Stepping on Hot Coals With Deryck Whibley
The Sum 41 frontman shares story of chronic pain, panic and addiction.
Posted Aug 22, 2019
“All that we have is just slipping away
And I don’t believe that it’s gonna be OK
You can’t stop the bleeding it’s almost too late
You’re leaving us all behind with hell to pay”
–From “Out for Blood” by Sum 41
When I first met Deryck Whibley and his Sum 41 bandmates at Niagara in the East Village of New York City in the early 2000s, they seemed to be having the time of their lives. They were budding rock stars at the time, and as such they were holding court -- drinking, standing on tables, calling out to me or anyone else who passed by to join the fun.
It turns out my impression was correct. “The way our band was from the beginning … every night was your 21st birthday and it’s New Year’s Eve,” Whibley told me. “And we wanted to have the greatest time we’d ever had in our life. But it happened every single day. We didn’t think that was odd – that’s just what we did.”
Years later, Whibley and Sum 41 are now established rock stars and appear to be at the top of their game. Kerrang! has described their seventh studio album Order In Decline (2019) as “ …the hardest and heaviest album they’ve ever made … Sum 41 at their most creative and willing to explore their frontiers.” And they are about to embark on a tour of the United States followed by a Canadian tour with The Offspring.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the last 15 years have been anything but a party for Whibley. Perhaps fueling the heaviness of Sum 41’s new album, Whibley has endured severe pain in the form of severe panic and chronic back problems. And now Whibley is sharing his story not only of how his pain caused him to spiral into alcohol addiction, but also how he got sober and now more effectively manages his physical and mental health issues.
As is the case for many of us who experience anxiety, Whibley’s first panic attack was a shocking and overwhelming experience that became a recurrent phenomenon.
“I started having anxiety when I was around 23. I had my first panic attack and I thought I’d lost my mind. I had no idea what was happening to me. That really freaked me out,” Whibley explained. “ For about a year I had a panic attack every day and I didn’t know what it was. And I just thought I’d done something to my brain from all of the partying.”
A few years later, Whibley also began to experience chronic back pain. “I got injured on stage in 2007. I herniated a disc in my back. My legs just completely went out. It was the most pain I’d ever been in. I’d lost function from the waist down,” he recalled. “I just collapsed and had to be wheeled offstage and went to the hospital. I couldn’t really walk for a couple of weeks. I was in a wheelchair. I didn’t really know what the hell was happening to me.”
Unfortunately, Whibley found little comfort in the medical care he received. “Everyone’s got a different theory and a different opinion and nothing seems to work. All they would do is put me on some kind of heavy painkillers that I didn’t want to do,” Whibley described. “But nothing ever really got better. I felt like nobody knows what the f*ck they’re talking about. And you sort of lose faith in that whole notion of being fixed by going to the doctor.”
More, Whibley soon found that his back pain exacerbated his panic. “Physical pain from my back–I felt like that caused a lot of anxiety. I was fighting panic attacks a lot more,” he said. “Probably because I was worried, ‘Am I always going to be like this? Is this my daily life? Am I going to be able to tour? Is this going to get worse?’”
During this time, Whibley and Sum 41 continued to party as usual. And Whibley noticed that drinking assuaged both his anxiety and back pain.
“I used to drink alcohol all the time. So that probably took a lot of pain away,” Whibley explained. “I noticed that if I ever felt any panic or anxiety, a drink or two would sort of curb that. I wasn’t abusing alcohol, I was more using alcohol.”
But things took a severe turn for the worse in 2010 when Whibley was viciously attacked and beaten. And as his back pain worsened, so did his drinking.
“Later on in 2010 I re-injured my back and it was much worse. I just happened to get jumped and beaten up by some random people. I still don’t know who they were. It was just some guys attacked me for no reason. After that, the pain was much worse,” he described. “And that’s when my drinking really started to increase. The problem was that now I was drinking earlier in the day. And then at night, on top of that drinking throughout the day to manage the pain – then I started partying again. So that’s how it escalated.”
