Aimee Allen Of The Interrupters On Her Journey To Healing
The lead singer tells her life story for the first time, and shares how recovery helped her write the autobiographical album, In The Wild.
Trigger Warning: This piece contains descriptions and true accounts of domestic violence and suicide.
Aimee Allen is the fierce lead singer of ska-punk band The Interrupters, which she formed in California in 2011. Her husband, Kevin, plays guitar in the band with his brothers Jesse and Justin on drums and bass, and together they’ve released three studio albums to critical acclaim (most recently, 2018’s Fight The Good Fight).
But Allen’s journey to finding her place as the lead singer of a successful group was far from simple. Growing up the youngest of four on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, Allen’s childhood was rife with difficult memories, many of which began when her mom married her abusive stepfather when she was 8.
The band’s newest album, In The Wild, out Aug. 5, tells Allen’s story in depth for the first time. While The Interrupters’ music has always connected with fans on a deep level, erasing boundaries between audience and artist, the lyrics of In The Wild mark Allen’s first true telling of the journey that brought her to where she is today, told from her point of view. From surviving the terror of an abusive relationship, to getting sober and finding healing in therapy practices like EMDR transcranial magnetic stimulation, Allen hopes that, above all, telling her story will not only free herself, but also give hope to anyone else who finds themselves in a situation similar to hers.
The video for the album’s new single, “Raised By Wolves,” is also out on Thursday, premiering exclusively here. The song details Allen’s experience finding peace following the tumultuousness of her childhood. Watch the video below, and read on for Allen’s fearless telling of her personal story.
I always felt so out of place. Lonely in a crowded room. I never felt comfortable in my own skin.
I always just felt like an alien on this planet — we actually have a song called “Alien” that was inspired by this detachment I felt. I didn't have a word for it at the time — I didn't know that other people suffered from it, and it was called major depressive disorder. I didn't know about suicidal ideation, but as early as I can remember, I was having suicidal thoughts, and that's when I started writing songs.
I think I was 8 years old when it all started — the molestation, my depression, etcetera. I found that writing songs and singing just brought some relief, and so did listening to music. That's when I discovered Joan Jett, and I was like, "That's me. She gets me. She understands me. She's weird like me, and she's like my best friend." I just really connected with Joan, and I would play air guitar in front of the mirror and scream her lyrics. When I would put on her music, I felt less alone. I felt “normal.” Music was, at a young age, just this tool to help ease some of the pain.
Cut to seventh grade (around 12 years old) and years under my stepfather's rule — he had beaten me so badly one day that it left significant marks all over my body and my face. The school noticed and brought me into the main office and took pictures of me. They asked me, "Would you like to go with this police officer to get some ice cream?" Instead, they took me to the Child Protective Services, where I waited until midnight and was put in a foster home that night. I never did get that ice cream, which I still think is kind of a mean thing to do to a kid — “You're going to get ice cream” but then, no, you’re actually going to a foster home. They could’ve given me the ice cream and put me in the foster home. I digress.
They put me in a foster home that was really overcrowded and, of course, it was just really shocking and needless to say, distressing. I was basically ripped away from my siblings and my mom. Ultimately, my (biological) dad came to pick me up, and I went to live with him in the "big city" — or the biggest city in Montana, at least, called Billings. But it was eight hours away from everything I'd ever known. I wasn't allowed to have any contact with my mom because of the situation. I wasn’t even allowed to talk to her on the phone. So for years, I missed my mom and really just wanted to be with her. As I look back on it, it was devastating. One of the things that I used to do to soothe me was pull out my hair (now known to me as trichotillomania) which I continued to do living with my dad in Billings and still have to resist doing to this day. This was all undiagnosed, of course. My suicidal ideation reached levels that I had never experienced before. Being so young and not having any clue how to “take care of the situation,” I turned once again to music. I started to listen to a lot of rebel music. I loved reggae and punk, and I discovered Bad Brains in eighth grade. I remember listening to Bad Brains, and the singer, HR, was just screaming. My life changed in that moment. I was like, "This is how I feel inside. This is the kind of music I want to make. Somebody is sounding exactly how it feels in here."
I just got more and more sucked into music as my way of pain management, I guess you could say. I knew that's all I wanted to do with my life, because it was the only time that I felt less alone when I listened to records. Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff were some of my best friends that helped me through some really, really tough years. My senior year in high school, I moved back to Missoula with my mom and siblings as she had separated from my stepfather. Things were good. I started a band, and we played some shows and recorded some music. I really wanted that music played on the radio. I was like, "I made this. I have this band." And they were like, "Well, the biggest station in town is the college radio station.” But the station wouldn't just play a local band's demos, so I decided to enroll at the university just so I could become a DJ and play my own music.
