“I spent so many years trying to fight against being a ‘depressed alcoholic autistic person’ and that only made it worse,” muses Charlotte-based singer-songwriter Bradley Wik. “I convinced myself I was broken and I was the only person who felt this way. But I want people to know you’re not broken and you’re not alone.”
In support of Autism Awareness Month, Wik and his band the Charlatans released “music for depressed alcoholic autistic people” (all lowercase), a record which comprises stories of his own struggles with Asperger’s syndrome. The four-song EP explores everything from recurring night terrors of being brutally murdered in his dreams (“i started killing myself years ago”) to lines he wrote while falling heavy into alcohol and painkillers (“we are not alone”): “I can’t tell if I am real / this is the only thing I can feel / but I am not alone…”
“This song just fell out,” he remembers of “we are not alone.” “Having Asperger’s, medicine doesn’t affect me the intended way a lot of the time. Painkillers don’t really help me much with alleviating pain . . . but it’s basically like they disconnect my brain from my body. . . . A few pain pills and a bottle of wine, suddenly, I was free of all my pain, mental and physical. Predictably, a couple of pills and a bottle of wine turns into a couple more and another bottle of wine, and on and on.”
Over time Wik recounts nights where he didn’t feel anything. When it got to the point he was convinced he was not real at all (“at least in the physical sense”), he turned to self-harming. “I’d have to do something drastic to snap myself back to reality,” he tells. “That’s where the line ‘that’s when I felt the blood’ comes in. I still have scars from the final night I did that to myself.”
Nevertheless, it was important to end “we are not alone” optimistically, reminding the listener and himself no one has to traverse dark times alone. In fact, while Wik says making this record was his way of acknowledging and accepting himself for who he is, he hopes sharing his experiences through his EP can do the same for others.
Music and arts always have made Wik feel “a little less alone and a little less broken.” It’s helped him identify his own internal feelings through songs. From Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” to Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night” and Modest Mouse’s “The Lonesome Crowded West,” to Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” and others, music helps him process.
“I need someone else to explain these things because I can’t internally process very well because of the Asperger’s,” Wik explains. “With this record, I wanted to provide something that talked about really difficult topics honestly, simply and as candidly as possible. . . . I hope that, in making and talking about this record, I can start to normalize Asperger’s/autism for some people.”
Wik originally planned to have awareness/fundraising shows in support of the release until COVID-19 hit. For the time being, he’s hosting weekly live streams on Facebook (facebook.com/bradleywikmusic) on Thursdays at 8 p.m. “I’ve been playing songs and discussing themes related to the new record,” he shares, “like how Asperger’s affects my songs/storytelling, how and why I write songs, etc.” He also plans to partner with Charlotte bars and venues for Instagram live shows (instagram.com/bradleywikmusic) in May.
encore spoke with Wik about his journey completing “music for depressed alcoholic autistic people.”
encore (e): First of all, how are you doing during these times? Safe and healthy?
Bradley Wik (BW): I’m doing OK, thank you for asking. I got knocked out pretty hard for a bit toward the end of February, so I may have already had my bout with the virus, but since we don’t know for sure, my wife, Brianne, and I are good with just holing up in our apartment. We’re both introverts by nature, which can be very helpful in times like these.
e: As we talk about Autism Awareness Month, how do you think self-isolation, like we are experiencing, impacts friends, families and neighbors with autism?
BW: Brianne and I have been together for almost nine years now. I think the most important thing I’ve learned over that time is how much my Asperger’s affects those around me. I’m sure there have been some rough patches, while people lament the loss of their routines. I know I had a tough time when suddenly everything in my calendar got canceled. No more Wednesday night band rehearsals, or Thursday, Friday or Saturday night shows; no more Friday afternoon trips to the grocery store, or Sunday morning trips to the park to play basketball. There were days when all I could do was sit around with crosswords. My hope is, since we’re a little further along, some new routines have started to build to help calm things down for all those affected. I know that’s helped me (and Brianne) quite a bit.
e: Was it always the plan to release this EP now (timed with Autism Awareness Month)? Or did it simply work out that way as these songs came to you?
BW: I always knew this was the next record I wanted to make, and I knew I had to put it out in April. I became obsessed with making this record, but I had no idea what shape it would take or what songs would end up on it.
April came and went last year; I was hoping to put it out then. I had taken some time off after the previous album came out, so I was ready to get back at it. I had about a dozen or so songs recorded in various stages of completion. Only two of them would end up on the record—and I think I knew the story wasn’t complete yet. I had to wait another year, which worked out in my favor anyhow, as I think the four songs on here are the right four.
e: How much of your own personal experience with Asperger’s, depression and drug/alcohol use informed the songs/lyrics?
BW: With this record, I wanted to write only true stories from my own experiences. Over the years, I’ve typically written songs about things I’ve observed rather than things I’ve experienced. I know now that’s likely because of the Asperger’s. I wanted to do the opposite with “music for depressed alcoholic autistic people.”
Side note: not sure why this whole record needed to be written with lowercase letters, but it did. All the lowercase songs titles, lyrics, etc., are intentional. I’ve heard of other people with Asperger’s/autism actually going through their thousands of songs on iTunes and changing all the text to be lowercase. I’m not sure about the connection but there’s something there.
I made a point to be as blunt as possible because I believe the more specific and personal a story you tell, the more helpful it can be. These songs/stories were things I needed to hear but couldn’t find.
e: Was any of this written in the middle of struggling with depression and alcohol, or is it more reflective of being in a recovery state?
BW: I’d like to say I wrote these songs after the fact, looking back on that period of my life, but I can’t honestly say that I’m no longer dealing with these issues. Are things as bad as they once were? Of course not, but it was sort of written half and half: half on the tail end of the experiences and half as I was starting to somewhat level back out.
