As a teenager, I barely understood my own mental health. I grew up in a pretty toxic environment and was afraid of everything, so around the age of four I developed obsessive compulsive disorder in an attempt to feel like I had some control over my life—although I didn't have a word for it until later. I would wake up at 5AM to perform compulsive rituals before school: everything had to be clean, perfect, checked, proper. As you'd expect, that left me fucking exhausted and, despite being a smart kid, my performance at school nosedived. To cope, I turned to self-harm, booze and—for a while—prescription pills rather than talk to my family. I had my heart set on self-destructing. That is, until I found an unlikely helping hand in the form of the Minneapolis nerd-rock band Motion City Soundtrack.
Like many other 13-year-olds in the mid-00s, I was into emo. Most of the music I listened to discussed mental health, albeit in an often melodramatic or metaphorical way. My friends and I would walk around the countryside, drunk and usually a little high, blasting songs on tinny Sony Walkman phones that we'd downloaded off LimeWire. Bands like Dashboard Confessional and From First to Last allowed me to wallow, but they didn't help me figure out what was actually wrong. Eventually, a friend introduced me to Motion City Soundtrack's "Let's Get Fucked Up And Die" and I was immediately captivated.
In the song, vocalist Justin Pierre sings openly and viscerally about feeling distant from humanity and about his complete commitment to substances, but it sounded a whole lot less dire and whiny than the other music I listened to. Motion City Soundtrack often sneak serious lyrics into ostensibly pop-sounding songs, but "Let's Get Fucked Up And Die" builds slowly, entirely imbued with emotion and honesty. For better or worse, the lyrics—"I believe that I can overcome this and beat everything in the end / but I choose to abuse for the time being / maybe I'll win, but for now I've decided to die"—spoke to my exact situation and resolute, suicidal hopelessness.
Due to their playful exterior, Motion City often don't get the credit they deserve. Sure, they were silly, nerdy, and aggressively committed to Moogs, but they also sang truthfully and specifically about mental health, even down to the details of serotonin synapses. I went home that day and I immediately listened to Commit This to Memory in full. "Let's Get Fucked Up And Die" may have reeled me in, but "Everything Is Alright" helped me name my anxieties; I didn't know anyone who felt like I did until I heard Justin Pierre singing, "I'm sick of the things I do when I'm nervous / like cleaning the oven or checking my tires." Pierre told Alt Press that during this time he was "in the middle of some sort of weirdness that some people could label as OCD." Throughout their first two albums Pierre sang of his neuroticism and a dependency on substances that would lead him to seek treatment during the writing of Commit This to Memory. I thought my pills were fine because they weren't illegal; Motion City made me consider otherwise.
Even If It Kills Me, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, marked a new era for the band. It was, on the surface, a lot cleaner-sounding and more upbeat than their previous work. They hoped that it would "propel [them] into a Fall Out Boy-like orbit within the mainstream." It did not. It was, however, released at a crucial time in my life; a time when I, like Pierre, was trying to choose recovery. I bought the album and listened to it at home alone, the same way I listened to everything back when I had an attention span; quietly, if a little buzzed, with my knees to my chin. I found that it dealt with the same dark themes as their earlier work, but was more hopeful—a commitment to recovery, no matter what. While they were making it, Pierre's substance abuse almost broke up the band. Of that time, guitarist Joshua Cain said, "Justin was in such a bad state of mind when he wrote our last album that it turned out to be a really grim record—whereas this record is more about being lonely and less about being self-loathing."
Even If It Kills Me was far less grim and more euphemistic than Commit This To Memory, but it still dealt with mental health and saw Pierre flitting manically between deep depression and anxious, neurotic lows. "Can't Finish What You Started" cited a boredom and antsiness that was familiar to me. The lyrics—"I know it's hard without a vice, you need to find a new solution / adaptation or retribution"—advocated explicitly for finding a way to live without drugs or self harm. Justin Pierre was evidently still suffering, but he could see a future. Even If It Kills Me showed me that things could get better, that wallowing or hiding from my problems weren't the only options. I quit self harming, I stopped taking pills, I fell in love. I felt a little bit better.
Until around my 17th birthday, when during a particularly difficult time at home my mental health plummeted drastically. A week or so later I had tickets to see Motion City Soundtrack for the first time, but I was so anxious and riddled with OCD I considered not going at all. In the end I decided to go after all, and for a few hours I could be a normal teenager—one with only myself to worry about. I screamed and I cried and I felt free. Onstage Justin joked about his OCD, his substance abuse, his neuroses. I saw a man who had come through the other side and still had a good sense of humour, and I saw two options; to recover, or to die. I met him afterwards and we chatted, but I didn't tell him anything. I just had fun.
My OCD reached critical levels before it improved, but I was committing to not relapsing completely, to not sinking back into pills or self harm. At 17, I finally went to the doctor with a list of over 150 fears I had and rituals that I performed every day. I got a diagnosis of, "yes, of course you have OCD, Jesus Christ please get help immediately," and I listened to Even If It Kills Me a lot throughout treatment. I read the album as a promise to recover, even if it was the last thing Pierre did. I had previously thought that recovery meant being entirely better, but that album taught me that I would perhaps never be quite right, that I would always be obsessive and neurotic and traumatized.
Motion City Soundtrack, may they rest in peace, were nerdy and upbeat. Generally people remember them for their MTV2 staple "The Future Freaks Me Out" and its corresponding OK Go-via-Pavement video, which gives off the impression of a bunch of extroverts having a laugh, offsetting the fact that the song is about introversion and anxiety completely destroying a relationship. Beneath the band's glossy surface was a messy and honest depiction of Pierre's neuroses, of rehabilitation, of the resulting failures that are normal within recovery.
His candidness about this, both on Even If It Kills Me—and in interviews where he said things like, "I may or may not be bipolar, have crippling panic attacks, and exhausting OCD. I may or may not be an alcoholic. I made a decision to turn my life around and set about it slowly, day after day, step by grueling step, over the course of several years"—helped guide me through my recovery and years I might not have lived to see otherwise. On the album's closing track, over a plucky guitar line and skittish drums, Pierre sings of his commitment to getting better while acknowledging that these things never go away: "the sad truth of the matter is / I'll never get over it / but I'm gonna try / to get better and overcome each moment / in my own way / I so want to get back on track / and I'll do whatever it takes, even if it kills me."
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_If you or someone you know have been struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, the Samaritans in the UK can be contacted seven days a week, at any time, on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. You can find the rest of our Mental Health Awareness Week content here._