I took women's studies and a couple of poetry classes and became a DJ. I would pretend I didn't know the band. I’d say, "You got to check out this band. Go to their show tomorrow night." I did that for a year. Then there was this overwhelming feeling of, "I needed to go to LA” — I needed to pursue a music career. I didn't know anybody in LA, but I knew I needed to get there and start a band. This is crazy… it was kind of stupid and dangerous, but I met these guys one night at a bar. They were in a band and said, "We're from LA." And I was like, "That's awesome, because I'm supposed to live there." And they said, "Well, we're leaving tomorrow." So, I said, "Well, do you mind if I follow you or maybe I could crash at your house for a couple days?” I basically followed this band to LA — actually Orange County if we’re being honest. I stayed at their house for a couple days. And then I decided, "I need to go to where the Hollywood sign is. I need to go where the music is." I left the OC, I drove to the Hollywood sign, and I parked my car. I didn't know anybody, not one person. I called the bartender of the bar that I was at, that night I met that band, and I said, "Hey. Remember that night I met those guys. Well, I actually went to LA and I don't know anyone. Do you happen to know anyone in LA?" And he said, "Yeah. I do.”
My hometown was where they filmed A River Runs Through It, and this bartender was in that movie. He was an extra or something and he actually knew somebody. The weirdest, strangest, fated twist of events is that where I went and parked my car, just so that I could be close to the Hollywood sign, was the street where he knew someone that had a room available to rent. I could see the house that he was talking about. He said I should go knock on the door. That is, to this day, one of the wildest things. What are the odds? And suddenly, I had a place to stay. I guess the road is twisted, but it eventually gets you to where you are meant to go.
I got a job waiting tables. Every day when I wasn't working, I would walk up and down Sunset Boulevard, and I would ask people if they wanted to start a band with me. Musicians would be coming out of the clubs, and I would just say, "Are you in a band? Do you play guitar? Do you want to start a punk band with me?" Ultimately, I found a band just by doing that. And then we played a show, and Randy Jackson happened to be there. He said, "I'm going to help you get a record deal." And, he did.
That's how I originally started doing music. I signed to Elektra Records, and I made an album. But, the label folded, and the record didn't come out. A story as old as time, I guess. After that happened, I was devastated. I lost this record that I worked so hard on. Right around that time, I met somebody that made me feel like, "You're home.” He was familiar and I thought, “You're going to be there for me at my lowest. You're going to lift me up now that I've just had this tragedy, losing this deal. You're my home." Little did I know, the reason why that person felt like home, is because he ended up being abusive. The narcissistic abuse was off the charts. I ended up in a years-long relationship with extreme coercive abuse and isolation.
One of the things that helped comfort me was writing — my feelings, lyrics, songs. I had so many boxes of lyrics. I had notebooks, countless notebooks. I had so many records worth of material in those notebooks. They were my light. They were my everything. One night when I was sleeping, I woke up and I went to the living room, and all of the boxes where all my notebooks were empty. I looked over at the fireplace, and my life's work was burned. He said that he didn't know why he did it, he just felt like it. He burned everything, all of it. Another devastation.
There were so many forms of abuse, from breaking anything that was important to me, like my cellphones so that I lost my contacts, to monitoring my phone calls to actual physical abuse. I couldn't reach out — there was no help coming. It led to an even deeper depression, more anxiety, and complex PTSD. His violence was too much for me. I had no way of processing how to handle and the only way out I saw was to take my life — so I did. And I actually succeeded. My heart stopped. I stopped breathing and I went into the hospital. I was in a coma for a week. The hospital asked everyone that was in my family to come say goodbye. The irony is that this actually put me on the road to salvation, because my family saw what was happening and intervened.
It helped get me out of that situation, ultimately. I have this song on the new record, called “Afterthought,” where for the very first time ever, I wrote about this. It was so traumatizing for me, I could not write about it before. I tried so many times. I wrote so many half songs about [the relationship], but I’d feel like, "Oh, this is too scary, humiliating, I can't put this out. I can't share this!” But, I finally did it on this record. I told my story of what happened to me in that song, which also talks about how far I've come. Now that sick, abusive person is just an afterthought to me. I hope when other people hear the words, it will perhaps give them the strength to leave, if they're in that sort of situation. That would be the most beautiful thing in the world.
After my suicide attempt and escape, I tried to numb and run away from my pain as much as possible for years. I started to drink really heavily. I drank every day. Eventually, I went to a doctor and he said; "Yeah. You have alcoholic hepatitis. You have to stop drinking.” But, I still had no will to live, so I decided that would be great. I'll just die from alcohol. I continued to drink for another year and a half. The plan wasn’t working — I wasn’t dying. I was like, "What the hell? I've got alcoholic hepatitis. I'm drinking every day. I'm not dying. I'm just throwing up. I'm just sick all the time." I finally had a day where I said, "You know what? I have to stop drinking. What am I running from? I've been running for so long. I need to find out what is so scary. What am I so scared of?"
