Y ou probably won’t believe me when I say that even as a penniless writer spending the summer in Europe, I wasn’t looking for an epiphany. But while hanging out with a friend on a hot German night last July, one struck up on me. I had grown up. And to think the moment slid by so fast, I almost missed it.
Earlier that evening, while throwing back cheap red wine at a sidewalk café, my friend had asked me what my favorite Depeche Mode song was. Not a terribly unexpected conversation — I work as a music journalist, we’re paid to have earth-shaking conversations about classic pop bands. But I was caught off guard by his inexplicability-loaded question. I was unable to tell him about the time I spent a pleasant night at a Depeche Mode bar in Estonia. Or that time I scored a used copy of Speak and Spell on vinyl in Stockholm. Or even that growing up, my older brother and I would play the piano line to “Can’t Get Enough” so often it’s still the riff I pluck out whenever I sit down at a keyboard.
“Master and Servant” I muttered, draining my glass.
Now on the train on the way back to his flat, I couldn’t let our conversation go, even though he had moved on to surfing Facebook on his phone. Instead, I watched the lights of the city slide by, the band’s catalog running through my head.
It’s been four years, almost to the day, since my Depeche Mode summer. Unable to make rent on my palatial Pasadena apartment (Blame my roommate/best friend for getting married. Blame my transition into freelance writing. Blame everyone, but me.) I took a room in a house across town with a group of “creatives.”
I had never lived in the dorms in college, so my view of multiple roommates was rose-colored. I expected new friends. I expected collaborations. I expected memories. What I got was a group of women with lives that didn’t have enough space for me, a pervasive sense of loneliness, and arent that seemed to operate on a sliding scale based on how well everyone was doing on their various odd jobs.
During that time, my already tenuous career as a writer took a nosedive. I was left scrambling to pay post-collegiate bills with the Cliff Notes version of a job I was no longer sure I even wanted, and a Greek chorus of parents reminding me that my degree was in film production. Unable to afford going out, I would lie in my butter-colored room, and listen to Black Celebration. Outside, the party raged on. Champagne toasts, dinners, movie nights — it was like a cruise ship worth of activity had installed itself in my living room.
Only Dave Gahan — Depeche Mode’s lead singer, of course — got me. I was self-aware enough to know that I was depressed, but not so much that I could see the melodrama of my actions. Or to realize that maybe if I had occasionally opened up my bedroom door, someone might have given a damn. Instead, I placed a pillow over my head to drown out the noise, cued up Exciter, and wished that, just once, I could skip a meal or make myself throw up.
It’s terrifying to give up a part of yourself, even unknowingly.
In high school, starving myself had felt like a key to survival. It was a log I clung as I swept down river closer and closer to graduation and the real world. Average grades, average popularity, average interests, average girl. Measuring myself constantly, restricting my food intake, dreaming up elaborate punishments for myself when I caved and ate a piece of chocolate, I clung to these things to make me feel different. (A painfully common belief among at least ten million women in the U.S. alone.) I don’t doubt I needed the crutch, but looking back I’m shocked it didn’t turn into the millstone around my neck that pulled me under.
My body was failing me, but I could feed my mind. At my sickest, during my senior year, I constantly read, skipping lunch in favor of the library where I would study anything I could get my hands on. I’d sneak my walkman into school and listen to songs I had taped off the radio as I worked my way onto the honor roll. The 1980s synth hits were always my favorite. I didn’t mind the announcer’s voice. I would recite his words like they were a postscript to “Dreaming of Me.”
I don’t remember the exact moment when I started liking the taste of ice cream again, started eating chips at parties, or didn’t shy away from pizza. After a year of therapy and lifestyle modification, my illness simply faded, evicted from my daily life to a tiny piece of real estate in the back of my head. I can no longer access any of its comforts, but I’m still left cleaning up its trash. It often jeers at me from the cheap seats, telling me I’m ugly and undesirable. That my lack of thigh gap and love handles somehow means that I’m unworthy of even the most platonic acts of intimacy. But going without lunch just makes me grouchy, and throwing up is so undesirable that I travel with a bottle of anti-nauseates.
Good news — I’ve also gotten good at shouting, even if it’s just for the voices inside my own head.
Three years ago, I was back in Sweden, freshly off covering a music festival in Norway, when the emotional bottom dropped out again. I had left Los Angeles comforted by the fact that I had a steady gig at an upstart classic rock website. But it was a terrible fit, forcing me to frantically Google facts about 1970s hair bands and AC/DC, my fascination only extending to the fact these were the things allowing me to have a steady paycheck. Leaving for Europe for the better part of a month, being fired felt like a foregone conclusion… even though at the time, my editor assured me I’d still have a job when I got back.
When the breakup e-mail came, I was spending the night with a friend, the star player in the local roller derby team. It was a house full of high-energy women, conversations conducted in Swedish and English, piles of skating gear scattered across the grand entry way. I was introduced as a “music journalist” and peppered with a string of questions about my job. That is, right up until I checked my phone, saw the dismissal, and promptly barricaded myself in the bathroom to panic.
So much for pop culture sophistication. Or perspective.
I opened the door to six sets of eyes peering sympathetically at their distressed guest. Unable to speak, or even to ask if I was occupying the house’s only bathroom, I closed the door, sat back down on the floor, and continued crying and dry heaving alone.
“Your own personal Jesus. Someone to hear your prayers, someone who cares.”
Sometimes, we relapse.
These days, some of the most talented writers I know are taking day jobs. Writing is a terrifying, shaky profession. But then again, aren’t most of them? A few days before my train ride, one of my steadiest gigs said they wouldn’t be accepting any more articles for a time. Three months later they closed shop.
I would be lying if I said this didn’t affect me, particularly while being several thousand miles away from home. I also can’t say that night wasn’t colored by a fear of the future. To put it in the simplest terms, I like that I like my career, and want to keep it. I was a crappy film production assistant, anyhow.
I’ve never had a drug or alcohol abuse phase. But one thing I’ve come to learn is that I’m addicted to emotional highs and lows, something that both my life and job seem to hand out in equal measure. Because of that, too often my passion crosses over into self-destruction. It’s a struggle, knowing that painful memories can be triggered by mention of a single band. But a song only goes on for a few minutes. Life phases also don’t last as long as you might think.
I was scared. And maybe I still am. But in that late night moment between stops on the train, I knew I was going to be more than okay. I could live through anything without tearing myself apart in the process.
“Why are you smiling?” my friend asked me, noticing my vacant expression. He had been staring at U-Bahn advertising, unaware of the emotional miles I had been logging inside of my head.
It was a personal win that felt too dense to explain. Instead, I shook my head, squeezed his hand, and hummed a few lines of “Never Let Me Down Again” under my breath. It felt like a victory anthem.