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My So-Called Goth Life

Why being a goth teen was the best thing for my mental health

In a bookstore in Dallas, I saw a cashier dressed all in black, and I was full of joy. The weekly trips to the bookstore that my mom and I went on were my only respite from the endless, nameless fear that churned in my preteen stomach. This girl — this goth — would become part of my personal creation story, but when I was nine, all I could do was stare.

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Later, she became my own heroine with the pale face and kohl-rimmed eyes; the key to the glamorous underworld that lurked just below the surface of my dreary suburban existence. For the time being, I gazed at her ears rimmed with rings. I squeezed my own earlobes and felt the little tubes of scar tissue from getting them pierced a few years before. It was deeply satisfying in a way I didn’t quite understand.

To name something is to have some sort of control of it, and if there was anything I wanted in the world, it was control. I felt like I had none. My fears ranged from vomiting in class to nuclear war — one particularly inspired evening, I kept my parents up all night because I was convinced I would swallow my own tongue. The only thing that seemed to keep them at bay were the endless rituals my brain cooked up to torment me. I had a magic number (four), an amulet (really, a charm necklace from James Avery, which my parents bought at the mall), and two of the same protective sweater, one in black and one in white, which I’d wear no matter how blisteringly hot it got outside.

senior year. black hair and proud papa #tbt

A photo posted by jenni (@msjennim) on

My parents took me to a therapist, thanks to a very strong suggestion from the principal of my middle school. When she told me there was a name for what my brain did, it was a relief. Two or three times a week, I’d lie on my therapist’s ugly, slightly scratchy couch while she talked me through my worst fears, guided me through relaxation exercises, and taught me how to visualize colorful clouds to surround and protect me. This helped a lot, but antidepressants helped even more. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that I was probably the only kid I knew who was in therapy (in retrospect, the fact that the principal had a therapist’s name at the ready indicated otherwise). It had been easy to pretend no one noticed how weird I was, but then I realized I wasn’t fooling anyone. Everyone noticed. Everyone knew that I didn’t eat lunch, begging my teacher to let me go to the school nurse because my tummy hurt. I'd beg the school nurse to call my mom at work, so I could beg my mom to let me go home. The jig was up.

Books were my only real respite, in more ways than one. My doctor recommended The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing, and it blew my preteen brain wide open. The obscure rituals my brain concocted, from counting how many times I touched something or even obsessing over vomiting in public, were actually patterns that manifested in other people with OCD in different but similar ways, from hand-washing to one particular fellow who was obsessed with the idea of a rat biting him on the butthole. I tried to explain to my best friend the excitement of finding out I wasn’t alone, but her response to Freud’s infamous "Rat Man" was less than empathetic and I learned to keep my mouth shut.

It had been easy to pretend no one noticed how weird I was, but then I realized I wasn’t fooling anyone.

With the help of Dr. I’s continued regimen of CBT and increasingly high-tech SSRI’s (oh, the day Prozac came on the market!), I aged out of my deeply awkward preteens. Eventually I even took a crack at being socially acceptable, going so far as to try out for the cheerleading team in 7th grade. I eventually gave up and found a crew of gentle, like-minded weirdos. I drifted towards Sassy and Juliana Hatfield and late-night tarot card reading, as well as an older boyfriend with an extensive collection of Metallica T-shirts.

Then I found the goths. Well, first I found an adorable suburban punk who turned me on to the Dead Kennedys and Bikini Kill and the Misfits and Crass and comic books ("Guys love girls who read comic books!"), but I realized I was just not punk. My new friend smoked cigarettes and pierced her own nose using nothing but a safety pin and a carrot (so she wouldn’t puncture her septum, natch) and lived in a tiny house behind her mom’s house, where she could come and go as she pleased. My therapy and pills and curfews and honor roll were something out of an Adam Ant song. Definitely not punk.

But goth? Maybe.

Black clothes were easier. They made me feel like a shadow, like I was hiding but also telling the world to fuck off. They covered the body I was in but didn’t like — the curvy hips and ass, the breasts bursting out of department store bras and requiring trips to the Old Lady Brassiere store, where they also sold prosthetics that glistened under glass like raw chicken. Even though my body type wasn’t quite of the goth aesthetic, I found a sort of freedom in draping myself in velvet and lace (yes, in the Texas heat) or wrangling my curves into steel-boned corsets. "You have a waist!" marveled one friend when I busted out a purple satin number for our annual Coming Out dance.

don't smoke (by @kristiinawilson about a million years ago)

A photo posted by jenni (@msjennim) on

I’d always felt like an outsider, but now I was something else entirely, something I’d chosen for myself. I still screamed along with Kathleen Hanna — how could I not? — but something about the morose, sonorous music of Bauhaus and the Sisters of Mercy made me feel dangerous and brave. Combat boots and smeary drugstore lipstick and a tatty leather motorcycle jacket loaned me the courage I’d craved for so long. After all, it hadn’t been that long since I’d scream at my dad for watching something as milquetoast as A Nightmare on Elm Street in the other room. I learned to peek through my fingers during movies like Nekromantik and Romper Stomper and whatever fucked-up stuff we could dig up on VHS at Forbidden Books and Video.

