How Goth Heals

An essay about mental health and the deeper meaning of gothic style.

As a member of various goth communities over the years, I have observed that many people involved in goth culture are survivors of what the mental health system calls ACEs— Adverse Childhood Experiences.  ACEs can take many forms, including abuse, neglect, mental illness or drug addiction of a family member, poverty, environmental devastation, racial discrimination, and violence within one’s home or neighborhood. In this context, “childhood experience” is defined as lasting until the age of eighteen, so it encompasses people who encounter adversity during adolescence. Although these experiences are common, the shame that so often accompanies them prevents the general population from knowing how widespread they really are.  This causes many people who have come through such difficulties to feel isolated.

Adding to the sense of fear is the fact that survivors are frequently told, by both mental health professionals and the media, that it can take a lifetime for such events to be worked through and resolved. In many cases, even more painful than a traumatic experience itself is the assumption of inevitable damage. This leads to self-imposed secrecy and pressure to hide, for fear of being unemployable or socially rejected. People who endure difficulties early in life often feel ashamed to have been deeply affected by them— in other words, it’s common to place blame on oneself. The reality is that many people at any given moment are covertly processing struggle, sadness, and loss. An experience of adversity is not the main problem. It is the sense of shame about that adversity— the sense that because of trauma one is forever defective, or unable to prevail— that is devastating. And this is a problem that lies more within society’s preconceptions than within the individual.

In my view, trauma survivors are the strongest people in society. Those who have come through difficulty, who have learned to find strength when all hope seems lost, and who have learned to reach out in times of distress have a great deal to offer. This view is supported by the growing prevalence of trauma-informed care, which recognizes that mental health issues often arise as a specific response to difficult circumstances. Eleanor Longden, a research psychologist who gave a widely-viewed TED talk in 2013, asserts that her experience of what was diagnosed as schizophrenia— consisting of years of hearing voices after repeated episodes of abuse— was actually a “creative and ingenious survival strategy” and a “complex, significant, and meaningful experience to be explored.” 

Olivier Theyskens, AW18

Being goth can also be a creative and ingenious survival strategy. Goth is inherently about healing. An intentional way of wearing black— the color of mourning— is an act of transgression in a society where displays of grief are shunned. Goth is about allowing mourning, either for something one has lost or for something one never had. It is an act of defiance and a rejection of rushed recovery. It is about the permission to be affected by what one has experienced— an assertion that it’s not necessary to act like nothing’s wrong. In our culture of facile positivity, this is a deeply unallowed state of being. Goth is about the right to prolong mourning until mourning is truly over. It is a protest against anti-emotionality.

Although participation in a subculture often originates as a form of youth-based social resistance, I have seen it transform into an adult philosophy and value system that can strengthen a person throughout life. Many people who grow up skateboarding develop self-reliance and and a healthy disrespect for authority which come from the culture’s DIY ethics.  Plenty of emo kids are now part of a generation that is more transparent about mental health issues and advocacy than any before it.

Of course, not all goths are trauma survivors. Some have a philosophical interest in mortality and the darker emotions, and find that the goth scene is one of the only cultural spheres where such topics are embraced. It should also be said that anyone who has gone through such difficulties is not obligated to speak about them explicitly, or publically. But finding a commonality with others who have encountered similar circumstances can be incredibly beneficial. And people often recognize each other through the visual expression of an emotional state or ethical stance. 

The human capacity to heal is undeniable. It may not be easy, and it may take a long time, but it is possible to overcome a broken childhood or move on from addiction. Longden expressed something similar when she said that “for survivors of distress […], we don’t have to live our lives forever defined by the damaging things that have happened to us.” She even proposes that “recovery is not only possible, but inevitable.” The beginning is often to affirm that something has gone wrong, that something has been lost. It may seem strange, but goth helps people do that. Trauma is something one lives through, but it does not have to be the deepest layer of one’s being.