How Punk Cabaret Saved My Life; or, A love letter to the Dresden Dolls.

I first heard Amanda Palmer when I was seventeen, in Portland, in a place called SMYRC. It was “Coin-Operated Boy”, and it was played as a rehearsal for performance in a drag show.

I don’t remember the name of the person performing, and I never got to see the final version. I didn’t even know the name of the song or the artist at the time. But it represented something magical and new and irresistible to me, something I was desperately searching for and grasping at in that phase of my life.

I deduced the name of the song later, written as graffiti on a shower curtain. When I got home, I looked it up online, and discovered the Dresden Dolls.

Shortly thereafter, a friend asked me to make back-up copies of her CD collection. One of them happened to be the self-titled Dresden Doll album, which of course had “Coin-Operated Boy”. I made a copy for myself. I listened to it obsessively. I needed it. It expressed things I hadn’t thought could be put into words, much less sung in such a powerful primal empathic way.

I hadn’t heard of Punk Cabaret yet. I hadn’t seen pictures of Amanda Palmer or Brian Viglione. I didn’t know I wasn’t alone. The songs gave me my first hint that others felt, could feel, the way I did.

Some backstory:

(WARNING: this talks about trigger issues, including drug use, teenage death, self-injury, suicide, and being a queer youth. Read at your own risk.)

I grew up in a small, conservative, religious town. I was raised by libertarian, non-religious, quietly hippy parents. I was taught open-mindedness and curiosity and acceptance, and I was also taught to keep a low profile and get along with people who were nothing like how I had been raised to be without drawing attention to myself. It was, in short, the mixed messages of “Be yourself but don’t stand out.” “Be proud to be strange, but look and act like you fit in.”

I was understandable unhappy and confused and felt isolated much of the time. To compound the problem, I was the youngest of three, and there was a sizable age difference between my siblings and I, both of whom were much closer in age to each other. Growing up, they’d had each other and various friends. I was pretty much on my own, tagging along when allowed.

But there was one who was close to my age, also the youngest, and also homeschooled as I and my siblings were. She belonged to a family whose siblings were interspersed in ages with myself and my siblings, whose parents were friends with our parents, and whose home was half a mile from our home. Our families were inseparable.

She went on to go to public school, and we grew apart. But she would spend her summers hanging out with me, and telling me all the things she couldn’t talk about with anyone else, because she knew I would never betray her trust by repeating anything. She was two years older than me, and I was in awe of her. As I became older, this naturally developed into a secret crush — my first.

She was going to High School, and spending more time with my sister, with whom she could drink and get high and whatever else makes someone four years older so attractive. But I was still the one she’d pick to cruise around at night with, because I didn’t expect or want anything more than to be near her, and because I would still keep her secrets and never judge her. I was in love, and never spoke a word.

I knew, or thought I knew, that she didn’t return the emotion. I didn’t expect anything more from my love than giving it silently. I wished only for her happiness, however and with whomever she achieved it. I knew from her confessions that she was desperately unhappy and wanted more than anything to leave our hometown and her parents behind, and never look back.

She turned eighteen.

Three days later, she died.

It was drug related, but not an overdose.

My world froze, dropped away from beneath my feet, lost all meaning, ended.

During the same week, we had her funeral and my brother’s wedding reception.

Two weeks after her death, I turned sweet sixteen. I was still numb.

Before her death, I had signed up for a camp tailored for unschooled kids like myself. I was still planning on going, but I wrote to the camp so that the staff would know what had happened less than three months prior to my being there. I went by train for the first time, traveling alone also for the first time in my life. I had spend what was left of the summer (her birthday and mine were both in July) in a state of shock. Most nights had been sleepless, spend in the only comfort to be had by driving aimlessly in her truck with her other close friend and her older brother, both of whom grieved in silent shock as I did, and wishing we could inflict personal bodily harm on the teenager whom we knew had given her the drugs.

So. I went to the camp. I was alone and away from those affected by her death. I was still numb and feeling isolated.

Suddenly I was thrust into another world. One full of life and creativity and joy and expression and all the high drama of teenhood. And all were as unique and free as I had been told to be all my life, without the oppression of having to hide it so as not to stir up trouble in the small town. It was a different kind of shock, and one that broke through a little and started to shake me up in a way I desperately needed.

I felt like a cold stranger looking into a world of warmth and friendship, and wanting desperately to cross the barrier of separation, being actively invited to in fact, and having no clue how to do it. But it was a start.

I cried all the way home after, and the bleak depression set in again until I adjusted to being home, and then I just felt alternatively numb and angry — the usual, at that point.

The next year, I arranged to spend the week after camp with some new camp-friends who lived in Portland. One of them had been emailing me, helping me stave off suicide and deal with the self-inflicted injury I’d started doing to myself. I honestly can’t remember if I started doing it before or after the summer she died. But I was doing it now, and I needed assurance and coping and help, and the camp-friend provided it. I was to stay with said friend for the week after camp as a way to slowly ease back into the “real world” after the immersion into “camp world”.

This was how I ended up at SMYRC — which stand for Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center — and how I saw that rehearsal performance, and how I ended up in the apartment with the graffiti shower curtain. This is how I found the Dresden Dolls.

It was only by listening to their music, by the raw emotion of Amanda Palmer’s voice and piano playing, that I started to feel less like that isolated numb stranger. I started to feel like maybe there was a place I belonged after all. My experiences felt validated. I feltĀ seen.

Part of why I had stayed feeling so numb and isolated after the death was because I had never told anyone about being in love with her. People didn’t know the extent of my pain and loss, and I didn’t have the words or courage to tell them. The first people I told were those from the camp and Portland, simply because I knew they didn’t have any other version of the story than mine. They hadn’t lost her too, so my grief felt like less of an intrusion on their own grief. But they still all had their own stories, their own troubles and issues, and I was just one of many.

The intimate nature of listening to music got through to me more than another person ever could. With a song, you can project whatever meaning you might need upon the lyrics. You can experience a reflection of your own emotions. A reflection, naturally, is a step removed from the raw feeling. That step can be crucial when dealing with something so vast it can swallow you whole and paralyze you. It turns it into pieces, and pieces can be dealt with a little at a time.

As I listened to the Dresden Dolls, a part of me was quietly deciding that a world which contains this kind of art might be worth living in. So I kept living, and started to look for more things that felt like that. A lot of the things I attached to at that point expressed a lot of pain, a worlds of hurt, but within them was so much creativity. It was a new face of depression that I’d never seen before, turning it into something beautiful in a raw ugly way. It was so appealing. I turned into the darkness, and found light.

This July will be the ten year anniversary of her death. I’ve grown so much since that time. But without those moments I’ve written about, I wouldn’t have gotten here. I still cry, but I laugh too. I’m not as angry. I still stay quiet when I should probably speak up, but it feels more like a choice and less like fear. Most days, I don’t want to kill myself. Most days, I don’t hurt myself. I see so much to love in the world now.

I still turn to the light I found in the darkness, and try to shine it to the world.