Tuesday, January 14, 2014

We Were All Young (and Hopeless) Once, Weren't We?

Written for Ink Spots writing club prompt #1: What media (books, movies, TV, comics, music, etc.) do you feel had the greatest positive influence on you growing up? With examples.

I don't consider myself a musical person. Not just because I experience similar troubles learning to read music as I do trying to understand mathematical equations (do-re-mi is as deceptively intelligible as addition, but take all that further and solfege and binomials are all a foreign language to me) or that I have a difficult time staying in harmony in choir if I don't have a stronger voice to follow, but also because music is not a big part of my day-to-day life. I have friends who can't go more than a day or two without music, but I can go weeks without realizing it.

This is not to say that I don't love music. I do. I am often committing to choirs (why, when the struggle makes it hard to enjoy it at times, I couldn't say) and I always sing to myself (private concerts while I make breakfast!). I love live shows and can't resist moving in some way to live music (yes, even during hymns as you might know if you've ever been in a nearby pew when I'm at church). Music affects me emotionally and can make me cry, but definitely is less likely to than a book, movie, or show. Yet when I thought about a form of media that had a genuinely positive effect on me, my first thought was of a particular album I received for a Christmas present in 2004.

I think I finally just "got" this cover...the joke is "nuclear family", isn't it?  Huh.
I was 14, and I was going through an awkward pseudo goth-punk phase that involved haunting Hot Topic and actually wearing a mesh-sleeved shirt. This was a tricky phase to go through when your main socialization comes from Christian communities like church or a homeschool group, because it definitely labels you as the oddball (among others who are oddballs in their own way, ironically). I had a burned copy of Good Charlotte's Chronicles of Life & Death album from a friend and had watched the music video of "Predictable" so many times that I still have most of it memorized. I had put The Young & the Hopeless on my Christmas list that year, and I don't remember anything else I got that year--just my older cousin handing me the gift at my uncle's house.

When I opened it, my cousin nodded approvingly. "That's a good album."

I looked up at him--tattooed and pierced--then at the inside cover of the album where the band members were tattooed and pierced and kind of laughed. "Is this what happens when you listen to this music?" I joked to my sister.

But that night, driving home from the Bronx back to New Jersey, I put the CD into my discman (2004, remember?) and gave it a listen. I expected something like the Chronicles album, which was the kind of dark music I was into, but this was something I'd never heard before. I'm not saying Young & the Hopeless was particularly well-crafted or that it was genius in any way. But in that moment, I listened to each song with the disbelief that something like this existed...someone had actually written down and sung about what I was feeling and thinking and what it had seemed like no one else could ever understand.

The gist of the album is in its title--the songs vary in story, but the message is one of fear, anger, and hopelessness, particularly that hopelessness that exists only for the young. It's that hopelessness that well-meaning campaigns like It Gets Better or To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) can't really get at. It's being fully aware that you have so much time for things to get better and that maybe your living situation will indeed get better, but feeling like you can't last even that one year to get to that better place, much less the several years to adulthood and freedom. It's knowing that sure, someone may love you, and maybe many people do, and yeah, people would miss you if you were gone, but you just hate yourself so much that living as you for any length of time is just a sickening thought no matter what.

The chorus of the title track of the album goes like this:

'Cause I'm young and I'm hopeless
I'm lost and I know this
I'm going nowhere fast, that's what they say
I'm troublesome, I'm fallen
I'm angry at my father
It's me against this world and I don't care
I don't care

Listening to those words, while leaning my head against the dark window on the drive home Christmas night, I was suddenly not alone. It was such a relief, I was almost crying, but couldn't because even in the dark, someone else might see. I hadn't known how to voice this, but two punk kids from Maryland had and recorded it. They knew what it meant to be a broken wreck and still be condemned to live and carry on. They knew what it felt like to be spiraling downward and to feel like the whole world was in some plot against you. Most importantly, they knew what it meant to be angry at your father.

Good Charlotte's front men, Joel and Billy Madden, were the products of a broken family, with a dad who had just up and left, leaving them to struggle with poverty and a sense of worthlessness. In their early twenties, they broke into the music business, which was having a punk revival of sorts. I was the product of a shattered family that had been shoddily put back together in 2003 and was limping along, pretending to be okay, when in reality, we were slowly rotting and dying. Nestled in suburbia and deeply religious, we kept up an excellent front. But my father was a disturbed man, steeped in secret sins and living under a narcissistic delusion that he was the wronged hero of some tragic story. As I got older, I understood that abuse doesn't have to be physical, that emotional and verbal abuse is real, that constant threats to your person are not unimportant, and that living in fear is not normal. I look back now and see that all of the worst days were when my mother wasn't home, like the day he grabbed me by the neck and shoved me against a door. It was my fault he did that, I believed; after all, I'd yelled "Don't touch me!" just moments before when he'd tried to grab my arm. Of course, he was only grabbing my arm to keep me from running out of the room after he'd thrown handfuls of CDs at me.

