December 4, 2014
by Jamie L. Rotante

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

Whenever I write about the topic of punk I almost feel like I’m some weirdo outsider looking in at the “cool” kids, wishing I was part of their world but instead just observing it from afar. I felt that way in high school, I continued to feel that way in college, I feel that way now and I’m sure I’ll still feel that way in the future. I suppose it’s not just about “punk,” there are many things I feel like I’m floating above in my own little cloud of awkwardness and anxiety. Back in school I was never a go-getter, a rebel or a popular kid. I always existed in my own weird little world with like-minded friends. We weren’t loners. We weren’t stoners. We just… were. I could say how punk rock changed my life during that time—and yes, in many ways it did—but it wasn’t the cure-all for my disease of social anxiety.

It was in my junior year of high school that I started frequenting local punk shows. My friends and I would all go and stand in our own little circle making dumb jokes—so near, yet so distant from the cries of “UNITY!”  that bellowed before us like some kind of brotherhood hellfire. We had fun in our own little circle within this bigger subculture, but I can’t ever say I felt like an actual “part” of it. However, it did provide solace during those tough teenage years. Getting food thrown at my friends and myself in the cafeteria because some other girls thought we “weren’t pretty enough” to be treated like basic human beings, coupled with a culture of adults that felt that looking the other way was safer than getting involved, didn’t seem half as bad when I knew there was a good show at the bowling alley or local teen center to go to when the weekend rolled around. Being ignored by a crowd of people was far better than being targeted, and loud music, colorful people and dark, seedy looking basements and community centers were better than the bright, uniformed halls of my all-girls Catholic high school.

Local punk shows also introduced another factor in my life that was missing at the time: boys. Specifically, punk boys. Punk boys that wouldn’t give me the time of day but fueled the fire for my crushes that made life worth living. All the pop-punk songs about love and high school (i.e. every pop-punk song) made so much more sense when you had someone you could apply them to. Being socially awkward and under strict parental supervision meant that I didn’t hang out very often with the opposite sex, so shows gave me an opportunity to stare, gooey-eyed at the guitar-toting, dyed-hair boys that were like mythical beasts from a dream. Would I ever make a move? Absolutely not. Would they ever notice me? Of course not. Did it provide me a fantasy world to escape to where I was just as cool as the pink-haired, amply-pierced, cigarette-smoking, bass-strumming girls who they did notice? Yes. And even if I didn’t consider myself as “cool” as those girls, they wouldn’t harm me for it.

Even if I didn’t “fit” in, punk shows provided a safe place for me as a nervous, paranoid, uneasy sixteen-year-old. Mornings of waking up with my stomach turning, unsure of what the day would bring me and what kind of cruelty my friends and I would have to endure, were wiped away when I was surrounded by fast music and fun-loving people. Even if I would never be up on stage or “with” any of the bands, even if I never felt comfortable in the pit, I still felt safe.

And I still do. I love knowing that no matter how shitty my day is, if there’s a show coming up I can forget my problems and lose myself in the music. I love that no matter how shitty the world is, the people on stage and around me are willing to say “fuck you” to the shittiness that the world is putting out there in a way that is both intelligent and primitive. Bodies colliding together to the same message, picking each other up when we fall, singing together no matter who we are and where we come from. I finally get those shouts of “UNITY!” even if it’s just the physical manifestation of it.  

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people that try to ruin my safe space. A lot of men who want to take their angry white boy aggression out on anyone nearby them at a show. Guys who were former jocks in high school who support cops now and who think women don’t belong in their space. These things do not fit into my escapist ideals. They do not belong in my safe space. I might not veer too far into the pit, but I can hold my own. I may duck with a bit of fear when a stagediver just narrowly misses my head from the front of the stage. But I’ll shrug it off and continue to get lost in the music. But people who are out to make me—and others like me—feel like we don’t belong in punk because they’re coming in and saying who can and can’t be there? That’s not my punk. That’s not my safe place. That’s not my form of escape. That’s the kind of fucked up energy I embraced punk to avoid. Those are the people who make me angrier and maybe even a little bit tougher, but also cause my anxiety to reach all-time high levels.

But they also make me realize that I’m refusing to welcome them into my space. Punk is something I can call my own. Instead of worrying about who thinks I don’t belong, I’ve made punk something that’s mine. It won’t quell my constant confusion and anger about trying to figure out where my place is within this subculture and society as a whole, but it’s a nice thought to escape to when my anxiety is getting the worst of me. And that’s something no one can take away.