The cloud doesn't stop looming—even at a punk-rock show where the magical cure is supposed to exist. “Are you in your zone?” a friend, noticing I hadn’t responded to her meaningfully in a few minutes, asked. I nodded, felt like a jerk and went silent again, nervous—always nervous. It sounds trivial, but my license expires in a couple days, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I guess it isn’t a huge deal—unless, of course, you’ve been known to be hand-shakingly, stomach-upsettingly nervous and preoccupied with driving to and parking at unfamiliar places, and the Bureau Of Motor Vehicles happens to be one such place. At that moment I was worrying, not only about that, but about the implications renewing one’s license holds. It's another milestone year, according to the documents. 25.
It doesn't feel much different than 21, or even 17 for that matter.
It feels bleak. Still.
I still feel hyper-self-conscious and alone all at once, awakened only to the real, hundreds of individual lives surrounding me when a warm body smacks into mine (or worse, is dragged by its tall boyfriend in front of me to completely obscure my view of stage). I am still insignificant in this pool of hundreds. My body still feels like a trap and an eyesore and it, along with the consciousness attached to the wretched skin vessel, doesn’t belong.
A girl about to see one of her favorite bands shouldn’t feel this way.
The thing is: I shouldn't feel like I did at 17—full stop. Because I know better. I’ve lived longer. I've been taught better by my musical heroes and the community I grew up in. “It's okay to not be okay” was the mantra. We got it, internalized it, and created a positive movement against the stigma surrounding mental illness—all while battling the rampant ignorance that came with the “emo” label’s resurgence in popularity at the time, which allowed (the literal worst) people to validate depression if it came packaged in business casual attire, but call it a trend when it was cinched with a studded belt.
Those of us who were going through something could reach out to our fellow music fans to find guaranteed comfort and understanding sans judgment. It wasn't taboo in our world, but for many of us, when we stepped outside the walls of a show or meandered away from our favorite band’s message boards, we were greeted by a world that was never convinced “it's okay to not be okay.”
When the resources—like medication or counseling—you need to cope with mental imbalance exist exclusively outside the safe place “in real life” where there exists popular, (dipshit) sentiments among people who can guide you to those resources such as:
“People are just cutting themselves for attention” (then maybe fucking give them attention?)
“You have nothing to be depressed about”
and “Your body doesn’t look like you have an eating disorder, so you don’t”
Knowing where to go next to feel better can be a lonely and daunting endeavor.
And because of that I stood, at 24-and-362-days, a fountain of positivity for everyone but myself, ready to drain at the feet of any fellow wounded human, but never taking the care to treat myself with the same love.
The isolation and insignificance I was feeling deepened as the crowd thickened, I pressed my arms close to my sides, minimizing my presence. I felt old and—as I’ve often felt since taking seriously my quest to seek help for what one college psychiatrist said was likely Major Depressive Disorder—inconsequential. “These younger people have so much ahead of them,” I thought as I overheard a girl near me enthuse about being allowed to apply for seasonal jobs at 14. See, you can tell someone “it gets better” a thousand times. When it doesn’t, it feels a lot like you did something irreparable and thwarted yourself. When you hit 20, then 21, then almost-25 and you’re feeling sometimes even worse than before, it can feel like a personal failing—especially when the farther you get from 19, the fewer the resources feel like they’re actually for you. Youth crisis, youth outreach, youth mental health advocacy. Suddenly, your life is still just as much on the edge but worth significantly less if it were to happen to topple over.
But then the lights went down. And the lock keeping my focus internal snapped and the idea that I was isolated took flight from my brain and expelled through my lungs. Those feelings of worthlessness and worry about my appearance shattered as my voice broke when I yelled along with Frank Iero, “I’ve felt this bad for so long I'm scared I'm fine.”
… “I went outside today hoping the sun would burn my face/I went outside today/Hoping I’d feel something.”
I did feel something—something that wasn’t dread or nervousness or uneasy, overwhelming giddiness.
