Old Ghosts in Altered States and Punk Anxiety

In honor of Halloween and in preparation of our next issue on Drugs, here is a short story that deals with intoxication, friendship after life, and the prevailing social anxiety we all confront in punk.

I spent Friday night courting people and reminding them of due dates and specifics about submitting to the next issue of Punks Around, Drugs: Use, Recovery, and Outreach. It was a late fall night, and per usual I started to give in pretty early—around 11:00PM. Even though I had a full cup of black coffee at 7:00PM, which usually keeps me up later, tonight I just couldn’t stay awake. 

            Perhaps all the late-night shenanigans and tinder dates have severely derailed my sleep schedule.  Most of the time they’re not even worth it—especially the dates. They go something like this: 

            I meet an attractive person at a mutually agreed upon place, usually a bar. I tell some of my safe old jokes, and then after a few laughs I branch out into some improv material. Then, after about 15 minutes of conversation reinforced by scripted points, I run out of energy and completely lose things to talk about. Not that my life is boring or anything, I just have some difficulty inventing topics without coming off as trite and insincere. Like when people ask, “how was your day?” it’s easier to just say “fine” than to go on about events that mean nothing to them. It’s a shame really, because I am genuinely interested in people and what they are doing, but I just sort of freeze up and shortcut conversations. 

My close friends recognize when I am at a loss for words and can usually swoop in to help, but tertiary friends—or the people I always wanted to be closer to—think I’m weird and trying too hard. If my date picks up on my awkwardness, then we can get through the night pretty easily. If not, I’ll likely never see that person again. People determine whether or not someone is worth talking to more within the first ten minutes. 

            I any case, such late nights out usually end at an obnoxious time, which I firmly suspect puts the rest of my sleep schedule out of whack. Maybe that’s not it—maybe I’m iron deficient, or maybe I’m over worked. Who knows?

Whatever is making me tired early has been leading to some funky dreams. Some dreams are so outlandish I practically forget about them instantly. In one, I was a squire to some asshole knight. In another dream, I was just driving straight for hours—no music, no podcasts, no other cars on the road, just the monotonous white line separating the car from a ditch. 

            This Friday night I had a more conventional dream. It started off as a typical weekend at M’s house in a notable Northeastern city. I used to stay there all the time getting drunk while M indulged in heavier drugs. We were old friends, so almost every time we entered an altered state we reminisced about the past, mutual friends, politics, and of course music. The conversation points were always endless and hilarious, and M was much better at keeping the conversation afloat.

            At some point, our mutual friend W arrived. W complained a lot about their day while taking hits of a spliff M had rolled. I, content with alcohol, sat back in silence unsure as to whether I had a right to interrupt with my opinion and advice. W’s problems seemed so compounding that, just like on a date, I froze up as if I had nothing to say. Occasionally M looked over at me with a side grimace or an eye roll, sympathetic to my silence and recognizing that I was stuck. 

            “You guys want to go for a walk to Walgreens?” suggested M.

            “Fuck yeah dude, I have to get something to snack on” W answered with high enthusiasm. 

            “Yeah sure, I can pick up some more beer” I halfheartedly answered. 

            The next thing I knew, we were walking on a bridge that crosses a major highway. Still, I was silent, worried about saying the wrong thing, or coming off as imposing, awkward, or offensive. I focused on the cars passing below me while W continued to go on about their shitty boss and coworkers. M and I listened tentatively, but I couldn’t figure out anything to say. Finally, M carried the conversation and began asking me questions to rope me in. 

            “Didn’t you used to work with a painter? Wasn’t that dude a dick?” 

            I took the bait and went on and on about my old shithead boss. W started talking to me and asking questions, and I felt like the conversation was real and meaningful for all of us. Finally I was engaged in a genuine conversation. 

            “How did you finally quit that job?” M asked, not letting the conversation touch the floor. 

            I told my story with W’s full attention. I felt like they were starting to learn something valuable about me and starting to see past the awkwardness. This wasn’t a date, but it had the same climactic point of any successful date I’ve been on – the recognition of the other person’s humanity. That point where it becomes painfully obvious that they have their own struggles, trials, and opinions. This is the point where people stop seeing you as another body on some bogus class, gender, racial, or identity hierarchy and start seeing you as an emotional autonomous being. The point of empathy. 

That point where it becomes painfully obvious that they have their own struggles, trials, and opinions.

            “I bet you felt like a boss when you walked out on that motherfucker!” W exclaimed. 

            This wasn’t about the job or my experience. This entire dream predicament was as real as my cup of black coffee in the morning. In fact, this story might be more non-fiction than fiction, as I remember something like it playing out many, many times with M. He always picked up what I was putting down, and he was always willing to help me overcome social awkwardness. Over years of knowing him, it taught me valuable lessons about my socialization skills and habits. 

            The punk rock scene is full of awkward situations and social hierarchies. Its anxiety inducing, but we endure it all for the love of the music. We all more-or-less suffer from the same bouts of social awkwardness, even the tough guy in the back who knows everyone by name. Ironically, when someone seems too comfortable off the bat, we consider them weird. There’s a comfortable level of sociability that is difficult to pin-point, but M always had it nailed. 

            At one point in the dream I realized that M had died a while back and that it was impossible for him to be there—for me to be with him. From there I recognized that I was in a dream, and I instantly woke up. 

            Recently I’ve been meeting new people in my travels and home scene. I strive to make friends with everyone, but I still confront that same social awkwardness. It often takes weeks or months for me to break out of my reticence. It’s been particularly strong lately, and that must be why M appeared in my dream. No amount of alcohol or drugs could ever nullify M’s ability to help me find ways to socialize and engage in genuine conversation. Not even death could stop him.

Al, Halloween 2019

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