Silverchair’s Daniel Johns had already been a famous rock star for three years by the time he turned 18 in 1997.
While his band was flying high with the success of their second album, Freak Show, Jeff Apter explains – in the following extract from his biography The Book of Daniel – that behind the scenes Johns was slipping back into the depression he’d begun battling the previous year. His body also hinted at another struggle.
“The relentless mixture of touring, studying and being teen role models was causing the band some real trouble, especially Daniel. ‘Johns is slim to the point of thin,’ wrote The Sydney Morning with the Herald’s Bernard Zuel in April, ‘His jeans and shirt hanging loosely from him.’ Other writers noticed the changes in Johns.
‘Daniel, almost 18 now, looks shy and vulnerable, his eyebrow pierced and wearing silver-glitter eye shadow, his fingernails painted with half- peeled-off nail polish.’ Johns appeared ‘dangerously emaciated’, according to another.
“Frustrated by the impositions his stardom was placing on his family, and feeling as though his life was out of his control, Johns was slipping into another period of depression, which mani- fested itself in his sunken features and rake-thin physique. It was almost as if he was trying to physically disappear.”
By the end of 1997, Johns had moved out of his family home and into a two-bedroom house near Newcastle’s Merewether Beach and became increasingly isolated. Although his parents had convinced him to see a psychotherapist, he’d ended the sessions after two months and by now was also now experiencing panic attacks and paranoia. Then he stopped eating.
“Johns figured that the only part of his life he could take charge of was his food intake. It was his way of controlling ‘the chaos I was feeling inside’. He started to test himself, trying to discover how little he could eat and still get by. Johns saw it as a bizarre personal challenge. Eventually, he was down to nothing more than a few pieces of fruit a day, maybe some soup; whatever it took to stop him from blacking out.
‘The only way I can describe it,’ Johns said afterwards, ‘is to say that it felt comforting to be in control of something, like I hadn’t totally lost it. The problem is, you think you’re gaining control over something, but in reality, you’re losing control over the functioning of your body. Within a few months it got to the point where I was eating just so I wouldn’t collapse. At the time, my parents and my brother and sister were the only people I trusted and could see without feeling anxious. Of course, they were all worried sick about me, but I couldn’t really see how bad it was.’
Johns was so lost, in fact, that he was convinced that ‘every chef in the world wanted to poison me’ and that even a harmless apple contained hidden razor blades. He’d look in the mirror and see the startling physical changes he was undergoing, but then he’d shrug and figure that somehow his clothes had grown bigger since he last wore them.
In the midst of this madness, Johns found himself unable to shake a cold; hardly a surprise, given his diet. He saw his family doctor, who gave it to him straight: forget the cold – if he didn’t start eating, he was going to die. He’d seriously damaged his immune system. Being a vegan – and suffering paranoid delusions that his food had been poisoned – exacerbated Johns’ decline. His weight had slipped to less than 50kg. He was little more than skin and bones. His eyes were dark-ringed and hollow; his hair wild.”
When the doctor pointed out that he was exhibiting the physical signs of an advanced eating disorder, Johns realised he needed help. He moved back in with his parents and began taking antidepressants.
He recovered, but in 2002 faced another health crisis when he began suffering from exhaustion and knee pain. Now in a relationship with singer Natalie Imbruglia, she helped nurse him when he was diagnosed with chronic reactive arthritis.