“what are we supposed to do now that we’ve wasted our youth?” and “the promise (please don’t die tonight)” were the first two to come out. I started recording them right away, but then they just sat unfinished for months because I didn’t know what to make of them yet. They were such a drastic departure from my typical rock ‘n’ roll songs/stories.
The last two were written a little while later, right before we moved across the country. Drunkenly one night, in a state of premature reminiscence, I opened an old “notes” page on my phone where I kept some unused lyrics/thoughts. “I started killing myself years ago/I just haven’t finished yet” and “I can’t tell if I am real/This is the only thing I can feel/but I am not alone” were in there, waiting. After I went back and read the lyrics to “what are we supposed to do now that we’ve wasted our youth?” the lines suddenly took on new meaning and the songs came from that.
It’s strange, and I don’t really know how to describe it, but I don’t feel like I’m an active participant in songwriting. I’m often caught off guard by new songs. I’ll grab a guitar one night, and things will just come rushing out, usually two to three songs at a time. I used to think that was because of the old Bob Dylan theory of there being an ever-present river of songs and ideas flowing above us, and if we’re in the right place at the right time, with the right state of mind, the music can flow through us onto the page. I now realize it’s likely the result of my subconscious being able to decipher my experiences before my conscious (read: Asperger’s) brain can.
e: How important do you think it is to have candid conversations like these in helping others?
BW: I believe it to be the most important piece in helping others. My wife is a business and life coach, and one of the biggest things she’s always talking about is learning how to accept yourself, faults and all. I think that’s all a lot of us want, to feel like we’re OK, so we can stop fighting against ourselves. For years, especially in the 25 years before I found out I had Asperger’s, I thought I was broken. I didn’t feel the same way others did. I didn’t think the same way others did. I didn’t react to things the way others did. I didn’t know why. No one ever thought I might have autism or Asperger’s. I was seemingly “normal.” I went to school and got straight As. I played sports and had friends. But no one knew how I felt inside, not even me, really—and I wasn’t hearing anyone talk about the things I was hearing in my own head. Even brief glimpses of things that made me feel less alone were a godsend.
e: When would it have been helpful for you to hear an album like this? Is there a person or persons whose openness about their experience helped you?
BW: I wish I could say the 22-year-old version of me needed this so he could have avoided all that transpired over the coming years. But I know he didn’t even have a clue about how he was feeling, had no idea he had Asperger’s and, if I’m being honest, probably liked he was messed up. It was very Kerouac- or Rolling Stones-like.
Some years later, I had grown tired of the chaos but didn’t have the impetus to pull myself out quite yet. Around that time, a podcast called “Man vs. Radio” came into my life and introduced me to an album that started me down the path I didn’t know I was even looking for. That album was Frightened Rabbit’s “Midnight Organ Fight.” When I heard “My Backwards Walk” and “Keep Yourself Warm” suddenly a lot of things made a lot more sense. It was like the scene in Indiana Jones when he puts the medallion on the pole and the light hits it just right and the location of the ark is magically revealed. That’s what those songs did. They unlocked and revealed something I desperately needed.
As to who has been the most helpful over the years, the answer is easy: Christian James Hand. He is the host of the “Man vs. Radio” podcast.
e: What would you say to folks struggling with depression and alcoholism looking for support during this time?
BW: As I have not really moved past my own issues, I don’t feel equipped to divvy out advice. I will say I’ve noticed a lot of support systems adapt to these strange, new times. Groups have moved online to try and reach those in need. It’s easier than ever to connect to people remotely. I hope people are making the most of that and not trying to isolate themselves even further. I feel lucky I’m not alone during this time. My heart goes out to those that are. I know, based on my past, seclusion is a trigger and an easy excuse to act out in unhealthy ways. Over the years, I’ve needed to be reminded that just because there aren’t people around me, people still care about me and are thinking about me. So, I’ll pass that message along as well.
e: Anything else you’d like to add?
BW: I’ve met a lot of people over the years who’ve dismissed kids, friends, family members, etc. as just being “weird” or “obsessive” or “awkward” or whatever description it was. Now that I have a better understanding of my own Asperger’s, I realize a number of those people likely were on the spectrum and could’ve really used someone to help them, and those around them, understand things a little better. I think one of the key things we need to do in order to get to that point is to stop making it such a negative thing that no one wants to be associated with. I’ve heard parents talk about how they thought their kid might be on the spectrum but didn’t want to explore it more because they either didn’t want it to be true or didn’t want to put their kid through being the “different” one. That made me want to do something like this even more.
I truly believe that my Asperger’s is a positive thing. If I got to choose whether or not to have it, I’d take it 99 times out of 100. My curiosity to see what the other side looks like would likely get me once, but only once. As with anything, there are some negatives that come with Asperger’s (like not picking up on context or social cues, having to apologize to my wife because I constantly “under-react” to things, you know, the usual). But, I feel the positives far outweigh those, especially as a musician. It’s easy for musicians to get caught up in the amount of “likes” or plays on Spotify or how many people were at the last show, etc. or those dreadful George/Marty McFly “what if” questions. What if I’m not good enough? What if no one likes it? I just don’t think I could take that kind of rejection. My Asperger’s allows me to obsessively focus on the things that matter and let go of all the rest. Sure, I like it when the venue is packed and the record gets rave reviews, but it also doesn’t bother me if those things don’t happen. I can easily just move on and focus on the next task at hand. It’s a very useful skill. Entertainers are far more likely to fall into the “people pleaser” mold and that can wreak havoc on your self-worth if you’re putting it into your creative endeavors.
If you or someone you know is facing mental and/or substance use disorders, please call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357)