboldened by his sobriety, in 2010, after being sober for over a year, Vext decided to travel back to New York City to reconnect with his family. He began working at a nightclub and continued AA meetings. During the time he had been estranged from his brother only to find that his brother’s violent behavior had become more common and dangerous. When Vext saw his brother for the first time in years, his brother had recently attempted a robbery and was injured.
“My mother called and said ‘He’s having a bad day’ which was family code for ‘your brother’s losing his mind.’ She said don’t let him into the house if he comes to the house…My family had hidden from me the extent of what he’d become, so I was like ‘Yeah whatever.’ My mother was staying with her boyfriend that night. I came home and my brother was already in the house…I don’t know what he was doing in the house, but I wasn’t supposed to come in on him doing whatever he was doing. It looked like he was trying to take the VCR or DVD player or something. His face was slashed. He had stitches across his whole face. It looked like someone had run a box cutter across his face. And I could tell he had smoked angel dust because I could smell it on him,” Vext described. “My mother worked at a jewelry store at a mall. And he had gone to the mall to rob my mother—but security came and he’d left. He had been up for several days—and he went to a pet store where I actually worked when I was a kid. And this kid Peter owned the pet store…And my brother decided he was going to rob the pet store, at like seven in the morning before they opened. And he tried to reach for the register…and Pete was fixing a desk and hit him with a hammer and cut his face. So my brother runs out, goes to the hospital, get stitches as a John Doe, and went about his business…He’s so insane that when he goes on these manic episodes and he’s up for days he doesn’t have any idea what he’s going to do.”
Vext reported that his brother wanted him to help him commit a murder. Vext decided to use the incident as an opportunity to help his brother get into recovery for substance dependence.
“He wanted me to help him murder this guy Pete…He wanted me to help him murder my own boss. I’m like, ‘You want us to go kill a guy with a wife and two kids and works for a living because you were an idiot and tried to rob his store?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah.’ And I was like, ‘No.’ And I told him he had to leave and I asked him to walk outside. Because I knew that if we got into a fight in the house we’d destroy the apartment,” Vext said. “And we went outside and I said ‘I don’t do this anymore. I’m not doing this. You’re a drug addict. You’ve always been a drug addict. I will pay for you to go to rehab. I will help you, but you need to get the fuck out of here. You need to go somewhere—go find a bed somewhere and sleep—because you’re fucking insane and I’m not dealing with this anymore. You’re 30 years old and your life is in shambles.’ And he was like, ‘Oh it’s like that?’ And I said, ’Yeah you can’t do this anymore.’”
The incident did not end there, as Vext assumed that his brother would try to steal from their sister, who lived in a nearby apartment. Vext decided to try and warn his sister, but was assaulted by his brother.
“So I threw on pants and running sneakers, and I was just like I’m going to run around the block… and I’ll beat him there. If there’s an issue we’ll just call the cops and have him arrested. I get to the driveway—but I didn‘t get to the driveway. He had gone into my neighbor’s garage and stolen a crowbar, hid in the bushes, and fractured my skull,” Vext recalled. “So he hit me from behind, cracked my skull open. And he stood over me and started beating me with the crowbar. He tried to smash my face in. I put my arm up, he broke my forearm…my bone pushed through my skin—there was blood everywhere. I fought him. I stood back to take a stance and box him…but I couldn’t close my hand because my wrist was broken sideways.”
Vext eventually suffered a ruptured spleen from the attack. “I was dizzy and I thought I was hungry—and my spleen exploded…I hit the ground and kept coming in and out of consciousness,” he said. “It was real fuzzy. I was in a lot of pain, and then I’d pass out…I started having muscular seizures because I was losing so much blood. I think I started flatlining…I woke up in the ICU unit. And that was the beginning of a very long journey of recovery.”
Vext had pressed charges against his brother, and received help from friend Mia Tyler. He thought the incident was effectively behind him.
