If pleasure and pain be two sides of the same coin, then there was a time when I was convinced I’d gotten a loaded coin. Like a bad penny, it kept turning up the same way, always on the decidedly intentional side of pain. So pleasure, to me, when it came at the age of 36, in the most unlikely form, was a revelation. A synapse firing, toe-tapping, hair pulling, vocal cord frying experience so sublime it colored my world and changed my life for good.
Here’s a not so secret secret. I spent Christmas Day 2015 in a coma, having ingested what should have been a very lethal dose of psychiatric medicine. My life had come to that. Misery so profound not even Christmas could lift my spirits. I honestly felt that I had nothing to live for.
I spent three days in a coma at Tucson Medical Center, sixty miles from my hometown of Nogales, Arizona. Doctors prepared my family for death, a persistent vegetative state or diminished capacity so severe they’d wish for death. But I came to, a bit drugged at first. My mother’s first words to me were: “There’s another family here from Nogales. By the end of week all of Nogales will know what you did.”
It was thus almost a reprieve to be forced into a psychiatric hospital for a week, if only to postpone the inevitable return to reality. I was transported to Palo Verde Psychiatric hospital, across a parking lot from where I’d just been, on a gurney, in an ambulance. Overkill seemed to be an overarching theme.
The patients, all in nondescript pajamas, sized me and my pajamas up as a tourist–a rich white woman who probably needed a break from the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping at Williams-Sonoma. In actuality, I was a light-skinned Mexican autistic. I just read rich because I grew up amongst the wealthy of Mexico and I possessed an immutable education and a big vocabulary. The combination must have translated as rich to kids who had been homeless, abused, or relegated to sex work. There were anorexics and cutters, kids with borderline personality disorders, drug addicts and adjectives I haven’t the heart to repeat.
I’d heard all their truly heartbreaking sob stories, and empathized to the best of my autistic abilities. Everyone would commiserate, all having dealt with similar problems. I’d said nothing of my own. Finally, around my fifth day there, they wrestled my story out of me. A failure of a lawyer at 28, a terrible marriage followed by a cataclysmic divorce at 31. Sterilized by psych meds at 33. Practically friendless and unemployed at 36.
Familial relationships with narcissists who did everything in their power to crush my spirit. I didn’t have a sense of self that wasn’t created or tarnished or diminished or killed by the people who professed to love me the most. And despite various attempts at being upstanding…successful…worthy, I had managed to get nowhere. Meds didn’t work. Neither did therapy…or yoga, the ubiquitous 21st century cure-all snake oil.
I was laden with guilt and regret. I was really fucking awful.
When I’d finished saying my piece, I looked up to a room of silent, perplexed faces. “You tried to kill yourself?” Jasmine, a blue-haired stripper, who also happened to have a grad degree in Chicano literature, asked incredulously.
“Why?” asked Mariah, a mother at 12, who cleaned hotel rooms for a place to stay on a cot at night.
“Because I just think the world is better off without me.”
They looked at each other, and then at the same time asked, “Are you crazy?”
“Mmm…pretty sure they don’t let you into a psych hospital unless you are.”
“You’re amazing, Vene.” Jasmine announced to me, but also to the room of nodding heads. “Do you even know that?”
“No.” I was being honest.
“We’ve been taking bets on who you are this whole time you’ve been here. We thought you might be a writer or something super glamorous.”
“Why?” The only thing I’d found to be unique in my affect amongst this crowd was a pair of red panties I’d keep forgetting in the dryer that ended up in everyone else’s loads.
“You’ve been telling us the most amazing stories of your life. You went to the White House! You met J.Lo! You gave a speech at the U.N. as a kid!” I had in fact told these stories, but only as moments of levity at lunch over chocolate milk. I hadn’t thought anyone had been paying attention.
“I guess.” I wasn’t quite sure how anything I’d ever done merited such praise from people with nothing to gain from doling it out. But it got me thinking about whose opinions should carry weight in my life. It wasn’t the experts. They’d been advising me for years and I never saw a bit of relief.
I checked out of the hospital two days later. As I collected my belongings,, a group of friends I’d amassed stood guard to say their goodbyes. Jasmine told me to write my story, that she’d be the first to buy it at Target. And that she’d track me down and kill me if I ever did kill myself.
The girls stood along the corridor where we normally waiting for meds and sang, “So long, farewell,” from The Sound Of Music as I walked out the doors and back to reality.
At home, I called my best friend Michael in NYC and told him what had happened. And then I called the life coach he’d put me in touch with. I’d been given a reprieve, but I’d need help finding the good in it. Michael gifted me with one other thing, a music recommendation: to check out The 1975.
Music had been an arterial connection for Michael and me. We’d grown up together in Nogales. Once, when I’d encountered a snake on my walk home after a day of fourth grade, I turned tail and ran down the hill to his front door and rang the bell. After sharing my traumatic experience, he sat me down and played the Broadway CD of Into The Woods for me. We poured over Stephen Sondheim’s cerebral lyrics and gushed at his genius. The joy it gave us wiped out my fear long enough for me to feel safe walking home.