Even while I blamed myself for when situations got really bad, I couldn't shake that anger that built up inside me. But I couldn't voice that anger--after all, my dad was funny and nice and just generally likable. Sure, he wasn't perfect, but the year before when he moved out temporarily, I had learned that yes, no one is perfect, even your parents. It wasn't fair to just always be angry, I felt, but I couldn't get rid of it, nor could I act on it. Hearing a song that just straight up admitted as an aside, "I'm angry at my father," was the closest I could get to a helping hand. It helped steer the anger that I had already turned against myself and begun to translate into self-harm into an avenue that was safer: anger at someone who was cruel to me and to others.

Back then and even now, there were adults who would criticize music like Good Charlotte's for the very reason that album and that song struck me--they were horrified by music that openly expressed anger or hopelessness because they thought it would influence or encourage kids to be angry depressed messes. As an adult now, I can understand that fear, even though it just annoyed me as a kid. Adults know how impressionable kids can be and worry about that. Many well-meaning folks think that maybe positive music would be better for a depressed kid--maybe it will lift them out of that dark place. And that does happen. But there are levels of pain where optimism can't do a lick of good. What's most important in those situations is to accept the situation and its feelings as reality, to recognize that this happens to many people and YES, your situation is better than some, but ALSO worse than others. Anger is a normal human emotion and has its place. Better to recognize that anger than stifle it and pretend it doesn't exist.

"The Young & the Hopeless" tackled the questions that no one I knew was asking:

And if I make it through today
Will tomorrow be the same?
Am I just running in place?
And if I stumble and I fall
Should I get up and carry on?
Will it all just be the same?

The answers to those questions in my life were yes, yes, and more yes. "Tomorrow" was actually worse. It wouldn't get better for another seven years, when my family moved away from my father and I was able to fully cut off all ties to him. He had ceased speaking to me when I was 19, the year I started college, because I didn't open the TV cabinet fully when he yelled at me to do it for him one evening. I ran in place, because I couldn't change my situation for a long time. I got up when I stumbled; I carried on. Even now I'm not free of the past and talking about things that happened leave my hands shaking. This is an improvement; there was a time when I would just start shaking all over and forget how to breathe. I don't hate myself and I don't want to die anymore, but while I'm being honest, I'll admit that when things get hard, my mind still slides quickly to self-disgust and the longing to just end it all.

Ironically, the song's opening verse is the most hopeful:

Hard days made me, hard nights shaped me
I don't know, they somehow saved me
And I know I'm making something
Out of this life they called nothing

This glimpse of hope meant a lot to me back then--maybe all this had meaning. Maybe hard times would make me stronger--being thought of as strong was infinitely important to me--and all of this was FOR something. My life, which felt worthless, could be something good. That little hope of purpose carried me through even as I was hopeless most of the time.

It turned out to be true. If I could go back and change my life (be more open about what was going on, stand up to my father more, hate myself less, etc.), I wouldn't. It did happen the way it happened for a reason. Those experiences broke me, making me at once weaker and stronger than I'd've been without them. Most importantly, it made me capable of being sympathetic to others. When I was a counselor at a high school camp post-high school, I realized that I could relate to the troubled kids. That realization brought me to tears of relief. I could do good with the bad I'd been given. I wasn't worthless; I had purpose. It's why I work in education, and why I have such a hard time answering the question of why I want to work with kids. I usually say something like "Um, I love kids a lot. Of all ages. They're great. Yeah." because explaining it for real takes too long and I doubt it's what most people want to hear about.

Now, to conclude, I will confess that Good Charlotte was new to me, but their message was run-of-the-mill. They weren't the first to voice them, they weren't alone in doing so even at the time, and now I'm sure others are sharing those feelings through music, though the Madden twins themselves eventually sold out and became fame-hungry, money-grubbing, hiphop wannabes.  It was a right time, right place sort of experience. I listen to that song now, and all I feel is a stirring of the residual feelings and some nostalgia. But oh back then. That clutch at my heart, my jaw dropping, the tears coming to my eyes, and the elation of being understood by someone and told that I wasn't alone at all.


  1. This was really beautiful to read. It's amazing what purpose and hope can do for a person who has nothing left. The depth, the flow and the details are very much you.

  2. Good post. Just goes to show that there's value in the "teen" music and media that many people dismiss as irrelevant, corny, emo, etc., even if it's just to one person to whom it really addresses actual problems.

  3. I want to say kudos for writing this so beautifully, when it's so personal. My next few blog posts are a lot more personal/memoir-style, and I'm having a hard time fight through the emotion to see if I've written something decent that isn't too corny or over-wrought.
    I, at least, don't find it easy to write truthfully about myself. So yeah. This was lovely.

  4. What true and honest descriptions of the feeling of a song hitting home to you. I've felt that many times, and you put it into words exactly. Thank you for writing from your heart (and I mean that sincerely).

  5. Great piece, Brittany. I can really identify with a song or several songs hitting home for me and being a real comfort in dark times. Sometimes it's just the music, sometimes it's the lyrics, and sometimes it's both. Two in particular are Alexi Murdoch's "Someday Soon" and "All My Days". I heard the first one during one of the first episodes of "Touch" and the second during the opening credits of "Real Steel". Since then, both have grown to much deeper meanings for me.