I stopped drinking, which was no walk in the park, and miraculously found my way to a psychiatrist. Remember my suicidal tendencies started when I was 8, so there was a lot to unravel here. I’ve now been sober for almost seven years. Ultimately, with being sober, I found I could get to the heart of the matter and get properly diagnosed. I was officially diagnosed with complex PTSD, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, trichotillomania, idiopathic insomnia, adrenal fatigue, and traumatic brain injury. "Where do you begin? How do you even untangle all of this?” One step at a time and the twine starts to loosen.
“You're not even on the bell curve. You're over here.”
My current next step is to open up and to start talking about all of these things now, because I've done some of the work and untangled it a bit, and I've come out the other side. If I can have the will to live and be excited about life, and find hope then oh my gosh, there's hope I can share with others. Other people can find hope, possibly, in my story. As much as it's scary for me to talk about these intimate things, I also think it's so important. Maybe it can be the life raft for someone!
So how did I get better? The first thing I did, as I mentioned, was I got sober. The next step was hyperbaric oxygen treatment for a couple of months. I went twice a day. Basically, they pump oxygen into your brain. It helps with traumatic brain injury. They give you a printout of your brain and explain what it all means. My traumatic brain injury was intense; it was incurred through a series of violent events, plus the trauma of said events.
One day I went in and multiple doctors were looking at my scan. They said verbatim, "This is just fascinating. We work with a lot of veterans who have come home from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and your brain looks like you've been to war multiple times. There's a bell curve for traumatic brain injury, and you're not even on the bell curve. You're over here.”
When I was done, they re-scanned my brain and I retook the test and I had improved drastically. I was, at least, on the bell curve. I was putting sentences together better. And people around me, my friends and family were like, "Wow. You sound so different." I said to the doctors, "I don't notice that much of a difference." And the doctor said that, "You can't self-diagnose your own brain. Other people around you, that's how you're going to know." And every single person in my life was like, "You have improved greatly."
I thought naively, "OK. Well, as soon as I stop drinking and I get oxygen into my brain, I'm going to be better.” However, I still had major depression. I could put sentences together, but I was still in a state of despair.
I've been in The Interrupters for 10 years. When we started the band, I finally found myself surrounded by people that understand and love me so much, and in an environment that felt safe enough to really begin to heal. The first three years of the band, I was drinking. It’s only been the last seven years that I’ve been sober and trying to find ways to heal and to “feel normal.” I didn't find my answers, until the COVID pandemic hit. It gave me time to figure out how to get some relief. I think for a lot of people, that time was used and necessary to reflect. Our new song, “In The Mirror,” is about stopping the running from all the pain, from the numbing, and just taking a look in the mirror and saying, "What are you running from? Let's find some peace inside. Let's stop doing this. Let's be real with ourselves."
This inspired me to do TMS — transmagnetic stimulation. Up until the pandemic, I hadn't dug deep into myself. Of course, I wrote songs all the time for The Interrupters, and I would tell my story, but always about someone else. I have a song called “Jenny Drinks.” But that's about Jenny. You know what I mean? I wrote a song called “She Got Arrested,” about a woman's fantasy of taking back the power after domestic abuse. Well, that's about somebody else. I wrote a song called “Easy On You,” about the pain that I felt growing up and the shame I felt. That's about someone else.
This record is the first time I wrote my story and told my truth and shared what I went through and continue to go through. Every song had different challenges in trying to get the emotions I was feeling onto a page, but “Raised By Wolves” was the most difficult. I was addressing emotions that I had been feeling since I was very young. There is deep-rooted pain there. My childhood was very complicated and every time I’ve attempted to write about it, I’ve found it impossible. I wrote so many verses to that song and cried a million tears. Writing it was hard but therapeutic. I had to forgive everyone I had been pinning the hurt on in order to write that song. I’ve always said I feel like I was raised by wolves, but coming to terms with my past and finally finding forgiveness is what unlocked the feelings that inspired the song.
I’m only able to do this because I did TMS and trauma-focused EMDR therapy. They basically gave me the strength to write these songs and this essay. With TMS, they looked at a bunch of brains, and they found that there's one part of the brain that doesn't light up. It's like this little black hole of nothingness in people with major depressive disorder. I tried so many medications to feel better, and they eventually would just stop working. I heard Neal Brennan talk about TMS, and how it worked for him. I thought, “I've literally tried everything. I did the hyperbaric oxygen. I got sober. I did the step work. To the best of my ability, I forgave everyone for everything. I tried to get rid of all my resentments.” But I just never felt happy to wake up in the morning. I thought, "If there's even a small chance that this will work, I have to try it." I called the Southern California TMS Center. They said it was going to be $10,000, unless you have insurance and have been on antidepressants for years and years, then insurance will cover it. Well, I had those prerequisites covered and my insurance paid for it.
