Being Punk and Bipolar Go Hand in Hand
"I was young and misunderstood, and this music let me know that it was okay to be angry, upset, and emotional."
When I was in sixth grade, there was no place I felt like I belonged. I was bullied by people who said they were my friends. I was punched and kicked, called names, spit on, and was once even pushed down a flight of stairs while my classmates laughed. I remember nervously pulling out hair from the top of my head, leaving a red, infected bald spot, which, ironically, led to more bullying and name-calling.
That year, I started hanging out with Jake, a friend who commiserated with my feeling like a constant outsider. He brought me into a social circle of outcasts like myself. In the winter of 1994, I remember Jake handing me Green Day's Dookie—on cassette tape, of course. This music is for "freaks like us," he told me. It was the first time I ever heard music that was loud, fast and that had curses in it. The guitar riffs were angst-driven and the lead vocalist, Billie Joe Armstrong, seemed to hold nothing back. I was young and misunderstood, and this music let me know that it was okay to be angry, upset, and emotional overall. I had goosebumps for days.
Punk rock isn't just something I found once—I rediscover it every day. It's a continual renewal of faith, so to speak. I found myself looking to punk rock when I started feeling depressed after college, again in my late twenties, and it's something that I now actively pursue in my mid-thirties. I currently spend most of my time traveling around the country singing songs and having conversations with people in a one-human band called The Homeless Gospel Choir.
As a touring musician, I started out playing in basements, coffee shops, pubs, church basements, and anywhere else people would let me. I found that every time I was on the road and playing shows, I felt invincible. But when I came home for a few weeks at a time, I felt like I was a failure, like I was empty. Like I had given up.
I wasn't sure what to do with that kind of sadness. I knew that it existed and I know it probably wasn't "normal," but I didn't know a fair and safe way to talk about it. One day, I finally got the courage to confide in a friend about what was going on. When I shared all the ways I was feeling, he told me it was all in my head.
After avoiding the issue for years, the only thing left to do was to seek professional help. I scoured the internet for a therapist who I felt comfortable enough to contact, made a few calls, and made an appointment. While my friend's response was dismissive and frankly, not helpful, I found out—for better or worse—he was right. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. People who are bipolar can have excessive mood swings that impact their day-to-day life and activities. How very punk rock of me, I remember thinking.
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While I'm typically an outgoing and happy person, I think many friends have dismissed my uneasy feelings and undulating mood because they thought that I would bounce back quickly. Heck, I was telling myself that as well. The reality of bipolar though, is that it usually happens in cycles: Depression and manic phases can last days, weeks, or even months.
The past dismissal of my feelings from close friends and family members made me afraid to even address it, especially with the people I thought would understand. I was even more afraid to tell them that I went to therapy, got diagnosed, and have been getting help.
It's typical for people with mental illness to keep it a secret because of stigma, says Amanda Filippelli, a mental health counselor at Parity Health Services in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "For many people, the fear of judgment or rejection by close friends or family members causes them to withdraw, which often intensifies their feelings of unworthiness and/or weakness," she says. "Many times, people with mental illness find confidence to talk about their issues with strangers because they feel the judgment will be less."
Even though I had been talking to a therapist while I was at home, I found myself feeling especially off one night when I was on tour and about to play a show in Boston. I was struggling that night—I was questioning my own worth, wondering if what I did made a difference to anyone, and was stressing about whether I wanted to even be alive anymore. Even though I was with a bus full of friends and about to play a sold out show, I felt sad and overwhelmingly alone.
"People with depression and other mental illness sometimes find solace and community in creativity, like music. Punk music, specifically, provides a forum where people are free to explore difficult feelings," Filipelli—who specializes in working with creative individuals by tapping into their art, music, and writing—tells me. "More than that, the highs and lows of bipolar disorders are more socially acceptable in that sort of music scene—that is to say that the struggle of mental illness is more appreciated by the punk music community because it can be creatively channeled and explored." The feelings of angst, frustration, and liberation that punk music deals with fosters a creative outlet for the extreme feelings associated with disorders like bipolar disorder, she adds.
I don't know what prompted me to even say this to the room full of punk kids right in the middle of my set, but I did: "If there's something weird going on inside your head, or you feel sad or alone or you want to hurt yourself," I said, "please know that you are not alone; you are not crazy; you are not by yourself in this room."
Once the show ended, young queer punks with pink hair, adults with nose rings and camo cargo pants, and stay-at-home moms and dads with punk roots came up to me to share about their own mental health journey and struggles. After the venue closed, I stood outside in the cold talking to more and more people.
"When people are brought together through music that deals with difficult emotions and behaviors, they aren't prone to judgement. Instead, they find community with one another, relating over their common struggles, feeling empathy for one another," Filipelli says. "This type of connection is important...it pulls them out of isolation and provides feelings of self-worth through connection with others. They don't have to keep their struggle a secret anymore for fear of being outcasted, and that's powerful."
Standing in the company of thirty or forty of these kids on that blustery winter night outside the venue, I felt the same sense of community and hope that I did when first found punk rock. I was among people that just needed someone to listen to them without judgment for the first time.
The other thing I learned is that along with that community, many of us will still need therapy or medication or whatever we need to do in our own lives to feel better, and there's no shame in that. Even years after listening Dookie for the first time, every riff reminds me that I'm not alone.
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