“My friend Mia—her dad is Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. He heard what happened and she drove down and picked me up and took me to his house in Massachusetts. Because they had a compound with lots of security cameras…I felt I could recover in peace and safety,” Vext described. “I think about six or seven months after the whole ordeal, my brother had been incarcerated and eventually bailed out. I got invited to go on tour with this band In This Moment. They needed a second singer for this duet…on tour with Korn and Disturbed…I started playing arenas and thought, ‘Wow, life is going to be OK.’”
But life was not OK. According to Vext, his brother had hired a hitman to kill him because Vext had pressed charges against his brother. Vext was forced into a witness protection program.
“I got home from the tour, and the cops showed up at my place, and I went down to the district attorney’s office and they played me tapes of my brother hiring a hitman to take out a contract on my life,” Vext explained. “And I had to go into witness protection. When my brother found out I had testified to the grand jury, he hired someone to murder me so I couldn’t testify and he wouldn’t go to jail. They told me I couldn’t work because I can’t register my social security number. People could find me that way. I wasn’t allowed to be on social media. The DA put me on a $300 a month stipend. I had to live off of $300 a month. I went to a lot of meetings and stayed sober. I left California and went to Florida and stayed in the studio to record music with friends."
“It was tough—being an adult male and having my friends buy me a sandwich every day.”
At one point, Vext was told that the hitman who had been hired by his brother had himself been killed, and so Vext briefly felt safe. But Vext said his brother did not show up at the arraignment, and began calling Vext, leaving threatening messages.
“He started calling my phone saying he was going to kill me. I don’t know who gave him my phone number…Basically he would smoke dust and call me every 20 minutes for 24 hours. At some point, the DA called me, and said, ‘Your brother bench warranted. I’m like, ‘I know he’s calling me right now. He’s been calling me for two days saying he’s going to murder me. Would you like to hear?’” he said. “I told the judge–nothing in the judge’s power will ever make my family safe because he’s not capable of giving this person the death penalty…And he tried to attack me in the courtroom, and he was subdued by the police officers.”
Vext’s brother was eventually convicted for attempted murder and received a 17-year sentence. Vext had hoped this would bring him relief—but he was wrong.
“I walked out of court expecting that I would restart my life. And that’s not really what happened. My girlfriend I was living with relapsed and started drinking and kicked me out of her apartment. I was managing a bar and I caught my boss having an affair with one of the bartenders and I got fired,” Vext described.
“And I just decided I was going to commit suicide.”
Vext felt horribly on two levels. First, despite all that had occurred, Vext felt guilty for turning in and testifying against his brother. “I expected I was going to feel this certain way…but I felt guilty. I felt like I had betrayed him,” Vext recalled. “I felt like I had broken the rule. And where I come from, you don’t rat. The worst thing you could do is be a rat.”
More, Vext’s perspective, his purpose in life had been taken away. Specifically, he feels that while his brother destroyed his family, he could at least protect them by helping put his brother in prison. But now that he had done so, he had no reason to live. More, he felt guilt at having testified against his brother.
“In my perception of reality, my brother destroyed my whole life. He destroyed my family, my father. He destroyed everything he touched. And he did it again to me. And no matter how far away I moved he still got me,” Vext lamented. “I decided that by the time he gets out, my mom will probably be dead. My father will probably be dead. And I did my job and I saved them. I had no value anymore. Everything had gone so wrong in my life that I wasn’t meant to be alive anymore.
“I don’t want to live in this world anymore.”
Vext had decided to kill himself by throwing himself in front of a train. He described himself as numb as he approached the train.
“I put my suit on my mother’s spare bed to be buried in. And I went to my train station on my day off and decided I was going to jump in front of the train. I was in Brooklyn, at an above-ground platform so that if the train didn’t kill me, the fall would,” he explained. “And I wasn’t really sad. I didn’t really feel anything…I’m a very determined person. I don’t really tell people I’m going to do things, I just do them and they happen, which is dangerous when you’re in this headspace because…that’s what I was doing. And I remember the train coming on the platform, I literally could see it—and in my head it was just ‘as soon as it comes.’”
