Getting Bent

Yesterday, I noticed a theme on my Facebook news feed; many of my ‘net friends were making posts about Straight-Edge. It soon became apparent that October 17th was Straight-Edge Day. I don’t know where the idea for this punk rock Hallmark holiday came from, but as with the Straight-Edge movement itself, everybody seems to have an opinion about it, and many maladjusted people looking for an excuse to get into an argument have found just that.

Straight-Edge is an often-misunderstood social movement with subterranean origins, so it’s no surprise that it’s a sticky and sensitive issue for some people, and a potentially baffling one if you didn’t come of age in the hardcore punk scene from which it originates. It’s sort of contradictory at first glance: turning a puritanical code of conduct-no drinking, no drugs (some interpretations also mandate a vegan diet or rule out casual/conquest-driven sex)-into a rebellious statement. “Radical sobriety,” as some people put it. I don’t want to split hairs about its meaning or its moral virtue. I only want to tell you what it means to me.

For the record, I’m not Straight-Edge. But I was for many, many years, and it was an important part of my life while it lasted. It started while I was in middle school, the period when most kids first get exposed to drugs. However, I never got the chance to be one of the cool kids partying down while somebody’s parents were out of town, or one of the heshers cutting class to get high in the woods behind the building. I was in an alternative school, the county’s last resort for “bad kids”  before they lock your ass up, and many of my classmates had crossed the line from partying or innocent escapism into something much more pathological. Some of them had already been in and out of jail and rehab. Some of them were 15, 16 years old and still in the 7th or 8th grade. This was my first impression of drug and alcohol use, and it saddened and scared the shit out of me. Watching members of my immediate family succumb to addiction over the next few years only reinforced this.

Meanwhile, I was also discovering punk and hardcore. I inevitably came across the Straight-Edge philosophy that some of these bands espoused in their lyrics, and it instantly clicked. It was so simple to me: a clear and unclouded mind makes the wisest choices and gives you the fullest control over your actions. After what I’d witnessed at school and at home, and as I progressed through adolescence and saw more and more of my peers drink, smoke and snort their youthful vitality away, this outlook made such perfect sense to me that I couldn’t see the point in living any other way. I clung to it for dear life.

But then adulthood crashed down on me. A few years out of high school, I took stock of my life and realized I wasn’t doing any better than my non-Edge friends who just didn’t understand why I wouldn’t party with them. How clear and unclouded could a mind really be that flunks out of school, is barely capable of holding down the most menial of jobs, and is prone to panic attacks and depression? I couldn’t use intoxicants as a scapegoat anymore. Whatever is behind the misery and malaise that makes so many of us self-destruct runs far deeper than a bottle or a pipe, and it doesn’t discriminate based on what you do or don’t put in your body. Ironically, my rigid beliefs had fogged my judgment just as much as drugs would have.

This epiphany scared me, and predictably enough, I soothed myself with various substances. It didn’t take long, though, to figure out that replacing one extreme with another wasn’t going to help. As it stands now, several years later, I’m a here-and-there social drinker/smoker working at a bar, and I’ve got no regrets. It’s not my place to say what the Edge means for anyone else, but for me it was a very important stepping stone on the road from troubled youth to much-less-troubled-but-far-from-perfect adult. I couldn’t have gotten here without it.