I had gone outside (no small feat considering the state of my nerves these days), and I had felt something that didn’t hurt me. It logically followed that I was capable of and could feel that again. And again. And again. It was a moment—something the very man singing the words that so moved me would stress the importance of later that night.
It was a moment I removed myself from my own thoughts and just lived. I let those words I had blasted in my car, those words I privately felt the weight of so many times, send shocks through my every limb then get caught in my throat. I took them in. It didn’t matter what size my body was or how helpless I felt or how off-key I was singing or how scared I was that the fucking BMV would be hard to find the next day. What mattered was that song, these musicians, the joy it was bringing people around me. What mattered is one of my favorite musicians had just dedicated a song to me for my birthday. What mattered was living. The outer world and life had finally grabbed my attention and given me something worthwhile to latch onto.
After the show, I felt compelled to explain to Iero the original premise of this story I was writing for Self-Injury Awareness Day (March 1). “You’re kind of a part of it,” I laughed and he leaned in to listen carefully over the dwindling crowd and music of an after-hours local band as I explained how so many of us are a part of this generation that grew up knowing it’s okay to talk about things like mental health, but when it comes down to it, some of us never knew how to actually get help.
I explained that I don’t leave my apartment much anymore and have been having “kind of crummy thoughts”—an understatement.
Iero took it all in and thoughtfully considered his own experiences—with coping crutches that couldn’t last, with not being comfortable enough with yourself, with growing up, gaining a new perspective on life and with… breakfast?
The older he’s gotten, he explained, the more he’s learned to treasure moments—even those as simple as eating a bowl of cereal in the morning. “You’ll never get that moment again,” he said. And if I never leave my apartment? Well, then the number of moments I never get to experience could be infinite.
“Everybody is a work in progress,” he told me honestly, shrugging with what appeared to be acceptance that he is, too.
And it struck me I’d been too preoccupied with thinking it was too late for me to realize that.
I’ve typed much of this essay on my phone standing between a stage and a merch table, dodging out of the way as road cases roll and swing past, back to their home in the cellabration’s trailer for their journey to tomorrow’s show in Detroit, all while watching one of my of my favorite humans meet literally hundreds of fans.
“He won't leave until he's met every last person here,” his tour manager explained. And it’s true. Iero is still standing at the merch table an hour-and-a-half later as that local act takes the stage his band just claimed. I'm quiet, peripherally observing and unusually calm, standing in the glow of these very sincere micro-interactions, watching just one human spark so much life into the eyes of those who approach him, voices often quivering, admitting his music has helped them in some way or throwing their hands up and demanding with amusement, “Man, are you—or Epitaph—ever going to put out Leathermouth’s XO on vinyl?” Or explaining that their best friend couldn’t be there because their parents wouldn’t let them come this time.
What remains constant in those moments is the existence of hope. Even if you bury and smash it, your ability to see it doesn’t disappear. Whether it’s hope for a pressing of XO on vinyl, that your favorite artist will return to your city soon so you can see them with your best friend, that you’ll get to travel to see someone you miss, that you’ll discover new music that thrills you or simply that there might be an uneaten chocolate-covered Twinkie with your name on it to be found in a drawer of a road case under some cables—it’s there, waiting for you to give it your full attention.
While I still have a journey ahead, I left the show with a solution to a problem I hadn’t even realized was inhibiting me. You may outgrow teen hotlines, but it’s never too late to change anything you don’t like about your life at any time.
Everybody is a work-in-progress, and hope is everywhere, even if you have to strain to see it sometimes. Try not to forget that.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, there is help to be found. Please consider these online resources and talk to your regular doctor about your symptoms:
MentalHealth.gov – Get Immediate Help
ImAlive – Online Crisis Network
International Association For Suicide Prevention – Resources
The Anxiety And Depression Association Of America
The National Alliance On Mental Illness
American Psychiatric Association – Finding Help
National Institute Of Mental Health
American Psychological Association – Psychologist locator