As a young teenager, I used to get up early in the morning to finish my homework before school. In order to actually get out of bed before the sun had even thought about rising, I set my radio alarm clock on the other side of the room, so that I had to climb down the ladder of my loft bed and walk over to turn it off.
I don’t remember why I chose the local alternative rock station to wake me up — maybe because the noise of it helped motivate me, maybe just because on my inexpensive radio clock, it was the only station that came in clearly.
Whatever the case, all of a sudden, a specific song began to wake me every morning, played by the DJ at the same time of day — around 5:30 AM — more or less every single day for weeks. I started to pay attention to it. I was in middle school, and while this song lacked a certain degree of subtlety, it seemed to be saying something that no one else had said to me up until then, something that really resonated with my hormone-addled brain.
That song was “I’m Not Okay” by then up-and-coming band My Chemical Romance.
For the first time, someone was telling me that it was okay not to feel okay. Not only was it okay, in fact, but it could be made into something. For someone who had always wanted, more than anything else, to tell stories, to make things, to translate thoughts and feelings into words, this was a game changer.
I went out and bought the album Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge. As soon as I got it home, I put the CD in my stereo and I sat down to listen with the little booklet in my hands. I read along with the printed lyrics as Gerard Way sang to me, telling me a story for the very first time.
It shocked me, a little bit. The story was violent and bloody and charged both with raw emotion and a polished theatricality that resonated with me because it seemed to find harmony between real feeling and the veneer of fiction. I reached the end of the album, and I sat there quietly for a moment. And I want to stress that what I’m about to say is going to feel like embellishment, but it isn’t. I distinctly remember this moment, perfectly clear in my memory.
I sat there and I thought to myself, “Am I going to be the kind of person who listens to an album like this?”
What I meant was, Am I going to be the kind of person who can handle the violence of it, and the splashy drama? Am I going to be the kind of person who can channel their emotions through this kind of bloody lens?
And I let myself do it. I stayed right there on the floor of my bedroom, and I listened to the album again.
I don’t want to say that listening to this music made me who I am. It’s more that it showed me a path I hadn’t seen before. Everything that had been true about me before was still true after. I didn’t feel like I fit in at school. I cared about writing and storytelling more than anything. I wanted the same things from my life that I had always wanted.
But at that time in my life, mental illness — something I’m familiar with and much more informed about now, as an adult, but which mystified me and seemed utterly overwhelming at the tender ages of 13 to 16 or so — was beginning to get a real grip on me.
My Chemical Romance, and other, similarly-themed discoveries I made around the same time (namely The Vampire Lestat and other novels by Anne Rice) taught me something that came to be absolutely invaluable to me: that there could be beauty in the dark.
To say that I don’t know where I would be now if I hadn’t learned that lesson at that time is an understatement. Kids used to say “My Chemical Romance saved my life,” like a mantra. What a thing to put on a band. But while I have no way of knowing if this was literally true for me, they did at least show me the path that let me navigate my newfound depression and anxiety with relative safety.
They taught me to look for the beauty in the blackest nights my mind could offer. They taught me to channel my sadness into my art. They taught me how to take whatever overwhelming feelings I’d been saddled with and bend them to my will, instead of the other way around.
Their defiance, their righteousness, their anger over their own pain and that of others — these things taught me that my big feelings, feelings that often felt far too big, were not only acceptable, but useful, important. Necessary.
They taught me that I could, and should, walk through the world without fear. They made me (and still make me) feel like I fear nothing. Imagine how powerful that would be for someone frequently debilitated by their own anxiety.
And they never stopped teaching me things really.
When they hold out against Hollywood culture, or scrap an entire album because it just isn’t doing what they want it to do, or refuse to get involved with projects because they don’t feel right about it — or break up the band, because they don’t feel that they can keep doing it correctly and well at that time — they teach me about integrity.
When they make hard choices that they know won’t be popular, or change their whole sound for a new album, or create something vulnerable and entirely out of their comfort zone, they teach me about courage.
When they commit to a concept all the way from stickers in music videos to full personalities for every band member, when they create an anthem that transcends entire genres of music, when they pour every ounce of effort and care into an over-the-top album that they have no way of knowing will even work, they teach me about ambition.
When they create imagery and logos and costumes for a new album, when they craft every song to be unique and compelling on its own, when they piece together lyrics that I continue to find new meaning in after years and years, they teach me about art.
Over the last fifteen years, My Chemical Romance have given me a lot, everything from a literal community of people around me when I desperately needed one, to quiet moments spent alone in my bedroom, singing old, familiar lyrics that seem to have new meaning to me all of a sudden.
I couldn’t rank the most important parts. For me, they’ve all melded together over years of love and support. This band is part of who I am. I wouldn’t be the me I am now, at 27 years old, if I hadn’t found them. And I love myself now, something 14-year-old me would not even have been capable of imagining.
So I’m going to say here something that I’ve wanted to say for a long, long time:
Thank you for taking my hand and leading me through the deepest darkness I’ve ever known. Thank you for teaching me that it’s okay not to be okay. Thank you for teaching me that it’s okay to be unapologetically myself, even when that’s ugly or sad or angry or just different. Thank you for teaching me how to feel my emotions and use them to make things that are ambitious and proud and maybe a little scary, but also important and good.
Thank you for being there for me when I needed someone to see and understand what I was feeling.
Thank you for supporting me. I’m glad I’ve been able to repay that support somewhat. And I can’t wait to see what’s next.