Clear the Air
Last week, my phone rang showing an unfamiliar number. It was a local pharmacy letting me know that someone didn’t show up for their vaccine and my name was next on the waiting list. It felt like winning the lottery, and the jackpot at that because it was the J&J vaccine. One dose. One and done. I’m vaccinated (Yeah, there’s the blood clot stuff but, honestly, there’s a better chance that I’ll get hit by lightning). While one shot in my arm isn’t going to bring things racing to the end of the pandemic finish line, I feel like I can kind of see over the hill a few miles down the road.
The idea that I will be able to see certain friends and family again (socially distanced, with a mask when visiting those who are not vaccinated) is exhilarating! I can’t wait to hug my parents, my brother, and my closest friends. It will be a relief to walk into a store with a normal amount of social anxiety instead of full-blown pandemic anxiety. And then there is the ultimate dream -- going to shows! The pounding of bass and drums in your heart. Guitar solos that you feel deep in the marrow of your bones. Vocals that reverberate in your soul. The morning after hum in your ears. The painfully sore throat from singing your heart out. The heat and deep, animal musk of the crowd. The collective energy of a crowd of people who in that moment are deeply connected while singing in unison to your favorite songs. The slow creep of panic tightening its death grip around my chest as the crowd gets a little too close. The heightening irritation boiling in my stomach as a rowdy guy who’s been overserved stumbles into me. The rage erupting from a deep, dark place inside my bowels as the rowdy drunk guy stomps on my foot and one of his flailing limbs slaps me in the face.
That Dark Turn
Wait... what happened there? That took a dark turn. But like the joy and excitement a show can bring, for me it can also bring darkness. That’s what’s so damn lovely about punk rock shows. They make you feel things profoundly, the good and the bad. Fifteen months of not going to shows has allowed me to forget the dark feelings. In the absence of live music, I forgot about the emotional and mental energy it can sometimes take for my introverted, anxious self to get to and survive a show. For many years, going to a show was planning for the worst case scenario. The list of questions in my mind was lengthy. How much alcohol is going to be consumed? Is there going to be an alcohol related incident? Will there be a scene? Can I drink and still find a safe way home? Am I being an enabler? I could continue to list the rabbit hole of silent pre-show questions but you would likely stop reading. The point is that at some point in my life, shows had become work and not much fun.
Sobriety changed everything. Sobriety wasn’t hard for me. I just quit. I did it to support a loved one who started a journey in long-term recovery. I did it to save a relationship. I did it because it felt good and right for me. And the added bonus is that pre-show anticipation was once again exciting and something to look forward to.
Except, I noticed something new. My tolerance for other people at shows had plummeted, particularly ones like the aforementioned rowdy guy. This guy is real but he’s also universal. In this one instance, I was standing behind him and he kept leaning into me because he was having difficulty standing up. His friend was no help, laughing and shrugging his shoulders. I tried moving to the side and back a little but no matter where I moved the dude found me. (If you’re short like me, you understand it can be hard to give up a spot where you can actually see. When you find that spot, you stubbornly hold on to it). Eventually, he lost his balance and fell backward, arms flailing toward my face. That was the spark that lit the fire. I left early because I feared that I couldn’t stop my rage from forming a fist and smashing all this asshole’s teeth in while I kicked him in the shin really hard. OK, not really. I’m absolutely not a violent person. My anxiety and rage are silently internalized because I don’t want to ruin someone else’s night. Plus, hitting someone in the teeth has to really hurt your hand and he’s probably not a bad guy, just someone having a bad moment. The most I actually did that night was leave. But that rage inside me ruined my night. My previous alcohol use masked the rage that had always been there. While rarely in excess, it was still a crutch and I needed to find a way to deal.
I dealt. Things got better. In the year before the pandemic, I had come to peace with my rage and found ways to temper the storm of irritation brought on by people who had been overserved or those just lacking any amount of awareness. Enter the pandemic, and the comfortable relationship I’ve formed with social isolation. After a year of extreme social distancing and literally not being around anyone who I don’t know, mixed with good old-fashioned social anxiety, I’m apprehensive that the rage is going to come knocking at my door again.
It’s exciting to see punk shows and festivals scheduled for the fall but it’s also slightly terrifying. I appreciate seeing others’ joy and elation at the prospect of going to a show. But it’s also lonely in feeling like, for me, it’s going to be awhile before I feel comfortable in a crowd of people again. Not only because of the cultural trauma from the pandemic, but also because of trepidation that I might not be able to tolerate the crowd, that I’ll have found I’m no longer able to temper the rage. It’s daunting to think that it could be years before I can thoroughly enjoy a punk show free of anxiety and rage. But I know that when I do get there, those shows are going to be epic. It’s about small goals. As soon as it’s deemed safe in my neck of the woods, I’ll start with smaller local shows, then bigger venues, and, eventually, festivals. In other words, I’ll see you at the War on Xmas 2021 and I hope it’s not over a screen.