How twenty one pilots Saved My Life

I know most of the stuff I post on here has to do with one of two things: writing or reading. But today, I’m going to take a risk and post something different instead.

This is going to be a more personal post than what I normally write on this blog, but I figure it’s better I write this now, not later.

Tomorrow, I’m going with my mother to see a twenty one pilots concert, and I’m a bundle of nerves.

I’ve been to a few concerts in the past, but they were a much bigger deal than this in that I’d dressed specially, had to drive forever to get there, got there several hours early, and basically moved Heaven and Earth in every way possible schedule-wise. Neither my mother nor I really have a plan (which is so unlike me), besides to get there about 90 minutes early and get in line.

But I’m not just nervous because I have no plan. I’m nervous because, though I’ve known Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph very intimately through their music for a little more than a year now, I actually get to see them in person tomorrow. And, for me, this is a huge deal. I’m going to try to explain why here.

Before “Heathens” came out, a lot of people (meaning people who don’t go to my school) had no clue who twenty one pilots were, and so, when I’d bring the band name up in conversation, they’d get this confused look on their face and say, “Oh, who are they? I’ve never heard of them before.”

“They’re my favorite band,” I’d say, because they are. I couldn’t really explain their genre very well (ukulele screamo, anyone?) or the subjects they sang/rapped/screamed about without making them sound like some sort of B-grade emo band (“They sing about suicide and anxiety and depression”) but they’re really much more than that. Those two guys saved my life.

When I was little, I wanted to be a mermaid. So much so that I was convinced it was going to happen. If any adult asked five-year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer, “A mermaid,” and I’d mean it. Part of this had to do with Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I was insanely jealous that Ariel was a mermaid, and I wasn’t. As far as I was concerned, she could have just traded me her fins for my legs; Ursula didn’t even have to be part of the picture.

I was fascinated with the idea of stealing someone else’s voice and using it for your own purposes. I was enthralled with the idea of giving up your own beautiful voice (five-year-old me thought Ariel’s voice was the prettiest) for the sake of finding your true love.

And I loved the ocean, too. I always wondered what would happen if I walked into it one day and just let it swallow me up completely. (Funnily enough, this thought inspired my first story ever and led to me becoming a writer.) It was so huge and so mysterious. I got older, and, while I now knew I couldn’t be a mermaid as a vocation, my fascination with the ocean never faded fully.

Little did I know that, in a few years, a darker, deeper ocean would pull me in with its currents, almost drown me, and spit me up somewhere, all washed out and shivering. Just like Ariel, I was going to lose my singing voice.

I’d been singing since kindergarten, when my family had first discovered Celtic Woman. I had a good ear, and the uncanny ability to memorize things quickly. My homeroom teacher noticed me and took me to the school music teacher, asking me to sing for him. My parents later enrolled me in one of his classes at the Colburn School of Music, where I trained for several years before we moved for my dad’s work.

After the move, I continued singing, joining a youth choir for a few months before I joined church choir. The latter was a perfect fit for me. I loved the hymns and the music and the four- (or sometimes two-) part arrangements. The choir area was my home. It was where I belonged. Music was a language I was becoming fluent in, and all the other choir members were my friends. Being a soprano in that choir became my defining trait. Almost every Sunday, someone would compliment me and my voice, and I always smiled widely and thanked them for it.

Then everything changed.

In 2014, while I was singing in another church choir at a conference for my dad’s work, I noticed I was having trouble hitting a high E. This concerned me; while my range wasn’t first soprano, I’d never had trouble hitting that note before. I blamed it on vocal fatigue and the air conditioning in my family’s hotel room, and kept singing.

After the conference, my throat was shot. I was constantly thirsty, it hurt if I talked too much, and I had a lot of trouble singing. This would have been okay under normal circumstances (it was the middle of summer), but I had a music retreat I was going to in two weeks. I couldn’t afford to lose my voice now.

So, once again chalking these things up to vocal fatigue, I rested my voice for almost a full two weeks, not singing and barely speaking in hopes that the problem would fix itself, whatever it was.

Only, it didn’t. I went to the music conference, and could barely sing a thing. I talked to several people there who worked with the voice for a living, and, while they could give me tips, they couldn’t tell me what was wrong. So I went to an ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat) specialist to figure out what was going on. In a very uncomfortable procedure, they stuck a camera through my nostril and down my throat to look at my vocal cords, only to inform me that I had a pair of very small vocal nodules there. I was advised to go on vocal rest for a few months, and then they’d scope my throat again to see if anything had changed.

