Chester Bennington, Linkin Park, and Stigma

When I was 13 years old, my Papa took me to an arcade in Weymouth, Massachusetts called Replay. We went there fairly frequently when I was that age. On this particular trip, though, I made it my mission to win Hybrid Theory on one of those “stop the light, win the prize” games. I spent $5 there, at 25 cents a play. I kept getting close, but I just couldn’t land it. As I walked away from the machine feeling disappointed, I turned back, thinking, “I can’t leave without giving this one more try.” The twenty-first try was the charm. I walked out of the arcade with an album I had never heard. The only song I knew was “In The End” because that was all over the radio that year. I had no idea I was about to discover the most influential band of my teenage years.

I have been debating writing this post since yesterday morning, when I heard that Chester Bennington, the co-founder and lead singer of Linkin Park, had died by suicide. I don’t want to be disrespectful to his family or friends. I don’t want to be sensationalist. But, after making several Facebook posts and sending out even more Tweets, I realized that I had a lot more to say than 141 characters or a paragraph or two on Facebook could ever express.

The early 2000’s were an interesting time for music, for the country, and in my home. At the time, my family had very strict rules around media consumption. My home was ruled by fundamentalist Christianity. I was attending a Baptist school, church, youth group, and was pretty much exclusively only allowed to listen to Christian music. All things secular were frowned upon or outright banned. However, for some reason I will never understand but for which I will forever be grateful, despite disapproving of the lyrics, my mom and step-father allowed me to keep that $5.25 Hybrid Theory album. I memorized every word and it was a constant fixture in my 5-disc changer. I didn’t know why I liked it so much. I didn’t have refined abilities of self-analysis at the time. I just knew that I didn’t think that it would be possible for me to love any other album as much as I loved that one.

Then, Meteora came out in 2003. The first time I listened to it, I remember being completely floored. It was the first (and, to this day, the only) time that I have ever listened to an album and felt such resonance. Every single lyric on that whole damn album felt custom written for me. It was like Linkin Park had taken a peek at my life, my relationships, into my thoughts, and written an entire album about it.

On one occasion, my mom was on the fence about allowing me to keep the Linkin Park albums I had. I was depressed and she knew it. She was worried that lyrics about depression and self-hatred and rage would fuel the darkness. I literally cried as I begged her to let me keep them. I remember trying to explain to her that Meteora felt like a safety blanket. Like I could almost wrap myself up in the guitar and turntables and drums and screams and rhymes. That was the only way I could explain how much that album meant to me. And it worked. I was able to keep the albums.

Yesterday, I went back and listened to Hybrid Theory and Meteora again. (I enjoy Linkin Park’s other albums as well, but the first two had such impact on my life, and I wanted to give them a re-listen and think about exactly why that was.)

Doesn’t it make sense that songs about depression would fuel depression? That songs about complete rage would fuel anger? That songs about being trapped in an unhealthy relationship would make you feel more helpless? Maybe for some people. But that was not the case for me. What happened for me was the opposite.

If you’ve ever faced depression, felt the destructive power of intrusive memories and thoughts, dreaded the sunset because your nights are so lonely and brutal you don’t know how you’ll get through, felt trapped in an abusive relationship (be it romantic, familial, with someone in authority over you, or in any other area of your life), or felt the creeping agitation of paranoia, you’ve likely felt completely alone in your experience. That’s part of the deal with any mental health struggle. You feel isolated, hopeless, unable to express yourself, and completely, utterly alone.

When I was a teenager, I was full of entirely inhibited anger. I acted like everything was OK. I was the easy-going, go-with-the-flow kid on the surface. My rage was so deeply buried that I couldn’t even begin to express it. And I sure as hell couldn’t go screaming at my stepfather or the church or my father or my mom or anyone else. The brutal honesty and ripping power of Chester’s screams gave voice to those truths I was not brave enough to yell, or even speak, myself. “Points of Authority”, “Don’t Stay”, “Hit The Floor”, and “One Step Closer” became my own, secret, personal anthems any time I was pissed off. There’s that old saying “depression is anger turned inward.” This was certainly the case for me as a teenager. I could not express myself safely, so I shoved everything inward until I took everything out on myself. I berated myself constantly for every mistake, large or small. I blamed myself for everything that went wrong anywhere in my vicinity. I took it out on my body through self injury. I still have the scars on my arm. Songs like “In The End”, “Somewhere I Belong”, “Numb”, “Run Away”, “Figure .09”, “Lying From You”, and “Crawling” helped me externalize those feelings, though. Those songs allowed me to get those thoughts out of my head. I could scream along until my throat hurt. I could rap every single line until my voice gave out. I could (and did) jump around my room and sing along until I was completely exhausted and I could finally sleep.

