My adolescence was that of the Awkward Church Girl. Okay, not the average ACG. Though I did occasionally wear skirts down to my knees, I was much more likely to be seen in baggy jeans and a Christian band t-shirt. Yes. I had several Christian band t-shirts.
I was never very good at being a modest church mouse. I had no interest in cooking, or cleaning, or especially children. I had strong opinions and a loud voice to proclaim them with. So I became the other breed of ACG, Awkward Church Guy. I was just one of the dudes. I read Lord of the Rings, played Age of Empires I, II and III, and listened to Relient K.
I frickin’ loved Relient K.
Matt Thiessen was the narrator of my adolescence… and my dream guy. With his dirty blonde mop top and his big puppy dog eyes, he was not your average Awkward Church Guy. But he was my favorite type of Awkward Church Guy. His lyrics, even then, revealed an unsettled relationship with his God and his Religion. Behind clever word play and a biting sense of sardonicism, Matt Theissen hid his narrative of struggling to be both the good Christian boy everyone expected him to be, and the brilliant, overtly irreverent, man he knew he was meant to become.
I remember the first time I found that orange and gray CD with the black and white shot of the band slouching against a wall, (Ramones style) just like how our parents told us not to stand. I let it spin and from that first hyperactive drum intro, I was hooked. Relient K sang about all the things I was feeling. My frustration with the hypocrisy of church infighting was there in “Down in Flames.” The humming hook of “Breakdown” gave a cadence to just about every groan of futility that I uttered. Then there was the line, “I’m still trying twice as hard to satisfy myself on my own,” which seemed to be the underlying frustration of my religious experience… It was all there, right down to the giggles that “May the Horse Be With You” never failed to induce. Heck, it still makes me giggle.
That was 2001. That was The Anatomy of the Tongue In Cheek. I was 12.
A few years passed and I got a little older, but not very much wiser. I was still an ACG of the highest order. I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye and I asked my parents for a promise ring. Though one of Matt Theissen’s mood rings would have probably done me more good. The concept of romantic relationships terrified me, and yet I felt an unquenchable desire to embark on one with… well someone… I frequently found myself holding my guy friends at arm’s length physically, while intellectually and emotionally getting as entangled as it was possible for a fourteen year old to get. I had all of these new sexual things buzzing around in my psyche, and nowhere constructive to direct them. Simultaneously, I was learning all of these new things about God, and church, and what was expected of me as a young Christian woman. Even though I tried to pretend to squeeze myself into the mold, I was internally busting every seam.
Once again Matt gave word to all my frustrations, “I’ve been banging my head agains the wall for so long it seems I got knocked out.” More often than not, I found myself socially and religiously face down, tasting the coffee tinged carpet of “Falling Out.” “I was thinking, overthinking” every interaction with the opposite sex that I had, and found myself becoming more an more reclusive, limiting myself to the few guy friends that I knew and trusted. Little did I know, most of those guys had a crush on me at one point or another.
I was trying to make sense of all of it, but more often than not, I found myself touching the positive with the negative end and finding myself alone in the dark of my room, crying with the effort to not satisfy my urges myself. But in those dark moments, I still had Matt’s voice telling me that at my worst moments, I was understood by a God that anticipated all my failures and loved me anyways. “You’re the only one who understands completely. You’re the only one who knows me, yet still loves me completely.” In a subculture full of lies and secrets, his honesty let me know that I wasn’t the only one who was hurting.
That was 2003. That was Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right… but Three Do. I was 14.
The following year, I was a freshman in high school. It was quite possibly the peak of my awkwardness. I spent half of the school day at a program for kids that were gifted in math and science. I was fairly gifted in math and hopeless at science, so for me it was more an exercise in humility. For the first time, I worked hard on assignments only to get Cs and Ds and even the occasional F.
It kind of sucked.
Once again, Relient K was my escape. I had a royal blue walkman and I spun Mmhmm every day on the bus ride from Math/Science Center back to dumb school. I can’t help it, I have to type this whole chorus. Forgive my moment of fangirling.
I’ve been housing all this doubt and insecurity,
and I’ve been locked inside that house.
All the while you hold the key,
and I’ve been dying to get out,
and that might be the death of me.
And even though there’s no way of knowing
where to go,
I promise I’m going, because
I gotta get outta here.
I’m stuck inside this rut I fell into by mistake.
I gotta get outta here,
and I’m begging you,
I’m begging you,
I’m begging you to be my escape.
Looking back on those days, I can see the beginnings of the melancholy and anxiety that have nipped at the heels of my adult life. At the time, I was just another teenager that was miserable for no good reason. The hardest part for me was that I knew I had no reason to be miserable, and that just made me more angry with myself. It was a strange cycle. But on those afternoon bus rides, with my head pressed against the cool glass of the bus window, I still had Matt’s voice reminding me that at the very least, “I’m a little more than useless.”
Heck, I still put that song on when I’m angry at myself. And that still happens way more often than I care to admit.
That was 2004. That was Mmhmm. I was 15.
A few years passed. I survived high school somehow. Just like the vast majority of teenagers, I miraculously made it through those four years with only a few scars and personality ticks. And for the remaining three years, Relient K remained silent. I had three glorious albums and one okay premiere album to sustain me through those years.
I stubbornly refused to date, though I had awkward, emotionally intimate friendships with guys from church. We would talk about music, and books, and how, as soon as we graduated, we were getting out of this pit of a rural town. We would joke about how we were going to run away together.