I was devastated, so much so that I actually had a breakdown in the doctor’s office. I texted my choir director immediately to tell him the news: No singing, none at all. Not for me, not for anybody.

Earlier that year, I’d begun having anxiety attacks and depressive episodes. After I received the news that I shouldn’t be singing for several months, both the depression and anxiety hit me like a train. I dropped out of choir. I was antsy at church. I hated myself for what was wrong with my throat, and I hated my voice for failing me.

Before this point, I had planned to major in Music Education and become a choir director or a music teacher. Now, I had no clue what I wanted to major in; you can’t work in music if you can’t give pitches, I reasoned, and I didn’t know how long the nodules were going to last for.

Before vocal rest, I’d known who I was and what I wanted. Now, I had no clue.

School started up again, and I managed as best as I could, throwing myself into homework and assignments. I’d always been a good student, but now I was more dedicated; in my eyes, schoolwork and studying were the only things I was good at. And, the longer I was in school, the more I realized I liked it. I fell in love with my subjects, the people who taught them, and my campus. I fell in love with learning. I made friends–ones outside of church who never had expectations of me, because they didn’t know I could sing. I was one of the sweetest people they knew, they told me.

And I found that really hard to believe, because, while I looked happy, I was often very lonely and still grieving the loss of my voice. Inside, I was bitter.

Some of this bitterness, along with some BANKS songs, inspired a story idea involving vampires, faith, and friendship. That November I developed it further, and I started writing my second NaNoWriMo novel (for more info about NaNo, check out my post here). Almost two years later, I’m still working on this novel; it’s my current WiP, and I think working on it has really helped me grow as a writer and as a person. It’s been a cathartic experience for me.

But there were still those tough times, those moments or days or even weeks where I stared into the abyss and begged it to swallow me whole, where my heart was racing so quickly I couldn’t sleep or breathe, but I had no clue why.

And that’s when I discovered twenty one pilots. Their album Blurryface had just recently come out, and some of my fellow writers were raving about their music on a Goodreads forum. So I looked up “Tear in My Heart,” and, though their sound was…unconventional, for lack of a better word, I liked it. I listened to all the songs on Blurryface, and fell in love with the album. Then I checked out Vessel, and fell in love with that album, too.

People ask me why I like twenty one pilots so much, and there are multiple reasons why.

  1. their sound
  2. their lyrics and the important messages they send about mental health and self-acceptance
  3. the role they’ve played in my life

1. Their Sound

Okay, yeah, it’s an acquired taste. I’m not going to make you love their sound if you don’t. (My dad doesn’t.) In a lot of the songs, there’s a mix of rap and singing. For some people, that’s weird.

But, for me, it was perfect. When I discovered twenty one pilots, I was still on vocal rest, which meant I couldn’t sing. But nobody said I couldn’t rap. This mix of speaking and singing enabled me to “sing along” with their music, and made things feel a little more normal for me.

 2. Their Lyrics

This is the big kicker for me. Not only are their lyrics so relatable and honest, but they’re beautiful and hopeful. Most of the songs this band sings are about dealing with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. These lyrics acknowledge feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, fear, despair, sadness, and loneliness; validate them (meaning that they say it’s okay to feel that way sometimes, not that they encourage you to feel that way); and encourage people feeling them to keep fighting for survival and slugging it out.

Here’s an example of that in “Ode to Sleep” (emphasis mine):

I’ll stay awake,
‘Cause the dark’s not taking prisoners tonight.

Why am I not scared in the morning?
I don’t hear those voices calling,
I must have kicked them out, I must have kicked them out,
I swear I heard demons yelling,
Those crazy words they were spelling,
They told me I was gone, they told me I was gone.

But I’ll tell them,
Why won’t you let me go?
Do I threaten all your plans?
I’m insignificant,
Please tell them, you have no plans for me,
I will set my soul on fire, what have I become?
I’ll tell them, you have no plans for me,
I will set my soul on fire,
What have I become?
I’ll tell them,
I’ll tell them…

And, as someone who has struggled with suicidal thoughts on multiple occasions, please believe me when I say this kind of encouragement is crucial to people who are feeling this way.