And then out of nowhere, something occurred that saved Vext. He received a call from someone who needed his help.
“My phone started ringing. And I looked at my phone and I didn’t recognize the number. And for whatever reason—I don’t know why—I picked up the phone. And it was a kid on the other line, and he was crying. He was like, ‘Hey is this Tommy?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah…I’m really busy right now. Who is this?’ And he said, ‘I need help,’” Vext said. “And the train pulled into the station and I talked to this kid. His name was Derrick. And he was in this punk-metal band in the city. And he was a pretty bad heroin addict. He recognized me at a show and we started talking and I gave him my number. And he knew I was sober. And I got on the train, and I met him and took him to a meeting. And we met a couple of times a week for weeks. And I got him a book and we went through the twelve steps together. And we were just two shot people."
“Two broken homeless people figuring it out.”
“By somebody else needing me, I realized that I had something to give. And it saved my life. And everything changed. And then I got addicted to altruism, and I just started helping people. I moved back to California. Someone asked me to help them stay sober on a tour,” Vext explained. “So I got hired to go on tour with Mayhem Festival and I went on tour with this guy. And they paid me to stay with him all of the time. And that was my first sober companion gig. And I moved back to LA and met a guy in Beverly Hills who wanted to start a non-profit SFG 12. We threw concerts to raise money for artists and creative people who couldn’t afford rehab.”
Vext then met Earl Hightower, who Vext credits with further educating him on being a sober companion. “Then I started working at the sober living facility Madden House. That’s where I met Earl Hightower. And then I got involved with Hightower Associates,” he described. “Basically I shadowed him, and he taught me everything I know about sober companioning. He taught me everything I know about relapse prevention. He taught me everything I know about…how to deal with people with large egos, how to deal with artists. I got it because I spent an entire year saying yes. So if anyone literally asked me anything—I would walk people’s dogs, watch their house, help people move, clean cars—I just said I would do anything. And then I would wake up every morning and I said, ‘God I will do anything.’ And then my whole life got bigger.”
Vext has continued that mentality of doing anything for others when he joined Bad Wolves. Dolores O’Riordan, the singer of the Cranberries, had died recently, and Bad Wolves decided to donate the money they received from covering “Zombie” to O’Riordan’s children.
And he encourages others who are contemplating suicide to learn the lessons from his near attempt, and how he changed things. He feels that while it is important to validate one’s feelings in reaction to the stressful and devastating times in life, it is crucial to recognize that the feelings may often be temporary.
“The strange thing about depression is…the perception that nothing will change…the feeling of eternal damnation like this is how it is now…it’s an illusion. And I didn’t realize that. It’s temporary, it’s going to pass,” Vext described. “These emotions are as natural as traumatic weather. It’s natural and then it passes. We don’t get to know how long it’s going to take.”
Vext recognizes that this is just the beginning of his journey. The suicides of prominent musicians such as Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, and Jill Janus have disabused the entire world of the notion that rock stardom is a sure buffer against despair. He is committed to continuing to help others and hopes others will take the path of altruism that has been so helpful to him in his ongoing recovery.
“We can do things to help move the process along. And for me, because I was so low, I needed someone who needed me to live for, because I couldn’t live for myself anymore. With a lot of people I work with we’ll go to Skid Row and feed the homeless. Or we’ll go to battered women’s shelters,” Vext said. “Because when we are in that state of self-termination it’s so deafening. The only way to break out of it is to have contact with people who literally have it worse and are still hopeful. And that’s the most powerful thing about altruism. It’s the foundation of my recovery and it’s the fabric of everything I do. I think we’re all here for a reason, and we’re all here for a purpose. Some of us have to find our purpose, and sometimes it’s thrust upon us.”
“Such is life.”