I can still remember every detail. I can close my eyes and recall the smell of the room, the way the air felt, and the urgency in my doctor’s presence. I could have not heard a word that left his lips and I would have still understood the importance of how he shifted his eyes and shoulders to prepare himself to tell me news that no person in their twenties should ever hear. My body was desperately failing me and we had to intervene immediately or risk losing me for good.
My name is Josh Austin. The majority of people who read this will know me, if you know me at all, as the screamer and bassist for Ohio screamo/post-hardcore band Little Wars. I’m also a twenty-seven year old husband and father of an eight month old baby girl. However, almost exactly a year and a half ago I nearly lost a battle that would have prevented all three.
If we start towards the beginning, I was filling in for my friends in a band called Roundhand Rowan on a two week tour in the summer of 2011. Their bassist wasn’t able to make the tour and I was the only one who could drop everything on such short notice. I had never met any of the guys in person and they had never seen or heard me play any instrument before, so we were all just hoping for the best. The tour was fantastic and a huge learning experience for me. Those two weeks convinced me this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. Unfortunately, I would also learn a far deeper lesson as well.
On the last day of the tour, we played at the Keynote in Jeanette, PA (one of my favorite small venues in the US). Directly after we finished our last song, I collapsed on stage with what I would learn a year later was my first major seizure. I headed straight home the next day and went to see a doctor. They originally attributed it to not eating enough or being properly hydrated, which is fully understandable. I left for tour with about $40 in my pocket and had to make it last two weeks.
So I went about my normal life, got a decent job for the rest of the summer and eventually decided to enroll in The University Of Akron for the Fall 2012 semester so I could try and get a degree while building my own band. Around this time two major things happened in my life: I met my wife and eventual band mate Stephanie Austin and my condition started to get progressively worse.
I spent a good deal of 2012, leading up to when I met Stephanie in August, being testing in every form you can imagine. My doctors couldn’t seem to agree on what was going on and were frustrated by the lack of answers my tests were providing. The original thought was I had an issue with my heart, so they implanted what they called loop monitor into the left side of my chest. The purpose of the monitor was to record anytime my heart did something it wasn’t supposed to do. They were hoping to catch one of these episodes on the monitor so they could determine what was the root problem.
The second time Stephanie and I had a date night, I had another massive seizure. I fell into the toilet in my campus apartment and shattered several of my back teeth. It was a very rude introduction to what awaited us in the next couple years of our lives. It was the first in a vicious series of seizures and other issues that would dominate my freshman year of college. I have quite a lot of memory loss from this time period so my details may be a bit hazy.
In October 2012 we formed a band called Contacts & Confidence (which later on would become Little Wars). Right away we found success in the Ohio scene. We made friends with important local promoters and worked our butts off to fill any show we played with as many people as we could. By the end of 2013 we had amassed a pretty impressive resume, including opening for Owl City at InfoCision Stadium on the campus of the University of Akron, playing the main stage at House Of Blues Cleveland, and being the only unsigned band to play main stage at Ohio Metal Fest with headliner Asking Alexandria. Our work ethic and drive, along with our full-time college schedules didn’t always lead to the best opportunities to put our health first, however, and it wasn’t long before my condition worsened.
I was put on a medication called Kepra for my seizures that decimated my body. I could hardly complete normal tasks such as feeding myself or bathing myself regularly. I was also sleeping as much as 18 to 20 hours on some days. In the last few weeks of my first semester I missed more classes then I attended thanks to my inability to leave my apartment. I landed myself on academic probation after achieving no less than a B in the first two-thirds of the semester. I knew something was terribly wrong but felt limited on options. Against what I had been told by doctors, I made a decision to stop taking my medication at once. I still believe to this date that that decision saved my life.
In December 2013, Contacts & Confidence split in half and made quite a few changes. I started Little Wars, which featured a couple old C&C songs, as well as some new music, and soon after formation Mike Robinson joined on guitar (Stephanie would eventually decide to rejoin in 2015 after giving birth to our daughter and we combined the two bands into one, keeping the Little Wars name). We played our first show as Little Wars February 24th, 2014 with Hawthorne Heights at Musica in our hometown of Akron, Ohio. That date is very significant, as is that time period.