Check out these verses from “Holding on to You” (again, emphasis mine):

Remember the moment
You know exactly where you’re going,
‘Cause the next moment,
Before you know it, time is slowing
And it’s frozen still,
And the window sill looks really nice, right?
You think twice about your life,
It probably happens at night,

Fight it,
Take the pain, ignite it,
Tie a noose around your mind
Loose enough to breathe fine and tie it
To a tree. Tell it, “You belong to me.
This ain’t a noose, this is a leash.
And I have news for you: you must obey me.”

People who struggle with these things are struggling against their own brains. Their own thoughts are telling them to give up because it’s too painful, it’s not worth it, you’re not worth it.

You think arguing daily with someone else is exhausting? Try arguing with your own head.

By singing about these things, twenty one pilots is saying, at its most basic level, “Hey, I’m sorry you feel that way. I feel that way sometimes, too, and it’s not fun. But you’re stronger than that, and, if you’re not stronger than that right now, I’ll make you strong. I’ll carry you.” (The song “Friend, Please” ? It’s all about trying to talk a friend out of suicide, and it’s beautiful.)

One example of this is from “Truce”:

Stay alive, stay alive for me.

That’s another aspect of their music I love so much. It’s not an “us and them” mentality. It’s “all of us,” which just so happens to include Tyler and Josh.

UPDATE: They actually said this at our concert. ^_^

Here are some examples of this.

From “Fake You Out”:

What kids are doing are killing themselves
They feel they have no control of their prisoner’s cell
And if you’re one of them then you’re one of me
And you would do almost anything just to feel free…
Am I right? Of course I am
Convince me otherwise would take all night
Before you walk away, there’s one more thing I want to say
Our brains are sick but that’s okay

From “Polarize”:

Help me polarize, help me polarize,
Help me out,
My friends and I, we’ve got a lot of problems.

From “Heathens”:

All my friends are Heathens, take it slow…

And, finally, from “Screen”:

While you’re doing fine, there’s some people and I
Who have a really tough time getting through this life
So excuse us while we sing to the sky.

I’m standing in front of you
I’m standing in front of you
I’m trying to be so cool
Everything together trying to be so cool…

We’re broken
We’re broken
We’re broken
We’re broken people, oh.
We’re broken people, oh.

We’re not just their fans–we’re their friends.

When Tyler sings, he’s not just speaking to us; he’s speaking with us and for us. And what he’s saying to the whole wide world is “Hey, we’re here, and we’re hurting, and we can’t make the pain go away, but, if we have to bear that pain, we’re going to do it together.”

Isn’t that just beautiful?

3. The Role They’ve Played in my Life

I discovered twenty one pilots at the best possible time in my life–which just happened to be the worst part of my life. When my best friend–who had finally given up on me after dealing with everything my anxiety and depression brought to our friendship–dumped me, I cried my eyes out while listening to Vessel. Whenever I’m feeling depressed, I listen to “Goner.” Every one of their songs has helped me in some way, whether it’s to give me hope, to calm my anxiety, or just to make me happy. It’s as Tyler says in “Lane Boy”:

If it wasn’t for this music, I don’t know how I would have fought this.

And I’m so grateful for them. Really, I am. Because they’ve been through all of it with me–the entire roller coaster–and they’ve never gotten frustrated with me or left me. They’ve just sung and screamed and beat those drums to the rhythm of my too-fastly-beating heart, and reminded me to just breathe and listen.

Remember that girl who didn’t know who or what she wanted to be? Well, I’ve figured it out: English (and maybe Journalism) major, hopefully a high school teacher. (Or maybe a yearbook adviser. I’ll probably do both.) And I’m going to keep reading and writing. I’m going to write stories about people who love fiercely and get scared without having a reason to, people who hit the bottom regularly because of the way their brain chemistry works. I’m going to write about warriors, fighters, survivors.

Because I am one. And it’ll always be a battle, but there’s no way I would have made it this far without Tyler and Josh. Thanks a million, you two. |-/


6 thoughts on “How twenty one pilots Saved My Life

  1. (I’ve posted this comment a few times already but it’s not showing up so I’ll try again but sorry for the spam if it actually is working.. Anywayyy…)

    It’s crazy because I can relate to every part of this and no else gets it but apparently you do and I’m happy because it’s not just me but I’m also sad because it’s not just me and you are amazing and you need realise it bae ilysm |-/

    *stay alive, stay alive, for me//you will die, but now your life is free*

    1. Hi, friend! Aw, it’s nice to know I’m not alone. *high fives* (And you’re not alone, either. No one’s ever alone, although sometimes it seems that way.)

      Thank you so much for reading and leaving a reply. It means a ton. ❤ |-/

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