The other day I had a conversation with a father about his son’s fashion choices in middle school.
“He was goth,” the man told me. “For several years he only wore black, head to foot.”
Before going into an analysis of the goth phenomenon, I think it’s important to define what “goth” means. That’s tough to do, because the fashion takes on so many faces depending on the individual, but essentially, it’s “a dark, sometimes morbid fashion and style of dress… goth fashion includes a pale complexion with colored black hair, black lips and black clothes.” (Although taken from as dubious a source as Wikipedia, I’d argue the definition of goth in this context is subjective, and this one works for me.) For a strict definition of what goth is, that about covers it.
What this man wanted to know, however, is what goth means. Especially when I told him that his son’s dress style sounded like a carbon copy of my own when I was in middle school – and we both developed bipolar disorder early in life.
“Do you think there’s a connection between the style and the disease?” he asked me, desperate.
I’ve had plenty of time to think about why this lacy, all-black look seemed to make so much sense to me in the years immediately following my diagnosis, which were some of the hardest of my life. Though I hardly dress in that style anymore, mostly for reasons pertaining to cultural normativity, it maintains its appeal to me as strongly as it did ten years ago, when I walked around in it every day. For me, being goth boils down to two essential areas of personal expression: identity and aesthetic.
(I should note here that as my diagnosis is bipolar II disorder, my bipolarity mostly manifests as depression. For that reason, my arguments in this article will pertain mainly – though certainly not exclusively – to those who have suffered from depression, whether it’s unipolar, bipolar, schizophrenic, or any other kind.)
In order to understand to just what extent depression can take over a person’s identity, consider that while the disease’s symptoms are real and biological, they are also almost entirely in our heads – that is, they begin in the brain, where they’re difficult, if not impossible, to measure. If a teenager with very few years’ experience with adult sadness starts to feel sad all the time, how is that young person supposed to be able to see the line between healthy emotion and insidious depression, if depression can’t literally be seen? (This question exists, of course, for mentally ill people of all ages. The younger a person is, however, the more difficult it tends to be to differentiate between honest sadness and mental illness, because they probably have less experience with the former.) Pretty much every symptom of depression – fatigue, changes in sleep and appetite, feelings of hopelessness, and so on – blurs the line between medical manifestation and personality trait.
Under these circumstances, it’s easy for those like us with depression to misattribute the pain we’re experiencing to something inherent in our personalities. The pain doesn’t seem to just happen to us. It seems to be us.
And here my generalizations to the larger depressed population must end, because I can only speak from my own experience as a sick young child. When I was about 12, one of the only recourses I could see to effectively cope with my brand-new, overwhelming feelings of depressive misery was to wear them, physically, in black, as if my suffering were seeping out through my skin. This is me, I was saying. I am my pain.
It’s also important to consider what this awful psychic suffering does to a child over time, especially when it’s constant, or nearly so. That sort of unnatural, prolonged encounter with agony tends to cause a young person to grow up very, very quickly. Maturity is all about understanding how the world works, and adapting to it – both of which I was forced to do prematurely as I sank to depths that my peers couldn’t fathom, because they didn’t know the very real pain of depression. So that became my identity: the weird girl who got picked on for dressing like Amy Lee, because I was the only one in my class who saw the Lovecraftian horrors of existence lurking under my peers’ superficial lifestyle of extracurriculars and math homework.
In order to unearth the connection between depression and goth culture, comprehending the goth fashion style as an aesthetic is just as important as understanding it as an identity. Because of my experiences with darkness, I understand its morose allure better than most. I’ve been adapting to its presence around me for many years, and as a survival technique I’ve learned to seek out its perverse beauty, to create a graceful aesthetic out of the pain to make it more worth suffering.*
By dressing in black as a younger girl, I was saying I see the beauty in pain, and I’m wearing it all over my body. For me, sadness evokes images of rain and snowy forests and brushstrokes of greens and purples. The gorgeousness of that aesthetic is my prize for suffering long and deep enough to understand it.
By associating the pain of depression with the artistry of my clothing choices and makeup, I was flavoring the negative experience of having a mood disorder with a specific beauty that can’t be known otherwise, and reclaiming the black.
There will always be those, of course, who assume young people dress darkly as a cry for attention, an immature stunt, or an honest but failed attempt at comprehending true pain. These people carry a thousand imagined excuses for our behavior at their fingertips, but ultimately misunderstand why a young person suffering from a mental illness would want to reclaim their disease through dress and makeup. Personally, by aligning myself with the goth crowd, I was making sure that no one mistook me for not suffering, because I had already been to the depths of depressive anguish, I had survived them, and they had transformed me into an adult in a child’s body, waiting for everyone else to grow up. While other kids my age rejoiced in pastels, I dressed like I’d just come home from war, because I had.
*To better understand this aesthetic, try reading Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, or listening to Evanescence. Trigger warning: don’t do both at the same time.