Then I graduated and my best graduation present to myself was Five Score and Seven Years Ago. That, and a friend of mine and I finally came right out and said that we liked one another. (Actually, I might have ultimately forced him to say something, now that I think back on it…) We started dating and made our first attempts at developing an awkward, stunted, suppressed kind of sexuality that probably was psychologically worse for us than just giving in and “doing it.”
Still, in spite of the awkwardness and the fact that we were attempting our first ever relationship over a long distance at the same time that I was going to college for the first time, I kept trying to make our story fit “The Best Thing” and “I’m Taking You With Me.”
I found myself alone at a Christian college where no one ever touched me.
Starved for real contact, I found myself crashing against the edge of my sanity on several occasions. And even though I was doing everything that I thought God wanted me to do, I understood Matt’s strained repetition of, “I have not been abandoned, no I have not been deserted, and I have not been forgotten. I need you. I need you here. I need you now.” But when I was being honest with myself, I wasn’t sure if I was crying out for God, or just another human body.
Matt and I both learned a bad habit; that the best thing to do was to keep quiet and hold yourself together, because solace did not come from confession. There was always someone else hurting more than me, or struggling with something more important than my problems. So, I just bit my tongue and tried not to upset anyone with my seemingly frivolous issues.
That was 2007. That was Five Score and Seven Years Ago. I was 18.
Then it was 2009. I missed Forget and Not Slow Down. I was 20. I was done with “Christian Music.” It was the beginning of my disenchantment with the Evangelical Christian establishment, even though I didn’t see it coming. That’s a story that is too long for this already lengthy story. But I’ll give you the truncated version.
I had a hard time going to church. I started going to an Episcopal Church. I broke up with the boyfriend. It was rough. Turns out he was a bit of a manipulator. I got out of it in one piece, but missing a few chips. I tried to tell myself that I didn’t need a soul to hold, and life remained beautiful, but church and school were getting increasingly ugly. I only went to church about once a month or so, but being Episcopalian, they were just happy to see me when I was there. They loved me for my brokenness.
I tried dating another friend. He started going to church with me. He kind of took it over. I let him because I’m passive like that. After three weeks, I broke up with him. He made my social life a little ugly, including at church. I stopped going.
I studied abroad. I became sexually active for real this time. I liked it. I somehow managed to graduate from college, in spite of flunking one Bible class and passing another by the skin of my teeth. I was done with all of it. I was living with my parents and fighting with my mother about my lack of church attendance. I was drinking. A lot.
Then I kind of got my shit together. I got a job. I got a boyfriend who was actually pretty good for me, at least in the short term. My parents found my birth control. I moved out. I mostly got the drinking under control. I was living between a coworker’s spare room and my boyfriend’s place. I was doing okay, but I still had my rough days, all things considered. On one of those rough days, I pulled up Relient K on Spotify. I needed to hear “Little More than Useless.”
Low and behold, there were two Relient K albums I had missed! One of them had only released a week or two before, and good God, was it beautiful. Back just like a boomerang, Matt’s voice was in my head, narrating all the things that I was afraid to say. And he was singing about sex! And bars! And one night stands! Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had spent some time soul searching and came up empty.
We were both a long way away from “My Way or the Highway,” that was for sure. But we were actually better for it. We were finally free to be the broken people that we had always been in secret. Matt was about as messed up as I was, but he was finally free to be upfront about it. He was confessing that he never meant to be a part-time lover at the same time that I was breaking up with my boyfriend because I was falling in love with another man (and because it’s not love when you go through my phone).
In its honesty and openness, Collapsible Lung was more balanced than Relient K’s previous albums. Instead of his previous bi-polar waffling between cheery happy church boy, and angst-ridden teenager, there was a self-conscious kind of confidence that knew it deserved a shot at honesty. For the first time in the twelve years I’ve been listening to this man’s words, Matt Theissen sounds happy. Or at least healthy. Okay maybe just honest about where he’s at, which is about as close to happy as most people can get.
I’m there too. I can’t say I’m always happy. My mind is not exactly what one would call healthy. But I can finally be honest about who I am, and where I’m at. I don’t know where God and I stand, but I do know that I’m closer to figuring that out than I was as an ACG. I’m on the up and up.
I’m getting by with my collapsible lung,
and it’s a good time 100% of the time,
and I’m like a ladder with a missing rung,
and it’s a slow climb, headed back to the sky,
and I’m feeling backwards when I’m trying the most,
and I hope I haven’t heard the last words from the Holy Ghost,
cause I think that I’m supposed to be well on my way by now.
I do the twist with my replaceable hips,
and turn you right round,
and dip you down to the ground. And now,
I want to grow old and rub your tired limbs,
and take it easy until we whither away.
Until we whither away.
Between the miles of open road,
I lost sight of what might matter the most.
I stumbled into the great unknown,
and found that time can’t slow down.
I take a breath and then take it in
to think of places I’ll go, I haven’t been
to poor my heart into everything.
I’ve found time won’t slow down
I’m feeling backwards,
and I hope,
I haven’t heard the last words.
No no no
Cause I think I’m supposed to be
well on my way-ay-ay.
To pour my heart into everything
Between the miles of open road,
I lost sight of what might matter the most.
I stumbled into the great unknown,
and found that time won’t slow down.
This is 2013. This is Collapsible Lung. I am 23.
I fucking love Relient K.