October 20, 2014
Andrew Biernacki

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

In nearly every city, outside of any venue, substance use is pretty prevalent. People brown-bagging bottles in cars, taking a couple hits in the parking lot, or lighting cigarettes while waiting in line are all seemingly standard pre-show traditions for many. Once inside the venue, the next step is heading to the bar to glug down as many 16 ounce aluminum cans of American adjunct lager as possible, grabbing one more for the first band about to start. Between sets, there is a rush to form a smoking circle outside the entryway, then another to scurry back to the bar for more drinks before the next band plays. The camaraderie of the punk rock flock, migrating from place to place; drinking, smoking, and shouting together looks attractive when you suffer from anxiety. Everyone looks like they are having extraordinary fun together, going through these systematic motions, and you don’t want to be the one to break the chain or seem out of place.
Enjoying yourself and making friends seems easy in the scene if you follow the drink-sing-smoke-repeat formula; doing so is almost unavoidable depending on what bands fostered your love for the genre. Exposure to so many Boston-based bands gave way to my listening of numerous alcohol-fueled anthems: Dropkick Murphys’ “Barroom Hero”; Darkbuster’s “Whiskey Will”; Big D and The Kids Table’s “Bender”; Street Dogs’ “Tobe’s Got a Drinking Problem”; and, of course, Gang Green’s “Alcohol”; in which the chorus so eloquently states, ‘No doubt about it, I can’t live without it, alcohol.’ When performed live, the energy in the room is so powerful, it could make anyone want to binge alongside your brethren and sisteren.

Succumbing to the allure of being part of a like-minded group happened so quickly. I got caught up in the mindset that I was not going to be liked by the people I wanted to hang out with if I didn’t participate in the same show-going activities. Alcohol held the ability to cut anxiety’s leash. Holding a beer somehow resulted in becoming more approachable, giving off a sense of similarity: hey, we’re both using the same social lubricant and keeping one hand bus; we have so much in common. Drinking still leaves your other hand free, however, and when you are anxious and don’t know what to do with that other hand, why not try something that has the ability to become habit forming? That is when smoking, the second-leading cause of preventable death in the United States, seems so attractive; it starts off as bumming a cigarette off a friend, then asking for a light, and eventually becoming the one being bummed off of and being asked for a light. Throw in some illicit drug use and, congratulations, you have assimilated to the punk herd.

While anxiety diminished with alcohol, I soon began to find depression increasing. I was doing everything everyone else was to have fun, but it had an adverse effect. As logic would dictate, using a depressant while diagnosed with a depressive disorder resulted in feeling worse, but fitting in was a need I put first. Alcohol’s socially beneficial properties were decreasing, the half-life of every beer shortened to quick bursts, eventually spawning dependency. No longer props to keep hands busy, cans, bottles, and glasses became crutches to manage walking the line of feeling comfortable between anxiety and depression.

Denial was inescapable, as surely I must have been the only one feeling depressed while drinking; everyone else continued carrying on and enjoying themselves, yet I was miserable. I no longer felt comfortable attending shows without participating in substance use, and that let anxiety take over, making me avoid shows for over a year.

I eventually mustered up the courage to receive professional help for the mental illness which caused my anxiety, depression, and dependency; as a result, I ended up going sober. I eased my way back into attending shows; the first, coincidentally, having a lineup with mostly straight edge bands. That first night back, in a poetically filling manner, Pat Flynn from the now defunct Have Heart was also in attendance. There he was, a musician I admire greatly, and didn’t have any liquid courage to help me say hello. It was a true test for me, what would I say? Will he find me annoying? I didn’t want to be “that guy,” but then I thought, wait, what is so bad about being “that guy?” I have the opportunity to meet a person whose music I have loved for years, and I’m not going to at least say hello? I caught myself being irrational, and in doing so, pushed that away, walked up to him, and introduced myself. He was so warm and receptive, we had a brief chat and I was able to tell him how his music is inspiring, meaning even more to me now that I’m sober. As I said goodbye, he left me with the kindest words, “no matter what you end up doing, being sober or whatever else, you are the one in control.” I could not have asked for a better reintroduction to the scene.

Sobriety filters out drinking buddies from real friends at shows, and makes you reevaluate your relationships, for the better. I lost some acquaintances along the way, and I have accepted that some people won’t interact with me as much, but I also realized I will still continue to socialize and make friends, on my terms. As a result of going sober, I have become more observant of other matters; I no longer worry about what people will think of me if I’m not drinking, but become more concerned about how under the influence other people become, not only getting belligerent or acting inappropriately, but knowing the end of the night is near, and they plan on driving home after the show. This is where drinking surpasses the relief of anxiety, and contributes to dangerous behavior. This is where punk tinged drinking songs go from being fun to negatively influential.

Substance use is, was, and will continue to be part of the subculture, and so will social anxiety, but I no longer think I am the only one who has been negatively affected. Every person has their limits and they should feel safe to demonstrate them freely, not to feel the need to conform to do something they are not comfortable with just to be accepted. I am not cured from anxiety, or any other mental health issue, but I have learned to deal with it, and that is due to allowing me to be myself, and not worry about the judgment of my peers. It takes practice and is not easy, but becomes less difficult over time. Someone else in that venue is feeling the same as you, some will drink to compensate for that uneasy feeling, others will not. No matter who you are with, what song is being played, or what substance is being used, you are the one in control.