A few days before that show, I learned it could be my last one ever. I sat in the doctors office as he looked at a stack of test results that was so large I would have believed he was reading a manuscript from that last Harry Potter. The terrifying thing for both of us at the time was that we knew my loop monitor only provided results if it records something that has went wrong. So we both knew this massive stack of paper indicated that something had went very wrong in the last 4-6 months.
The simple way to describe what he found was this: My heart had experienced ever-increasing periods of completely stopping beating, sometimes for as long as seven seconds. This was bad news in every possible way. My heart had already been ruled out as a source of creating anything involving my seizures. This meant either my heart was now randomly failing from a separate condition and we were lucky to catch it or that my seizures and/or medications I had taken to control them were causing other organs to deteriorate. Unfortunately, that is a question that has still yet to be answered. What was decided was that to guarantee my life would last longer than a few more weeks, I was going to be given a pacemaker at the age of 26.
I was scheduled for surgery on the morning of February 27th, 2014. I will only go into the basic details because there are certain parts of that day that I just don’t talk about. What I can say is that very little went according to plan. Please understand, this is the first time I’m publicly sharing these events. Before they inserted the pacemaker, they were going to do one last exploratory surgery, called an EP Study. The goal was to try and find something structurally wrong with my heart that could be causing these stoppages.
I had quite a few complications during my EP Study to say the least. First off, this was my second study and they had a lot of problems with scar tissue build up from the first time they did it. For those who have no idea what this study is, they stick six catheters into your pelvic area and tunnel through to your heart. Once there, they can look inside your heart for anything that’s not supposed to there and burn it off. They also speed your heart up to extremely high and low beats per minute to see how your body and heart react. You have to be awake for the whole process and yes, it’s as painful as it sounds.
I was experiencing a dramatically more significant amount of pain and discomfort than I did the first time. I have a very high pain tolerance and had been through quite a few operations like this, but I knew something was different this time. The pain just seemed a bit too much. While I made it through the study without much incident we soon learned my uneasy feeling was right. On the operating table my heart stopped completely and was not intent on changing its mind.
I was later told I was without a heartbeat for nineteen agonizing seconds. My doctors rushed to save my life and revive me. They eventually succeeded after multiple attempts using paddles to jolt my heart back into beating. Nineteen tiny moments that have reshaped the entirety of my life. It was such a stark and painfully vibrant reminder of how nothing is ever guaranteed. I was seconds away from my narrative ending on that cold table in the basement of a hospital, completely unfinished.
I spent a little over two months recovering on my sisters couch. I needed around the clock care, so staying on my own was no longer an option. It was the first time in my life I was forced to let someone take care of me. It was far from easy but extremely humbling. During this time I also realized there was a massive problem in the music industry. I knew I was going to have to hide to specifics of my condition if I didn’t want labels and management to write us off. Being dishonest is something I’m inherently not good at. Whether people like me or loath me, the one thing they will agree on is I always speak my mind, even when they think I shouldn’t.
And that’s a big reason behind this long-winded, high word count piece. I wanted to finally be 100% honest with our fans and tell them to absolute truth. I also wanted to address that there is a major flaw in our community and it revolves around artist health. Recently, mental health of artists has been a major subject, and I think it has opened the door for us to have discussion about physical health as well. Artists in the alternative music scene spend more time on tour than pretty much any other genre of music and usually do so with very limited resources to live a healthy lifestyle. While tours such as Warped Tour have used experience to provide the necessary help for their artists, more often than not artists on the lower level of the radar struggle to make it from stop to stop without taking their personal conditions into account.
Artists like myself also worry about our career options in music being limited if people know the truth about our ailments. If you’re not already well established, there is a very real fear that a medical condition can be a major handicap for breaking through to the next level. Therefore, artists routinely disregard their health issues until they boil over into something serious, which more often than not happens to members of non-established bands who don’t have the financial means to treat their ailments and play music. They have to choose one or the other.
I don’t pretend to have all, or even any, of the answers, and I’m not cocky enough to think I’m going to be the guy to start the discussion that leads to a realistic solution. I’m not even 100% there is a realistic solution. My purpose of this article is to finally step out of the shadows and be honest about the last couple years and the truth behind our slow period. I want to be fully honest with our fans and the industry. I no longer care if this has a negative impact on my career or my band as a whole. If you believe there needs to be a change in the way something is done, you should be the first to do it. And that’s exactly what I am doing here.
I am Josh Austin of Little Wars and I have a rare seizure condition that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. But it couldn’t kill me, and I sure as hell won’t let it stop me from making music.