Here is a little story about music and mental health that I wrote on Medium back when I thought blogging was no longer my thing. There is a lot of talk about mental health this month, but this subject should be out there every goddamn day.


Part 1: 2000/2001

I was a teenager at a catholic school where those who dared to express left-leaning ideas were denigrated and those who walked around with fascist memorabilia hanging off their pockets were left alone. It might sound like a slight exaggeration, but I’m not kidding when I say that a classmate of mine had a Franco keyring which he provocatively let hang off his pocket for everybody to see — or possibly to draw attention to his scrotum, I’m not sure. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that this person felt confident if, and only if, he had a dictator next to his balls. Only one teacher told him to keep the goddamn thing out of sight.

All this growing up between designer jeans and holiday homes was as safe and non-traumatic as an institutional childhood can be. I had been a very shy child and I disliked education with a passion, but I had friends to gossip and shoplift sweets at the candy store with and birthday parties to go to, which made up for the intense boredom that I felt in class.

But then, not entirely unexpectedly, I became a teenager, a very stereotypical teenager who just cared about going out, talking about the Backstreet Boys, going to the gym and sort of floating in the safety that surrounded me. It would have been okay, had I not ventured out of that safety to find out that *gasp* the world is way bigger than I thought and the micro-society that ruled my world was meaningless in the greater scheme of things. One summer, I went abroad and met people from other countries, of other colours, with different beliefs, people who liked other things and read other things and spoke other languages and wore other clothes and lived their lives in a different way and were proud to be who they were. My mind opened itself so much in such a short time that there was no going back. I grew ever more critical of everything and everyone that surrounded me, realised that I didn’t have to fit in because that was not what real life was like and there were other people out there who were not like that.

My head became a pressure cooker that eventually exploded. It didn’t literally explode, but a couple of punches were directed at me. A boy I had never talked to before hit me, prompting an ER visit to make sure my nose was not broken. The fight itself was nothing to write home about, a stupid boy who thought himself to be superior to everybody around him, a cocky response by someone who no longer cared  and *BOOM*. Blood everywhere. My nose suffered no long-term consequences, but my mental health did.

Somebody who didn’t know me disliked me enough to almost break my nose, emasculating himself in front of a bunch of people by hitting a girl. I became scared of other people. People spoke. I drew inwards. I tried to avoid going to school as much as possible. I hated everything. I hated being surrounded by people I despised, I hated being forced to be supervised by adults who didn’t give a shit about me, I hated how powerless and unprotected I felt, I hated the stupid laugh of his friends when they saw my bruise and claimed that it was nothing, I hated feeling that somebody who had no right to touch me had exerted violence on me, I hated my friends who had turned their backs on me, I hated how superficial everybody was, I hated how every adult around me failed to see that something wasn’t okay. I hated the mistrust and paranoia that this event generated, which would accompany me for years to come.

With an undiagnosed depression in hand, all I could do was stay indoors, avoid everybody and everything and turn more and more to loud music that simultaneously intensified and relieved my anger and frustration. I remember the first times when I listened to music and thought “this is exactly how I feel inside”. I didn’t even know I was depressed, and when this disorder was later diagnosed I refused to believe it and chose not to take medication. Punk rock was my therapy.

I spent my weekends eating Cheetos, drinking diet coke and listening to Millencolin:

“I don’t care where I belong no more. What we share or not I will ignore. And I won’t waste my time fitting in. ‘Cause I don’t think contrast it a sin.”

and to Green Day:

“Apathy has rained on me. Now I’m feeling like a soggy dream, so close to drowning but I don’t mind. I’ve lived inside this mental cave. Throw my emotions in the grave. Hell, who needs them anyway. I’m not growing up, I’m just burning out. And I stepped in line to walk amongst the dead.”

To Satanic Surfers:

“I can’t stand your stupid ugly face, in combination with your John Wayne cowboy boots. After every time that I have met you, I have to clean my ears from all the shit that you have spoken. And I’m happy I don’t live on your block so I don’t have to see you every day. And now that you know why don’t you stay the fuck away from me. I wonder, How long can you keep your head under water?”

To The Ataris:

“Do you know what its like to live somewhere that sucks? And everyone tries to bring you down. No place for you to go and see a punk rock show. And spend your whole life trying to get out.”

And, of course to Brand New’s first album, which featured in my MSN Messenger names more than any other:

“So don’t apologize. I hope you choke and die. Search your cell for something with which to hang yourself. They say you need to pray if you want to go to heaven, but they don’t tell you what to say when your whole life has gone to hell.”

Thanks to these songs and many others (some too embarrassing to mention) I felt like I was not alone, that there were people who felt the same anger and frustration and feeling of entrapment. That I wasn’t the first person to feel like this and I wouldn’t be the last. I felt dreadfully alone and isolated, misunderstood and unmotivated, and this music was the only thing that kept me going.

I showed up to a high school party wearing a Propagandhi T-shirt and someone exclaimed: “Oh, you’re wearing a Ralph Lauren T-shirt!” and that was it. I had survived high school and I could get the fuck out. And I did.

