This Is Me At My Darkest

[This is a continuation of “The Young Musician” and preceding linked posts.]

Standing in the middle of a sold out crowd for Underoath’s Farewell Tour on a Friday night in Atlanta in 2013, my cousin Kelsey coughs next to me. She’d just won a major boxing bout the previous night, despite having the flu because she is a total boss, which then decided to fight with her immune system for temporary supremacy today during our concert plans. Looking back, I should’ve known that I would get sick a few days later. I’ve got a notoriously reactive immune system. I take vitamins for it now, because I am an old man. Just before the first band takes the stage, Kelsey looks at me and says, “I have to go sit down,” and disappears.

As Cities Burn takes the stage and in a room with eighteen hundred people I’m suddenly very, very alone. For all intents and purposes, this is their farewell tour as well. Their original singer is back for one final run of shows. A friend tipped me off they’re mostly playing songs from their debut, my all-time favorite album Son, I Loved You At Your Darkest. The first three songs weren’t from that, but I still know every word. Looking back, it’s more than fitting that the first lyric I truly lost myself in that night was shouting back to the singer: “This is me at my darkest!”

If only I’d known what the next three and a half years (and counting) would be like.

As Cities Burn played six songs from SILYAYD that night, and I could feel my lungs burn as I screamed along. This was my last weekend stateside before returning back to Italy for three more months to complete an internship. The previous semester, also in Italy, were three of the best months of my life. I’ll eventually write about them here, I’m sure. I sang along with the lyrics of anguished hope not from a place of deep understanding, but from a place of sheer enjoyment.

mewithoutYou performed next. I’d moved out of the intense section of the crowd to check on Kelsey, leaned against the wall, eyes closed. I feel guilty now, over three years later, that I didn’t offer to drive her home. Standing in the back, I sang along with the songs I knew – “January 1979,” “C-Minor,” “A Glass Can Only Spill What It Contains,” “Tie Me Up! Untie Me!” – not knowing that the last lyric of theirs I sang that night would become a haunting theme for my next three years:

Tie me up! Untie me! All this wishing I was dead is getting old. It’s getting old! It goes on, but it’s old.

Between mewithoutYou and Underoath, Kelsey sat down and fell asleep against a wall in the back. I also got asked to be a groomsman for Walter in his wedding to Elise. I began weaving my way forward. This was my ninth time seeing Underoath. I thought it would be my last.

The words I’m the desperate flash on the video screen, followed by another round: You’re the Savior. When the drums began, the entire crowd began shouting “Breathing In A New Mentality” with Spencer Chamberlain, and the most depressing set I’ve ever witnessed began. That’s a song filled with hope, but I can’t help but note that in my situation it’s a pretty obvious title. Synchronicity.

The energy was still there, but passion had become rage. There was no interaction among the members on stage. The crowd was the emotional current and all of us were singing our goodbyes. I know for a fact I cried multiple times during songs that night. You don’t enter the period of life I entered with this concert with dry eyes.

I can let you in on a little secret, though. Three years later, I was watching Underoath play the best set I’ve ever witnessed, dry eyed, and bursting with life. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Underoath

Certain songs will always grab me and instantly transport me back to the very instant I first heard them. You just never expect it to be P!nk.

A little over two and a half months after that Underoath concert, I’m standing in a kitschy souvenir shop in Venice looking for a Mother’s Day present. I’d already decided that I wasn’t going to be buying anything from this store, but the three girls I was with were looking at the (knock-off from China) blown-glass earrings. We’d all discovered early on this shop had no legitimate Italian wares, but the song on the radio kept us fake browsing.

I’ve learned later that almost immediately after leaving the country, “Just Give Me A Reason” exploded over US radio. Naturally, I didn’t hear it until months later. (A fun side-note: Rebecca Black’s “Friday” did the same thing in 2011 when I studied abroad. But, thankfully, that’s not vital to my story. Or hopefully anyone’s.)

I’ve always thought P!nk vocally sounds great, even if I think most of her songs fall on the blander side of the pop spectrum. And I was downright delighted when Nate Reuss began singing a longtime fan of The Format and then his more well-known band fun.

I remember Caitlin leaning over and whispering, “I’m ready to leave, but I really want to hear the rest of this song.” Caitlin was my rock, coworker, travel buddy, and duet partner that semester. She’s the one I talked about earlier. We did fake duets and it remains our thing.

Our first semester working together, Fall 2012, is the type of experience that brings Pinterest travel boards to life. It had been me, her, another male staffer, and thirteen students–three guys and ten girls. Everyone got along, worked together to create experiences, and life thrived.

The semester the depression sunk its teeth into the meat of my shoulders, Spring 2013, was anything but that. First and foremost, of the nineteen of us who lived on campus that month, I was the only guy. Caitlin was still there, as well as another friend who came over on staff for that semester, but she and I never really clicked. In a lot of ways, I was very isolated, though I was never really alone. Some of those students became very dear friends. But at the end of the day, it was very difficult being the only person on campus with a Y-chromosome.

Two days after the Underoath concert, I was already feeling unwell. Throw in my massive inability to sleep on a plane and jet-lag, and I arrived in Italy nice and sick. I pushed through a week, getting the groundwork set into place and the orientation of the students accomplished. I then slept almost nonstop for four days, going through my brief periods of being awake sitting around the meal tables, not remembering the names of these girls before me and unable to connect. In a lot of ways, with most of them, I never recovered from this week.

I didn’t really notice when the switch happened within me. The moment I can look back on and say, “Yes, that is the exact moment I know now that I was depressed (again)” is one evening after dinner. I’m doing the dishes and listening to Copeland’s Eat, Sleep, Repeat. I guess some occurrences in real life are too on the nose to ever pass for fiction.

By the time I’m soaking in a hot spring in Budapest five weeks later, I’m hyper-aware of the fact that something is different. Only my eyes and nose are breaking the surface. Looking back, the people I love around me at the time–Caitlin, other staff members who didn’t live on campus like Beth and Samuel–could tell something in me had changed. I notice it looking back in little things: choosing to make my favorite meal over student requests, taking me to get a haircut and out to lunch, watching a soccer game with a pitcher of sangria. I’m forever grateful and blessed by them.

It’s weird, reflecting on it now, I thought it would get better when I got back to the United States. Italy had gone from The Desire to The Depressant. The instant I got home, though, that hypothesis was destroyed. In a lot of ways, I was destroyed. Italy instantly switched back to the desire because it hadn’t been quite as bad there. Home wasn’t home anymore, but it was the only place I could be. The only place I would be for two and a half very dark years.

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