#OTDAnthems: Counting Stars

TW: self-harm (lite)

OneRepublic’s “Counting Stars” got me through a really difficult weekend in the first month after I left home and religion. I only watched the accompanying music video recently and discovered that it is, ironically, about a kind of religious / spiritual awakening in the face of debilitating capitalism and consumerism. Still, the meaning I attached to the words when I was helpless and reaching out for a lifeline remains.

The lines I most connected to:
“I feel something so right doing the wrong thing / I feel something so wrong doing the right thing.”
“Everything that kills me makes me feel alive.”
“I don’t think the world is sold / On just doing what we’re told.” (These are misheard lyrics, according to the video above, but I stand by this lyric.)
“Everything that drowns me makes me want to fly.”

The story:
There was a family simcha (the first of many I would have to grapple with attending as a  no-longer-frum daughter and sister) two weeks after I moved out of my parents’ home. So for the third weekend of living on my own, I put on a long black skirt and a shell under my sweater, and I went to Lakewood to be with my family for shabbos.

Only one of my siblings knew I was not frum at that point. Later, much later, I found out that a few more of my siblings had guessed that the reason I moved out was to drop religion. But they said nothing at the time.

I made it through the Friday afternoon chaotic rush for licht-bentching, I made it through the Friday evening sister-singing, I made it through the Friday night kiddush and seudah. I made it through the night in a neighbor’s home.

In shul on shabbos morning, the first cracks broke through my determined facade. By the time the whole family – all 14 of us adults and one child – crowded around my sister’s dining room table for the seudah, I was holding back a scream.

As was expected of me, I helped plate and serve each course. I was dressed in my shul clothes still, a straight slate-grey skirt and a pretty, frilly sweater. As I served my father the salad course at his seat at the head of the table, I had to squeeze past the narrow space where my brother-in-law sat to his right. My brother-in-law moved his chair backwards instead of scooting closer to the table, and I moved in front of him to set my father’s plate on the table.

I leaned over and became uncomfortably aware that my ass was in front of my brother-in-law’s face.

Quickly, I left the plate haphazardly on the table and escaped to the kitchen. I stole a glance back at my brother-in-law, and could read nothing on his face.

The scream that had been building inside me was ready to burst. I muttered to my sister that I needed to sit in quiet for a minute. She looked at me sympathetically and told me I could use the extra bedroom and lock the door if I needed to.

I went in and locked the door. I thought about turning on the light – who would know, here in this locked room? – but I didn’t. I sank onto the floor in the dark with only a pale sunlight filtering in through the window.

I pushed the sleeves of my shell up so my elbows were exposed. Then I pushed them up further so I could cross my arms over my chest and grip my upper arms, fingers digging into flesh. I curled my head over to my knees and in that position, rocked back and forth. “This is not me,” I muttered as I rocked, “This is not me,” as my nails caused my skin to shriek in pain, “This is not me.”

I changed after a while and chanted “This doesn’t have to be me,” because I realized a part of me was and would always be – this. This, enjoying a lively shabbos meal with my family. This, escaping to a room for some quiet. This, reassuring myself that no one can force me to be what I don’t want to be. This, not really believing my own reassurances.

On the ride back to Brooklyn on motza’ei shabbos, I plugged my headphones in and turned on “Counting Stars” at full volume. The one sibling who knew about my agony sat next to me and headed people off anytime someone tried to talk to me. I leaned my head on the window, the music blasting my eardums and pushing out any thought, tears slowly trickling down my face, watching the scenery flash by.

“I feel something so wrong doing the right thing / I feel something so right doing the wrong thing.”

2 thoughts on “#OTDAnthems: Counting Stars

  1. Right and Wrong are interchangeable sisters, when seen through different eyes… It takes so long for us to see which is which to us and (more importantly) why. And even when we think that we’ve figured everything out, life shows us that a former Wrong is now Right, or the difference is not be as important as one might’ve thought.

    1. YES. There’s another song I’ll write about soon, “Am I Wrong,” which has a line “If you tell me I’m wrong / I don’t want to be right.” 🙂

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