Soon Whibley was drinking more heavily even than his bandmates, who suggested he should slow down – a message Whibley did not heed. “We were all kind of bad,” he recalled. “So can you really be the guy who only had ten drinks and get mad at the guy who had 15 drinks? So I would just sort of dismiss it at the same time.”
Whibley’s alcohol consumption became so bad that in 2014, he was hospitalized for alcohol-related medical issues. While he was lucky to be alive, Whibley found that he emerged from the hospital with severe problems with his legs and feet.
“Five years ago, my liver and kidneys failed from drinking too much. So I ended up in the hospital for four weeks, then I was an outpatient for three months. It was like a year and a half of recovery. I hadn’t really moved around for about four months. The muscle atrophy in my legs … I was bedridden for so long that I couldn’t even stand up to carry my own weight,” Whibley said. “When I first went into the hospital they told me there was medication I needed to go on that made me really swell up. So my feet were really swollen for the first couple of weeks that I ended up getting a lot of nerve damage on the bottom of my feet. So for about a year to two years, I couldn’t really walk. Just stepping on anything, just putting your feet to the ground felt like you were putting them on hot coals.”
The fear Whibley felt was overwhelming. It was at that time that he recognized how important his life was to him, and particularly how much he valued his music. And he decided to get sober.
“That was the worst and scariest period of my life. Because I didn’t know – they didn’t even know – if it was ever going to get better. I didn’t know if I was going to go onstage. I didn’t know if I was going to walk correctly,” Whibley explained. “I realized that the thing I loved most in life was writing and playing music, which is probably the motivation that’s kept me sober. When I was in the hospital and they told me what happened, I just said it’s simple: I’m not going to drink anymore.”
Whibley tried many different methods to recover but found that more conventional recovery programs didn’t work for him. “It’s so different for everybody – it’s so individual. I’ve found that the thing that everybody told me I was supposed to do was the thing that wasn’t working for me,” Whibley described. “I tried AA, I tried the rehab thing. I tried hanging out with other sober people. Everything I was doing there just didn’t work for me. It was not my thing.”
In contrast, Whibley found that getting back to being a musician was the best medicine. Further, he discovered that he had a strong support system of friends and colleagues who themselves had struggled with both panic and addiction.
“Panic seems to be a common thing with a lot of people I know. A lot of people I know are musicians and a lot of people had issues with drinking and drugs. I do know that all of us who say we’ve had panic and who’ve struggled with drugs and alcohol say it’s better being off drugs or alcohol,” he said. “It’s easier to manage while you’re high or drunk or stoned, but then when you come off of that it’s so much more magnified. Dealing with it now has been a lot easier sober. It still creeps up a lot, but for some reason, I’m able to manage it better.”
As Whibley has been able to maintain his sobriety, he has also found that he is able to focus on healthier forms of pain management. Whibley had to be particularly careful when he was performing and slowly learned how to play music without exacerbating his back pain.
“It doesn’t act up as much as it did or as easily as it did when I was not taking care of myself. I live the right lifestyle. I started going to different physiotherapists and found different routines that helped. It’s a very basic sort of core strengthening stuff that I do every day,” Whibley described. “It’s just being really attentive. There are things I can do that exacerbate it or things that I can do that make it subside. I don’t jog – anything that has an impact I try to stay away from – that compression of my spine. I still have issues walking. The pain is gone in my feet, but there’s so much damage that there are spots where I don’t feel anything on my feet. So I have to monitor the way I walk and make sure I’m walking correctly because I could throw my hips out which throws my back out. So I just try to be mindful as much as I can, whereas when I was drinking, it was to not be mindful whatsoever.”
“Your brain just starts to understand what you can and can’t do.”
Whibley has to be particularly careful when he performs, as both his physical pain and panic can emerge. “I’d do something on stage and then I’d come off stage and be in so much pain like I really did something bad. And then I don’t move like that anymore. I don’t really jump off high things anymore,” he said. “The first two years of touring I felt like I was fighting it almost every single day because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to stand the whole show because of my legs. The panic followed me around. Sometimes it could be an hour or two of trying to fight a panic attack.”
Here’s to wishing Whibley good luck with his ongoing recovery.
Hopefully, at some point, each day feels like a new type of New Year’s Eve.