So now, almost 20 years later, I was poised to listen to anything Michael sent my way, even though our tastes vastly differed. It would take a month for me to get around to his suggestion, but when I finally saw the band appear on SNL at home in Tucson, I couldn’t help but smile at how on point Michael had been.
Matty Healy. In leather pants and a black blazer. Making love to the camera and singing an upbeat song called “The Sound.” As he pranced in his black boots, dark curls bounced above his intense kohl-rimmed eyes. He’d mess his hair about with fingers punctuated with black nail polish.
I felt electric currents race through my brain in the most addictive way. My heart pounded and my head swam with synth beats I’d never heard before. By the time they’d performed their second song, I was hooked.
I wasn’t in love with Matty, though he was darling and cheeky in a very English way. It was the musical references that evoked such visceral reactions. Their songs accessed nostalgia of an eight-year old child who spent afternoons with babysitter who’d sworn me to cool teenage secrecy as she played John Hughes films on VHS and Duran Duran songs on vinyl. My memory was flooded with the pure joy I felt when Spandau Ballet would come over the radio and I’d sing my heart out; half the words wrong, but all the sentiment right. INXS and the indescribable feelings Michael Hutchens inspired in me at a preternatural age. This band harkened unto a time before the good in me had been smothered by the guilt of failure.
Within a day, I’d done the most ridiculous, irreverent thing in my life. I looked up the band’s tour schedule, bought a ticket to their show at The Shrine in L.A. and booked a 24-hour round ttrip. I had no place to spend the night. But fueled by newly discovered hope, I dialed up an old friend I hadn’t spoken to since the divorce five years before.
“Could I, um, possibly, I don’t know, maybe stay on your couch for the night?”
Like the prodigal son come home, I was welcomed with open arms, and all was well.
Needless to say, my family was dubious of my plan. It seemed erratic, especially in view of my recent overdose.. But, for the first time ever, I didn’t care. I was on a mission. I might have indeed been crazy, but I felt intuitively that on the other end of that flight was an experience that would either grant me the confidence to begin anew or at least provide momentary respite from the constant worrying of what I would do with my life.
In L.A., walking through the USC campus, I felt a sense of liberation. No one knew me or my past or my family or my abject failure. Young looking for my age, I could have just been another student on campus. I blended in with the six thousand ticket holders outside the venue near the campus. As fans crowded into the ballroom, the collective excitement impressed me. Really? I thought. All these kids love this band?
My incredulity was laid to rest almost immediately. Pink neon flooded the ballroom and kinetic energy flowed through my body as Matty and the band playing live on stage.
The crowd’s fists and phones in the air. Everyone’s voice lifted in song. It was a tent revival for Generation Y kids. When the band played, “If I Believe You,” an R&B ballad about an atheist’s search for God, girls around me cried. Over the course of that concert, I felt my cynicism melt away, I felt my pain dissipate. Senses assaulted by something inexplicable, I was lost in pleasure, completely unadulterated pleasure, for the first time since I could remember.
I left the revival a true believer. I went home and began endlessly listening to the band’s two albums, devouring every YouTube video , and to planning my next trips to see them again. Phoenix in October. London in December. Tucson and Phoenix in April 2017.
I wasn’t alone in this love affair. I found my people in a 1975 Facebook fan group. Our experiences all lined up. It started out as a song you heard for the first time. You don’t know the words but the beat drives you. The melody is intriguing. So you add it to your playlist. Over time, the words seep into your head without you even realizing it. And then you can’t get them out of your head. You listen to the song on repeat, straining to capture every nuance.
Then you’re at the concert. You hear the first notes and you scream with glee. Suddenly you’re not you. In that moment, you are not your age, your race or your bank balance. You’re a voice, lifted with other voices, singing the same words…a prayer…an incantation…a communion of souls gathered in common love of a band. They’re just some kids on a stage doing what they love. But they brought you to this moment, and they changed your life.
The pure reverie of their music, of their concerts, of the online community I joined, propelled me out of bed each morning. It freed me to examine other things that might bring me pleasure. I began to date. I began to write. And perform at storytelling events. I felt inspired by the joy a band had implanted in my soul to spread joy to others. I was completely unrecognizable to my family, in a bad way, and to everyone else, in a good way.
There was always a measure of harmless mockery built into any conversation with friends about my band. They called The 1975 a guilty pleasure. I didn’t care. I’d made it plain that I was no ordinary fan. I was a convert, an evangelist. If there was any doubt, there were my personal “Current Mood” updates on Facebook that used pictures of Matty’s expressive face to convey my feelings. Because I finally had feelings worth sharing.
Traveling to London for a concert ahead of Christmas 2016 was probably the height of ridiculous escapism. Trump was President-Elect at this point, and had already begun his campaign of hate towards my people, Mexicans. And there I was choosing to leave the country to see a pop band. To my family I was immature, irresponsible, deluded, guilty. And you’d be forgiven for thinking the same, that is, if you didn’t know Matty Healy like I did.
