Widely known for hits like “One” and “Fade to Black,” Metallica is widely regarded as one of the best heavy metal bands in the genre. Comprised today of lead singer James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, and bassist Robert Trujillo, the group has played to sold-out concert arenas for nearly forty years.
Hetfield and Ulrich founded the band in 1981, and quickly developed a new style that would break the barriers of typical metal music. The style was dubbed “speed metal,” and is described by AllMusic as “extremely fast, abrasive, and technically demanding.”
The band found fame throughout the 1980s, rising to notable acclaim within the underground music scene. By the early 1990s, Metallica became a household name, selling millions of copies of their albums and winning multiple Grammy awards.
However, behind the scenes of their success, frontman James Hetfield struggled with substance abuse, which was well documented in the 2004 documentary film Some Kind of Monster.
The son of Cynthia Bassett and Virgil Hetfield, James Hetfield was born in California in 1963. His parents divorced when he was a teenager, and his mother died of cancer just a few years later. Because the Hetfields were Christian Scientists, they did not believe in receiving medical treatment.
Speaking openly about his childhood and the circumstances that led to his substance abuse, Hetfield recalled, “Maybe as part of my upbringing, my family kind of disintegrated when I was a kid. Father left, mother passed away, had to live with my brother, and then kind of just, where did my stuff go? It just kind of floated away […].”
At 19 years old, Hetfield joined Metallica, just three years after the death of his mother. Thrust into intense world of heavy metal and newfound celebrity, Hetfield was a young man faced with many temptations, including alcohol and drugs.
Hetfield would later recall that it was difficult to imagine living life any other way, stating that he “didn’t know anything about life,” especially life outside of the fast-paced, thrilling—and in many ways unhealthy—environment of being on tour.
While the band grew in popularity, Hatfield struggled off-stage. After two decades in the spotlight, Hetfield announced in 2001 that he would be temporarily leaving the band to attend a rehabilitation program. He stayed in rehab for a total of seven weeks.
By that time, Hetfield had also lost his father, had gotten married to Francesca Tomasi, and had become a father of his own. Committed to getting well for the sake of his wife and children, Hetfield knew that he had reached his breaking point.
“Losing my family, that was the thing that scared me so much, that was the bottom I hit, that my family is going to go away because of my behaviors that I brought home from the road. I got kicked out of my house by my wife, I was living on my own somewhere, I did not want that,” he recalled.
In 2017, Hetfield revealed that he had remained sober for 15 years. Metallica went on to sell out hundreds more tour dates, and their albums continue to be some of the best-selling albums of all-time.
Just this week, it was announced by Metallica on their social media pages that Hetfield had unfortunately suffered a relapse and would be entering another rehab program, forcing the band to indefinitely postpone its upcoming tour in Australia and New Zealand.
In a statement, Hetfield’s bandmateswrote that “[their] brother James has been struggling with addiction on and off for many years.”
Hearing Hetfield’s story, it is important to remember that sobriety is an ongoing journey—and does not occur in a straight line. Even for those who have achieved long-term sobriety, relapse always remains a risk, and should not be regarded as a failure of recovery.
Long-term sobriety takes commitment, persistence, and hard work that must take place every day. As Hetfield takes the steps to find wellness and recommit himself to sobriety, it is with admiration and understanding that his fans—and all those who have worked to achieve sobriety—cheer him on.
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