I liked to imagine that the other kids at my high school didn’t see anything but a badass chick in ripped tights who reeked of cigarette smoke and drove a car covered in band decals and the occasional pro-choice bumper sticker. Oddly enough, my new look garnered far less concern from my teachers and parents than when I was paralyzed by panic attacks and OCD brain stutters. At worst, I was reprimanded for cutting too many holes in my tights, and for dying the white streak in my hair purple.

Combat boots and smeary drugstore lipstick and a tatty leather motorcycle jacket loaned me the courage I’d craved for so long.

The place I really found myself wasn’t a physical location, like the greasy spoon we’d nicknamed Dirty Dan’s or the smokey café we’d linger in every weekend, but online. How I went from futzing with Myst to lurking on Usenet is still a mystery to me, but stumbling upon alt.gothic was the equivalent laying eyes on that bookstore cashier years before. Finally, here were my people: bookish kids who were smart enough to maneuver the Internet in 1997 and wanted to trade tips on how to make your $1 Halloween bin lipstick last all year! None of them would ever tell me that I wasn’t cool enough to listen to the Swans, nor would they call me their "Little Virgin Jew Girl" or the "Heeby Creepy." Although I never picked a particularly spooky name to go by, it was much nicer to be referred to as a baby bat or perky goth instead.

The feeling of warm camaraderie leaked into the real world when I joined listservs for Dallas-area and Texas goths; we’d go out dancing at the one goth night in the Metroplex or check out art movies. There was even a yearly net.goth convention! I was still wracked with anxiety before every social gathering, but my strength grew with every tightened corset lace and swipe of liquid eyeliner. Don’t get me wrong; there are assholes everywhere, and I still got nervous going out in social situations, but finding an identity where it was okay — no, cool — to sit by myself and read in public felt a lot better than feeling like I didn’t have anyone to sit with in the first place.

And when I got to college, I shakily ventured out to meet the kids I’d met online. We'd have dinner and go out dancing at the Bat Cave until dawn. I bonded with my best friend late at night over New Order and the particularities of the OCD brain. When I was unceremoniously dumped by a balding goth back in Texas, she was the one who brought me cigarettes in bed and kept a sharp eye out for the self-destructive tendencies she herself knew too well. Although I eventually tired of Usenet, you can still find my old posts out there in the ether, if you Google hard enough.

senior photo #tbt #yep #thathappened

A photo posted by jenni (@msjennim) on

Now, over two decades later, it seems normal to hash out the pros and cons of SSRI’s over brunch or cancel plans because the world feels like just a little too much. During dinner a few weeks ago, I ended up in the bathroom of the restaurant, fumbling in my purse for Klonopin and texting my friend back at the table that I was having a panic attack and could she please just sign my name to my part of the check so we could get out of there.

This openness is due in no small part to society’s changing attitude towards therapy and even medication, but at the same time, if I’d never had a network of friends for whom wrestling with depression and other mental SNAFUs was the norm, who’s to say I wouldn’t still be hiding?

Now it seems normal to hash out the pros and cons of SSRI’s over brunch or cancel plans because the world feels like just a little too much

The trickle-down effect of goths and other weirdos growing up and making media — whether that’s Rick Owens’ haute couture or Crimson Peak at the cineplex — has also normalized a lot of the things that seemed obscure, including mental health. Although I still encounter pockets of shame and disdain in others, and even in myself, nine-year-old me would have never imagined I could write freely about mental illness; part of me still feels wonder and relief that my brain is just repeating patterns found in other peoples’ brains all over the world.

It’s also because I have purposefully surrounded myself with loved ones who find themselves outside of mainstream society. We might not all wear black — my punk friend’s 15-year-old daughter asked me why I looked so "normal" — but we share the language of the other, the freak, the weirdo, the person who finally got sick and tired of trying to find a place in the cafeteria and instead went to sit by themselves with a book.

I'm sure I missed out on social opportunities by rejecting people before they could reject me (I arrived at Sarah Lawrence with a pretty decent bitchface in place already), and I was, and in some ways still am, deeply insecure about my place in the world. But the people I talked with in the middle of the night about drama, sadness, crushes on boys who wore eyeliner and skirts, and the latest Current 93 CD are still my friends, and I have a feeling they always will be.


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