Man, hope is everything.
I had some hope, but I was very skeptical. I still had depression, so it was a small glimmer of hope. This to me was a long shot. I didn't know how I was going to continue living in what felt like a prison sentence. I have a song on the new record called “Jailbird,” which is all about this feeling — like all of life is just this cosmic punishment and I'm in a jail. I went every day for six weeks. They put this little helmet on your brain with a little mechanism that is like a little woodpecker. It's about an hour of this wood-pecking feeling on that part of the brain that's black — it stimulates it.
Every day they ask you to give a number between 1 and 10, 10 being you are actively wanting to commit suicide, and one being you're just absolutely perfect and there's not a problem in the world and you're so excited about life. I was a 10, a 100% 10, a strong 10. And every day that I went in, I was a 10. For weeks, I was a 10. I was losing more and more faith that this was going to work. I felt like, "This is for other people. They haven't lived the life I've lived. They haven't had the pain that I've had. I'm sure that this works for other people, but it's not going to work for me." As the days went by, I got more and more depressed and less and less hopeful. But one day, I was a 9. And I was kind of a strong 9. I'm not actively trying to kill myself. Don't want to live, but I'm not going to plan it. You know what I mean? I was a 9 and then another week went by and I was an 8 and then I was a 7. And at the end of it — I'm getting choked up because it really is amazing — I was a 2. I really wanted to live and I was excited about life. I literally had never had that feeling before. To this day, it is such a weird feeling. I wake up and I'm like, "I want to live this amazing day. It's exciting to be alive. What could happen today?"
It's not like I don't have bad days or anything, but my baseline is now a 2. I wake up and, instead of my baseline being a 10 every day, now I am at a 2/3. I fluctuate. I could have a 4 day or whatever, but, I want to live. I feel like life is a gift versus life is a prison sentence.
It gave me hope. I have hope. Even if I do get to a dark place again — I know that there's someplace I can turn. Man, hope is everything. And then I had the strength to do my next thing, which is EMDR therapy. I always thought because of my complex PTSD, there’d be no cure. I'm going to spend the rest of my life like this. I'm never going to have a quality life, because I get triggered so frequently and so often, which just leads to climbing that ladder to a 10. It's all connected, like peas and carrots, PTSD and depression. Because of the TMS, I had the strength to do the EMDR treatment. I started with my youngest memories and healing them one by one, to stop running from all of it and to finally face it. To finally close the chapter, one trauma after the next. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, to go through my childhood trauma and forgive, close and move on and just keep going to the traumatic memories and creating new memories.
In the EMDR, you create a new memory. I would create these new memories where I'm taking back my power, and I'm strong. I'm standing up for myself, and I'm protecting that little girl. I'm standing up to my sadistic stepfather and so on. And now with all of the flashbacks, I have peace, because I have a current memory where there's peace there. I will be doing EMDR for the rest of my life. I have hope because there's a tool out there. I actually have somewhere to turn, and something to get me to the other side.
All of these things helped and I was able to write my life story, my first real autobiographical record, and tell my truth. This whole record is just this cathartic unveiling, taking off the mask of the person that I pretended that I was, which was happy. Nobody knew that I was going through anything. I always was smiling and looking happy. Nobody knew the darkness, the suffering. I didn't want people to know, because I was drowning in it. I didn’t know how to let people know I didn’t know how to swim.
My life is so different now. I am managing my anxiety with calming outdoor activities. New breathing techniques. Feeling the sun on my face. Going on bike rides. I’m writing more than ever. I’m learning new ways to manage my anxiety all the time, always growing in pursuit of finding that inner calm. And when you are happy to wake up in the morning, anxiety feels so much more manageable.
I really, really hope this and our music can help people that are also dealing with mental health or dealing with some of the issues that I've talked about, because that would just mean everything to me. That would mean the absolute world, if it could help, if my story had a purpose and let someone know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it can get better.
Since we released the song “Jailbird,” I cannot tell you how many people have reached out to me, saying that they are so thankful and that this song is helping them. When we're singing it on stage now — I see people crying. I would say that I wish I would've done this earlier, but I know that I couldn't have, because I didn't have the strength to. I’m so grateful that I found the strength and I’m really, really grateful for the gift of music, the gift of being able to connect with people on and off the stage. The music really does have the power to continue to make me and everyone feel that we are not alone.
As told to Claire Valentine.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860, the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).