VI: Interlude | Searchlight Song: “Breathing Exercises”
Air: in, in, in. Count to four. Through the nose. Reset back to zero. Hold your breath: one to seven. Reset. Exhale for eight. Oxygen as liquified escilatopram. Carbon dioxide as the demons inside your body that never learned to pay rent.
The great pause in my life is the way I am constantly forgetting to breathe. As such, I must always remind myself. Occasionally I write the word on a sticky note, tuck it in between pages of the planner I don’t use as much as I should. More often, I just type it into my phone, a memo to self. In desperate times, I tweet it out, like a public service announcement. Thinking: if someone else reads this and inhales, it will be worth it. Thinking: if I can’t do as I write, at least this won’t all be for nothing.
It was a Google search that brought me to the 4-7-8 breathing exercise, supposedly used to counter anxiety. I’m still not entirely sure whether the technique actually helps for its claimed purpose—but sometimes all calmness takes is a little faith in your own flourished pretense, a concrete reminder to pause between notes. Breathing, I think, is a coping mechanism more common than we realise.
How much do you know about nicotine? Me, not much. All I know is inhaling it makes you lightheaded, ticks against areas in your brain that trick you into believing the pleasure. It sweetly paralyses. Poisons. They say one cigarette is equivalent to three minutes off your life. I never liked the taste they left on my tongue, but I was so drawn to that idea of a steady, gradual deterioration. Isn’t that the whole point of smoking?
What about music, then? I’m unfamiliar with the technicalities of it, yet I’m certain it has to be synonymous with breathing. Hear me out: they’re both inescapable, constant. Actions you must keep repeating, whether or not you enjoy them. Things that fill the gaping interlude of your humdrum days, that keep your long-silenced demons at bay. Vices that keep you alive.
I suppose you could think of new-age rock, then, as an auditory Marlboro. Sticks against snare, while the cymbals sob. Pedals hitting brass. Heads bobbing to an unseen beat. Guitars riffing like chests cut open. Isn’t that the whole point of screamo?
Colide With the Sky tasted a lot like smoke. I remember thinking that when I first heard it, sweet on my tongue. The shift in Vic Fuentes’ voice, only as abrupt as anticipated. Spinto tenor rising into screams, despair into rage, piercing through the illusory calm of the first few verses. I could imagine the metallic tang, veins in his throat strung taut. He sang as if he intended for his body to give out all along—and maybe he truly did. Maybe he thought the pain in his throat accentuated the red-painted tenor of the song. Maybe he thought his art was more believable when he had to bleed for it.
I couldn’t help but wonder how he managed to catch his breath between the oil spill of emotion, the main act’s excess I willingly consumed. My friends never liked Pierce the Veil’s music, but in their defence, I never asked them to give the band another shot. Every track was an event, blood shed in front of my eyes, and even at fourteen when that beautiful mess was exactly what I needed, I knew it wasn’t meant for everyone.
My friends would call those screams noise, shy away from their echoes, but the noise never felt out of place for me. Quite the opposite: it fueled the lively beat of the drums, the guitar solos. Who knew anger could sound so much like joy? Who knew you could sing songs about wanting to die and never feel more alive?
Through Pierce the Veil, I found other bands, other songs. Other melodies to which I could cut my chest open. What I slowly began to realise is that despair was always meant to be the main act, fuelling the best of art. All the same stories, familiar by now on my tongue: Vincent van Gogh suffered from bipolar disorder, yet made a permanent mark in art history through the creations of his illness-stricken mind. Ludwig van Beethoven died from liver failure after years of depression-fuelled alcoholism, but his music lives on. Sylvia Plath remains one of the most remarkable writers in history, her literature cloaked with tones of pain.
And less familiar ones, too. Nirvana was an icon in the mainstream rock scene, Kurt Cobain growling better to burn out than fade away. Alex Gaskarth. Kellin Quinn. Chester Bennington. Their art became an oxygen tank for me—and I played the songs over and over, I read the lyrics until they felt close enough to finally sing. I listened as my own voice gave birth to those words. I listened to the words alter my voice. Even now I can’t tell you if I was searching for a moment of silence or a moment of song.
Depression was an easy demon, unsubtle, a welcome suffocation filling up my system. It was through Google that I learned its definition but it was through music that I realised it had been inside of me all along.
What I’m trying to say through this noise is I was just a child, at the peak of imitated rebellion. I had no one else to listen to but the music that told me suffering was art. I learned to nurse my depression. I knew the notes by heart: ache was all I needed to create something that mattered. To be someone who mattered. For years, this was all I knew how to sing: pain was poetry, and the only way to make something pretty was to destroy it. I wanted to be pretty, I really did.
You know how this story goes. The ghosts enslaved me, predictably. It was self-destruction spelled differently than I remembered, a long breath in. Self-medication through physical pain. It started with a pair of scissors: the cuts not too deep, the blade not too sharp. Leeway for agression in every hit. That calmed me, quieted all the noise, served as a respite. The sting of each cut kept me tethered to the ground. Kept me breathing.
Until my mother saw the scars. Wept in front of me, a metronome ticking too fast, I didn’t mean for it to be like this. Friends, acquaintances talking behind my back, wondering, a little disgusted. I woke up one morning and suddenly I was a walking scar.
And still the music remained. Gerard Way told me not to be afraid to walk this world alone, but maybe that was the problem all along: I was never alone. All those moments swinging blades against my wrists, I wasn’t alone. Nights with three cans of cheap beer, days covering those empty cans with newspapers and paper bags before throwing them out, I wasn’t alone. The music was there, of course. Tricking me into believing this interlude could be the main act.
As I discovered, the problem with using pain to fuel art was how often I found myself blurring the lines between dramaticising and romanticising the truth. Sitting in a college Psychology 101 class, learning about psycopathology, my own cynicism bled me dry. Was I really depressed or was I tricking myself into believing so? The desperation I heard spilling out of every track I listened to—did it belong to me or the music? Did I just want it to sound like mine so I could be certain what I felt was real? Did I just want to hurt to have a new act worth moving into? Something worth writing about?
I’ve held my breath for so long and still I don’t know what to make of that question. I don’t know if I even want to. After all, liminality always felt more poetic than invisibility.
When Fall Out Boy and Paramore veered away from alternative rock, social media mocked them for redefining their sound. Why would these rock gods leave the genre that created them?
But even as they moved into softer sounds, the screams finally quieting, I could feel myself coming with them. Finally moving forward. Realising how there could be strength both in vulnerability and in feeling okay again. Living in a space where blood wasn’t art—it was just red.
I won’t lie and tell you I’ve found the next movement, or that I never listen to the noise of sharp edges that brought me closer and closer to the edge. I won’t tell you I don’t still find beauty in transforming my pain into art, that I don’t still find ways to hurt myself just for more ink to write in. But I am trying to stop living in the margins of a lyric sheet. I am trying to understand that in order for an artist to be eternal, she must also linger in ephemerality, in the interval, the pause.
Memories of nicotine and alcohol still intoxicate me. I continue to wear a sleeve of scars on my arm, heavy beneath the weight of other people’s glares. I experience withdrawals in bouts. At times, flashbacks play with no warning. But as my playlists soften, I think the pollution in my mind is clearing. Four, seven, eight. I am learning to breathe.
(Searchlight Song is a column, originally written by Christina Im and now by Elizabeth Ruth Deyro, about the music behind identity: how it shapes us, explains us, and finds us when we are stumbling in the dark. This column, along with two more by the HM team and dozens more pieces of art, music, and writing by contributors, is published in Half Mystic Journal’s Issue VI: Interlude. It is available for preorder now.)