For the first time in my life, I knew that I wasn’t the only person in the world who felt the way I did. I wasn’t the only person with those thoughts, that anger, that depression. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that there were, at the very least, six other human beings on this planet who knew exactly what I felt and exactly what I wished I could say. And they knew how to say it. Chester and Mike Shinoda, in particularly, were my surrogate voice. I felt less broken listening to those albums. I felt less damaged. I felt less alone. 

None of the songs held some empty promise of things “getting better.” It wasn’t “you’re depressed/anxious/paranoid/traumatized now, but you won’t always be.” It wasn’t “you’re suicidal now, but that will pass.” Each album, each lyric, was about the constant battle we fight in life. The idea that we will, to some degree, live with our demons forever. For me, it was never about “getting over it” or “being better”, it was about keeping the tenacity and energy alive to continue on, even when it felt impossible. And to do that, day after day, week after week, year after year. Linkin Park’s albums have been constants in my life, on that journey. An understanding companion. A little reminder that I wasn’t facing this stuff on my own. It was never about some magical moment of healing – anyone with mental health struggles knows that. It was about acknowledging the pain, the struggle, the constant battle to make it from one day to the next. And it was about opening lines of communication with friends – midnight conversations about the lyrics of “With You” or “Easier to Run” that lead to some serious soul bearing. It was about finding connection when that felt impossible.

And that’s what we talk about when we talk about fighting stigma. We talk about cultivating a society in which people facing mental health struggles feel validated, feel supported, and feel less alone. We talk about connection, about sharing our thoughts and stories, and about coming together to show the world that we are not much different from everyone else.

Through the lyrics and songs he helped write, Chester Bennington shared his struggles, screamed his frustrations, and gave voice to the emotional truth of being a human being – sometimes, our brains betray us, sometimes things really fucking suck, sometimes we feel hopeless, sometimes we are bombarded with unwanted memories, sometimes we lose ourselves trying to be who everyone else expects, and sometimes we feel so trapped that we reach a boiling point and have to scream at the top of our lungs “Give me myself back and don’t stay!”

I can say, for certain, that I do not know where teenage me would have ended up were it not for that prize machine at Replay. I don’t want to be over-dramatic, but I honestly believe that, had Linkin Park not fallen into my life, and had I not realized that I was not, in fact, alone in my pain and in my thoughts, I would very likely not have made it to high school graduation. There were other factors at play in my life, too, of course. Hybrid Theory was not a savior; Meteora was not a Bible. I had (and still have) an amazing best friend, with whom I had many, many deep conversations as we both tried to make sense of our lives. I had other music. I had my own writing. But Linkin Park’s first two albums were the soundtrack to those conversations, they were number one out of all the bands I loved, they were inspiration for much of my own writing, and they were a major contributing factor to me being able to stick it out. Linkin Park’s albums have been a constant companion to me in each stage of life, and I love each one for different reasons, but back then, in my teenage years, those albums, and Chester’s voice in particular, was an undeniable, all encompassing, high volume, pure energy reminder that I was not alone. And that did save me, in one way or another.

And if the thousands of Tweets, Facebook posts, and comments I’ve read in the last two days are any indication, I am not alone in feeling that way. That is Chester Bennington’s legacy. His voice became our voice. His screams, our screams. His lyrics, our validation. His pain, our healing.

That is the power of art. That is the magic of music.

I wish with everything I have that he had something equal to what he gave to all of us. There are people who are alive because Chester Bennington existed. There are people who are struggling every day to keep going because Chester Bennington’s raw honesty, vulnerability, and energy fueled their determination to do so. There are new artists who exist because Chester Bennington inspired them to create. These performers will write lyrics that reach out and hold an entire new generation of scared, hurting, confused kids the same way Linkin Park did for us.

I didn’t know Chester Bennington personally. I am not grieving in the way that his family and friends are. Losing a loved one is hard. Losing a loved one to suicide is harder. My heart breaks for Chester’s family. My heart breaks that Chester himself grew too weary of the ongoing battle. But I will be forever thankful to him, and to the rest of Linkin Park. The impact he and the band had on my life, and on so many other lives, cannot be understated. His legacy is cemented.

It’s easy, in times like these, to feel hopeless. Losing an icon of your own resilience can really throw you. I know it’s thrown me the last two days. I’m not going to tell you it will get better. But I am going to tell you the same thing Hybrid Theory and Meteora, largely through Chester’s voice, told me over a decade ago. You are not alone. You are not broken. You are strong. You have a voice. You have power. There is always someone listening. There is always someone who understands.

(These are not empty platitudes I’m throwing your way. If you think that you have no one to talk to, message me. Because you matter.)

If you or someone you know are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out. Tell a trusted loved one, a doctor, a therapist, or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

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