Part 2: 2010/2011

It wasn’t just a phase. Depression and teen angst came and went, but I spent my twenties skipping lectures to go to shows in other towns, compulsively consuming music, writing about music, looking for music, matching every single feeling I ever had to a song and obsessing over my record collection. Relationships, friendships and holidays were heavily influenced by music. As High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon says: “Books, records, films — these things matter. Call me shallow, it’s the fucking truth.”

2010 and 2011 will be remembered as one of the worst years in my life. It’s hard for me to tell them apart, for me they’re a big, dense cloud of sadness, grief, anxiety, despair, disappointment, confusion and every bad thing I ever felt amplified a million times until it became unbearable. Shit happened, bad decisions were made, brain chemistry took a ride on a roller coaster, regrets were had, loved ones were lost, expectations were shattered, lives were changed.

I was unable to work, to forge friendships, to focus on anything, to face life. I was consumed by bad television and below-average paperbacks that helped me to avoid thinking about anything at all. I can’t remember what any of those books were about.

As it happened when I was a teenager, music was the one thing that pulled me through. On the day after one of the worst nights of my life I went to see Nothington, and although the night itself was horrible and I truly felt like I had touched rock bottom, for 40 minutes I felt alive.

I held on to songs that became mantras to me. I listened to them at the worst times and they gave me the strength to keep going.

“Hold on tight to your fears ‘cause that’s your hatred and that’s your love as well. Learn to use all your fears as a fuel, as an engine to get you where you need. I must always remember, there’s no point to surrender.”

Something about Hot Water Music’s lyrics became more meaningful than ever, and I suddenly understood my friend’s tattoos.

“I’ve got the scars to remind me. I’ve watched the clocks go around. I’ve walked myself through some days that have put me where I am. In another time, in another place all things might have been in place. But for now I’m finding myself up here standing on a rooftop screaming: “Hey world are you listening? Listening to me? I’m here and i’m hurting to begin again.”

In the occasional moments of peace, they made me feel invincible, like a tight knot of happiness was expanding from my chest, sending that feeling all through my body. Sometimes I still get that feeling when I listen to these songs.

“We’ve seen some real hard times and i hope the hardest are behind, but there will be times when it will seem like we are caught someplace in between the ocean and the storm without a shore. We’ll find our own way home and sing out every song we know. No one can keep us down, and who gives a fuck what anybody says, we’ll live and love until we’re dead, holding on to what we’ve come to know.”

And then there was Off With Their Heads, simultaneously reminding me that we are all fucked up while giving me the strength to move along and carry on.

“Sit back and let me tell you about the sadness, about the beast that’s been gnashing its teeth trying to destroy me. It rears its head every time I’m alone in the middle of the night if you don’t answer your phone it snarls at me. It hides underneath my bed, it sinks its teeth in every corner of my head. Don’t try to stop it, don’t try to control it, don’t try to defeat it, don’t try to console it, it’s unstoppable and it’s a part of me (…) it’s not the real me screaming you away it’s that selfish sadness ruining every day. Everything is wrong.”

For a while listening to this band at the gym became the best moment of my day. It was a constant reminder of what I was literally running from. It was the one habit that kept me from falling into a spiral of self-destruction.

“I never feel happy, I never feel safe, I can’t let myself ever stay in one place, I look in the mirror and I see the face of a failure who will never be significant. The face that you see from morning to night is the mask that I put on to hide whats inside. I don’t take it off until you fall asleep, I don’t want you to see what live inside of me. I thought I’d get older and it’d go away, but it only gets worse and causes more pain. And being alone is getting so hard, I just got to tell you goddamnit, I’m falling apart.”

To this day, whenever I can drag myself to the gym this is what I listen to.

“Don’t wanna be like this, anxious and angry or hopeless and upset- all the time. Unable to get back the feeling I lost somewhere along the line. I wear it all on my sleeve and everyone sees no matter how hard I try. I’ve never felt worse in my whole life.”

Part 3: 2015

Sometimes life happens a bit too quickly and the world keeps punching you on the face week after week. So many bad things happen that even the otherwise tolerable ones become one more factor leading towards the crash, and you know you’re sinking but you lack the energy to inflate the lifejacket.

For six months now I’ve been sinking. Numbness, sadness and disappointment have become my three main emotions.

Thankfully I remembered what kept me sane and pulled me through the other times I felt like this, so I got tickets to travel abroad to see some of my favourite bands.

My internal monologue resisted the idea, it said that I had too much work to do, that I should be writing my thesis, that I had already seen most of those bands, that I was too old for that festival, that it would be too cold, that it would be too uncomfortable, that we wouldn’t have fun, that I would feel anxious all the time, that it was too expensive, that there were no flights, that it would be impossible to make it on time, that I would regret it. So I told my inner voice to go fuck itself and did it anyway.

Last weekend, standing on a field in Belgium watching Knapsack I realised that for the first time in half a year I felt truly happy. So I guess that makes it three times now.

“And there are better days waiting for everyone. Slow starts, cold hearts will always be cold. Well they’ll always be cold. Sat up, shut out. We know but you’re never told.”