I’m not a writer. I’m a musician. I play guitar. So when I was asked to write my story, I felt momentarily paralyzed with emotions of sadness, fear, loss and guilt. 17 years later, and I still find it incredibly difficult to talk about my brother’s death, but if I can share a little bit about my healing process, I might be able to help someone who is suffering from depression now.
When I was about 8 years old, I knew I wanted to be a musician. I loved the guitar: how it felt in my hands and the sounds it released into space creating a mood, a story, and a picture of life that was to become my life.
This is my story, the story of the band Pariah, and the story of Sims.
In my early teens, I started a band with my brother, Sims Ellison, and Shandon Sahm (Doug Sahm’s son). Then, shortly after, Dave Derrick and Jaren Tuten jumped aboard. We called ourselves Pariah, and we were high-energy hard rock. We worked hard developing our sound. We were young, talented, and ambitious, and we were in it together—Pariah was a family.
In the early 90’s—before the Internet or Facebook—we attracted a fan club of 25,000 members. In 1990 we played SXSW to a packed house, and music people from all over came to see what all the hype was about. Shortly after, the bidding war began. We eventually signed with Geffen Records. Sims was dating Renee Zellwegger, and life was looking pretty sweet. In such a short time, it appeared that we had climbed right to the top. And that’s when the dream began to disappear and the nightmare began.
Geffen Records, in my opinion, signed us to keep us from signing with their competition. They made it impossible for us to do anything. We couldn’t record or tour…nothing. We fought back and finally, 3 years later were allowed to make our record. Geffen pressed up 25,000 copies, gave us 3 weeks of tour support, and promptly dropped us. Turns out that was normal business practice back then, but we were crushed. Sims may have been the most crushed because not only did his dream of Pariah come to an end, but so did his relationship. He became seriously depressed. We were all very concerned, but nothing could prepare us for what happened next. I found out he bought a shotgun. The next two years was a desperate search to get him some help.
On the morning of June 5, 1995, I woke up a little excited for the first time in a long time. I was going to Hawaii to work for a band called Storyville. I had never been there and it sounded like heaven to me. I got in my car to drive down S. Congress to get a cup of coffee, something I’ve routinely done 100 times before. I saw a woman on the sidewalk bent over, holding her stomach with blood running out of her mouth. No one was helping her. I swerved over to the side of the road and helped her into the car and immediately drove her to Brackenridge Hospital where I dropped her off and that was the last I ever saw of her. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, that was so f**king weird!” Still in a bit of a shock, I got home and then the phone rang. It was about Sims, and they said I needed to go to his house. I had a horrible feeling and drove there as fast as I could. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw next. Police cars, police tape, people everywhere and no Sims. A lady walked up to me with a terrible look on her face and the rest, I either blacked out or don’t want to talk about. Sims was dead. He killed himself. I felt like I died that day, too.
That was June 6th, 1995, and Austin, Texas—the music capital—had lost one of its brightest lights: Sims Ellison. As the song says: So painful to remember, so hard to forget.
The response was overwhelmingly purposeful. If “getting help” was a joke, then the Austin music community would get serious. A memorial fountain would be built in the shadow of Stevie Ray’s statue at Auditorium Shores. Yet more importantly, funds would be raised to start the S.I.M.S. Foundation (Services Invested in Musicians Support), whose mission would be to provide access to and financial support for mental health and additional recovery services for Austin-area musicians and their families.
No one knows if the musician’s mentality is more prone to implosion. All I know is my experience. After my brother died, I went on to tour with the Meat Puppets, Butthole Surfers, and Ministry. But I was living like a ghost. My heart was broken. I was so depressed that I could barely function. The spiral down, the guilt for not being able to save Sims, self-medicating, the all-consuming question: “Aren’t you the musician whose brother…?” I just couldn’t live in that much pain anymore. I hit bottom hard.
I asked for help (which is in itself incredibly hard to do), and my family and the S.I.M.S. Foundation stepped in. I checked into a reputable rehab dual diagnosis clinic for trauma and addiction where I would get scientific names for my grief and, best of all, hope. The long journey of recovery began.
Interestingly enough, the aftercare program I entered was in Hawaii. I go back every year to recommit, remember and stay grounded. One day, after an intense Byron Katy seminar I attended, I left and randomly ran into a Buddhist monk, who also attended the seminar. He told me that I needed to go up to Prayer Rock. I said, “Sounds like where I need to be.” What I experienced after I climbed to the top and looked out across the horizon was a feeling of connectedness: oneness with the universe, nature, self…and Sims. For the first time in a long time, I experienced a sense of peace. Coincidently it happened to be the 10th anniversary of my brother’s suicide that day. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
It is 2012. Austin is rocking towards its 25th annual South by Southwest Music Festival, with a new generation of musicians come from all over the world. The S.I.M.S. Foundation serves its artists’ needs admirably: over 700 last year alone. It literally saves lives. I should know…they helped save mine.
Fewer and fewer in Austin today know the story: the suffering that started the cure. Sometimes, forgetting is scary and sad. But hopefully, the segue is a definition of hope. And “getting help” isn’t a joke 17 years later.
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