October 10, 2014
by Anna Theodora

This is part of a recurring series of essays on social anxiety in punk. For more, click here.

Punk shows are what bring me out of my social anxiety.

They’re also what give it to me.

I was, for all intents and purposes, a baby when I first got into punk music and started going to shows. My long suffering mother drove me to my first Warped Tour at the ripe age of 12, and would actually stand behind me in the thick of the crowd as I viciously pogo’d. She was there when I discovered my now favorite band and got my first pit injuries, which I displayed with a sense of pride. I immediately fell in love with going to shows, and did so as much as my allowance and curfew would allow.

As a student in a small all-girls Catholic school, there wasn’t really anyone around who shared my passion, and I’d receive quizzical looks at best when rambling about my favorite bands and venues. It was hard to make a connection. And some really awful things happened during my high school years. Enamored with the attention I received from an older, “popular” guy in the scene, I rationalized the abuse he was waging against me.

It’s okay, I told myself, it happens. This is what girlfriends do. They put up with it.

He forced me to face fear and pain for the first time in my life, and in doses I didn’t believe possible. Upon finally breaking ties with him, I broke my ties to shows. Nothing would frighten me more than being trapped in a VFW hall or basement with him; thinking about it would send me into my first panic attacks. So, I stopped going to see bands entirely. I stumbled between social groups and doing what I could to not be afraid, and eventually fell into another serious relationship.

And for the second time in my life, the fear returned. I wasn’t allowed to wear band shirts, he’d say. Stop listening to this shit. Why do you want to go out? Isn’t staying in with me enough? This abuse wasn’t a bruise left on me, it was insidious and it began to destroy me from the inside out. I wasn’t worth anything in his eyes, and soon, in my own. Things that used to excite me, music especially, lost all of their allure. Shutting down was the easiest way not to feel afraid.

A year and a half of my life disappeared there before I gathered the courage in me to leave him entirely. Isolation from my friends and family left me with no one, so I turned to the Internet, back to the bands I used to love and discovering new ones. My panic attacks were coming back frequently now, almost daily.

On a steamy August night, I ventured out alone to go to my first show in years. I sat nervously on the L train, jiggling my leg and contemplating if I should just go home, trying to talk myself into getting excited. It was the Bouncing Souls, after all, one of the first bands that had ever grabbed my attention. As I stepped out of the station, the sky opened up, torrential rain breaking the heat wave that had descended onto Brooklyn that summer. Standing in Brooklyn Bowl, I felt the first vestiges of panic begin to creep up. What was I doing there? Why didn’t I just stay home? Everyone seemed to know each other and not me. My outfit was wrong, I didn’t belong here. But the bands started and it all washed away, like the rain outside was washing away the oppressive heat. An angry, shirtless, behemoth of a man was spinning around the pit and I was jostled into him. This is it, I thought, no more teeth for me. He looked down at me, a grimace on his face, and wrapped me up into a big, sweaty hug. These were those true believers I had heard so much about.

So I started going to shows more. The scene unfurled to me and I learned of all the spots, which houses were cool and at which train stop to get off. But I was still so scared. Scared because no one would talk to me between sets and I’d get very well acquainted with the corner of the room. I wasn’t cool enough to be there, I’d think. Being new to shows made me feel inadequate and like an outsider amongst the outsiders. Having a stranger take advantage of a crowded room and put his hands on me would ruin my night, spiraling into panic so loud I couldn’t hear the bands, too afraid to call him out upon fear of exile from a scene I was taking my baby steps into.

Shows can be volatile spaces. All it takes is one skinhead with something to prove to have one too many drinks and someone can get seriously hurt. Scanning the room nervously, I always try to put myself in the safest position. But you can never know where that will be. Straddling the line of acknowledging your boundaries and voicing when they have been crossed and not wanting to ruin anyone’s night can consume you. I consider myself to be an outspoken feminist, angry at all the right things when I write or speak to my friends, but I clam up when in a crowd of people. Being physically small never crosses my line in daily life, but it’s all I can notice when the crowd starts to push.

If I fall, there’s a good chance no one will notice. My mind spins and always lands on the worst scenario possible. On the floor, everyone else continuing to dance, a boot coming towards me and I’m stuck like a turtle on its back and I can’t get up. I try and snap out of it and enjoy the band. The beer isn’t helping, in fact it often makes anything worse. Feeling compelled to drink socially stands at odds with being terrified of making an inebriated fool of myself, or being less than completely aware for the ride home.

But good things can happen. The band play the opening chords to your favorite songs and you get lost in it and suddenly, you’re the only one in the venue. In the world. You spin and fall and a hand reaches down so you can get your leverage and get back up. Or your friend scoops you up and you guys are singing your hearts out together. Everyone is. In those moments, it’s hard to feel that isolation and fear. Every single person in that room is dealing with something and they’re all here and they all get it. Sometimes you get up on your own, sometime you need a hand or two to help you up, but it’s important that you always get up.