“When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.”
This is the quote that begins the album “Set Yourself on Fire” by the band Stars. I heard this song in 2004, and for whatever reason, that quote spun around in my brain endlessly. It was me. At the time I was spending most of my life at the wilderness camp for troubled teens where I worked as a family therapist- I would eat all three meals there, stay until it was too dark to see my way to my car, come home and crash hard. I wasn’t satisfied with my personal life but felt like I could get some mastery at work, so I buried myself there, telling myself that those kids needed me.
I left that job and that town for Chicago a few months later, keeping that quote in my heart as I exhausted myself trying to make a relationship work that just wasn’t working. I felt like I had nothing left to burn, and it hurt.
So I made some changes, got out of the relationship, stopped placing so much emphasis on being a workaholic, started taking dance classes again. I regained a very active social life and stayed out a lot, telling myself I was making up for lost time. I told friends that I was planning on getting that quote tattooed on myself and they regarded me nervously, seeing me in a new light. “Emily….” they said, “Do you realize that it’s maybe not the healthiest thing to want tattooed on yourself?”
I didn’t see what they meant, but I also didn’t get the tattoo, and a few months later, I became very very very sick. I was hospitalized for a month and diagnosed with a very treatable but very rare disease (Adult-Onset Still’s Disease, for those keeping score at home), and my team of doctors confirmed what I knew: I had been setting myself on fire for a long time. I was literally suffering from malnutrition by the time I was hospitalized, so blind was I as to how to take care of myself.
I emerged from the hospital and slowly, slowly became a new person. A girl who took care of herself, a girl who didn’t see herself as kindling. I got Peter, Bjorn, and John’s first album, and the title track, “Objects of My Affection”, has this lyric:
“And the question is am I more alive now than I was then? I happily have to disagree- I laugh more often now, I cry more often now- I am more me.”
I heard that for the first time on my IPod while on a walk in my Chicago neighborhood, regaining my strength, and it destroyed me. Nothing could have summed up my life more, and I decided then and there that I would get THAT lyric tattooed on myself- maybe along the enormous lung surgery scar that now graced my back. I was obsessed with the idea of documenting my newfound health and balance.
But something stopped me from getting that tattoo too. Time went by, I found new ways to keep myself healthy and happy, ways to document my new outlook without tattooing it on myself, and somewhere in there I moved to NYC and then to LA. I just started getting back into new music again, and I am voracious. I devour full albums, pull my favorite songs onto my IPod, and I wander the hills behind my apartment, listening. I noticed yesterday that though much of the new music I listen to has dramatic lyrics, and even though I sing along, none of them are sticking with me.
I’m too busy dancing.