There’s this song the band plays, “Loving Someone,” about acceptance. It’d become a political moment in the show, an organic response by the band to the LGBTQ community’s embrace of the song as an anthem. The awe inspiring light show, which changed with every tune, morphed into a rainbow flag and reflected on every face of that 18,000 capacity audience.
Matty, inspired by the fans who’d sold out the O2 arena in mere days, months in advance, decided to address the crowd.
“I’m exhausted. It’s been a mental year, hasn’t it?” And he went on to give a succinct sermon on the need for finding compassion and common ground with those who voted for Trump and Brexit.
This wasn’t lip service. This wasn’t poll directed politically correct talk aimed at targeted audiences. This was the message young people desperately needed to hear in this time of frightening tumult. We’d all felt the isolation individually…the despondency…the anger. But no one had addressed our fears and need for guidance the way a 28-year old Gucci-clad pop star in black eyeliner had. This was the opposite of pop-fueled escapism. This was pleasure with a hefty side of political perspective. A spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
Inspired by both the London show and a reignited love affair of travel, I was optimistic about planning a life beyond mere existence. With the encouragement of my life coach, and a healthy zeitgeist I’d tapped into, I had materialized into the person I had probably always meant to be if I hadn’t been squashed and shamed at such a young age. 2016 was a year for the books.
Meanwhile, friends and colleagues were terrified and angry, feeling powerless to do anything. I knew better. On the contrary, I felt hope for the first time in a long time. I was part of the infantry of the hope army, tens of thousands strong, dispersed around the globe. I saw the future, and it was young kids, proud to be weird and queer and a bit obnoxious. To paraphrase Tina Fey, when’s the last time your cult did anything for you?
The most unexpected things began to happen on a daily basis. People began looking to me for guidance. My enthusiasm was infectious. People wanted a piece of the confident, take no prisoners affect I exhibited. I began attracting the right people into my life, and, moreover, garnering trust from people who had long ago written me off as a miserable bitch. High school acquaintances I hadn’t spoken to in 20 years, influenced by my Facebook posts, would forward articles to me about The 1975. Acquaintances would text me when they heard Matty give an interview on NPR, just to tell me they’d thought of me. They no longer mocked my obsession. They respected it, and they wanted to be a part of my narrative. With so much positive in my life, the hold my family had once had on me lost its merciless grip. Guilt no longer controlled me.
There was one last trip. New York City, June 1, 2017. Honestly, I didn’t think I could justify one more trip. But I got two discounted tickets to Madison Square Garden, and I thought it would be wasteful not to go. I just didn’t have anyone to go with.
I showed up in New York on May 31 with little to do on the five-day trip. But fortune shone on me in the form of a roller derby champion/roller dancing doctor named Samy I’d met on Tinder. Half an hour into meeting, we were drinking prosecco on his rooftop and kissing between longing looks. I knew instantly that Samy was a kindred spirit. I invited him to see Matty and the boys the next night. He said yes, and we spent that night in the throws of passion on his black satin sheets. And then the next day sunning on the High Line in Chelsea, followed by Gose beers at a bar.
By the time we reached our nosebleed seats at MSG, we were no longer strangers. Samy was all lips and hands. Less interested in the band than I, with good reason, I caught glimpses of him watching me dance in utter bliss as I, in turn, watched my band. I worried a bit that I looked like a complete idiot. But he whispered into my ear, “I love getting to know you by seeing what you love.”
And then a minor magical moment of pleasure happened. During this slow ballad, “Fallingforyou,” I felt the unchoreographed convergence of sonic bliss and carnal gratification. There’s this line in the song:
I don’t wanna be your friend, I wanna kiss your neck
Just as the words left Matty’s lips, Samy pulled me toward him and kissed my neck with firm passion. There was no way he could have planned that. But I had to catch myself from floating into the rafters.
At the end of the week I’d fallen in love for the second time, now with the city of New York. And all because of the faith it took to buy tickets to a show six months in advance and fly across the country.
In the three years of fandom, I’ve changed so much I don’t even recognize the old me. I returned to New York again and again and found a home. I’ve left Tucson for Brooklyn. My family has receded from my life. I’d feel guilty, but where had that ever gotten me?
The 1975 put out a new album last year. They’ve got this brilliant song decrying everything from drowned Syrian refugees to corporate prisons to racism and Trump’s treatment of women. Terrible truths of our time. And then a simple chorus of defiant hope repeated over and again.
I’d love it if we made it
I’ve got a ticket to Governor’s Ball in New York next month. On June 1, 2019, two years from the date of that MSG concert with Samy, I’ll be seeing my boys on stage for the eighth time.
Speaking of boys, Samy is not far away in Chelsea. And Michael on the Upper West Side. There are plenty of other friends and lovers I’ve amassed on my trips to this city, some solely on the basis of our mutual love of music in general and The 1975 in particular.
You can call The 1975 my guilty pleasure. I won’t mind. I know a thing or two about guilt. I’ll be the 39-year old woman in the crowd, reveling in the life I create from a love of bombastic synth pop and a curly-haired frontman. There won’t be a single moment of guilt, but infinite amounts of gratitude. I know the future is not guaranteed. But I’d love if we made it.