Breaking the Record with Roan Yellowthorn, Part 39: My Story

Breaking The Record 2020
Breaking The Record 2020
Jackie McLean of the indie band Roan Yellowthorn grants us an inside look at the making of an album from start to finish in her ‘Breaking The Record’ column.

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:: stream/purchase Rediscovered here ::
‘Rediscovered’ – Roan Yellowthorn

As you know if you’ve been following along with this column, I am going to release an album at the beginning of next year. I recorded it way back in February which was, incredibly, 8 whole months ago. We were going to release the album over last summer, but decided not to because of the pandemic and all of the social and civil unrest occurring.

At the time, it was really difficult to wrap my mind around delaying the release. I was so antsy to put it out and get the music into the world. But, cooler heads urged me to wait. And I’m glad that I listened. My producer, John Agnello, gave me some good advice at the time. He said, ‘Don’t just put it out because you’re impatient. That’s not a good reason.’ And he was right about that. I am impatient. And that’s not, necessarily, the best reason to do something.

Just jumping into the Breaking The Record series documenting the making of our album from start to finish? Read part 1 here!

There are a lot of things that I am impatient about. Generally, it’s things that mean something to me. I feel an urgency around them. One of those things is telling my story.

What does that mean? Well, there’s a lot of my own personal story that I haven’t really spoken about. I’ve been afraid to. But it’s my story. And it’s mine to tell.

And I want you to know my story. I want you to understand me. So that I can connect to you.

I’ve kept silent partially because my story involves another person. I haven’t wanted to cross that line. But they say that someone else’s rights end when they start to interfere with yours.

How does this connect with delaying my album release? Well, one of the reasons I’m glad we’re waiting to release my album is this: the album is super personal. There’s a lot on there about my life – the dark parts. And I think that context is required in order for a listener to fully understand the album – where I’m coming from. And I want to share some of that context.

For a long time, I have felt a low level depression. Sometimes not so low-level. Sometimes a significant depression. This is for many reasons. But one of the reasons is that I have a story that I’ve felt unable to share. I’ve felt censored, silenced, and unable to speak. Instead, I’ve spoken through my songs. I always write about what’s happening – what’s really happening. The most significant and intense parts of my experience in this life. But being unable to speak – to really embody the truth – has taken a toll.

It’s really scary to think about sharing in a more explicit way – not just through music. And it goes against many of the messages I’ve internalized. But, as scary as the prospect is, it’s scarier to imagine feeling flat and depressed and shrouded forever. That’s a kind of death. I want to own the things that I’ve experienced – the things that make me who I am.

A lot of this centers around my relationship to my father. To put it simply – it’s the source of my deepest sadness and grief. It colors everything I do and experience. It affects every single part of my psyche, my relationships, and my experience in the world. It’s a cloud that hangs over me.

You may know that he’s in the music industry. Or maybe you don’t know that. You might make a guess about how that’s affected me. It’s probably incomplete.

Maybe you’d guess that it’s given me a leg up. In some ways, perhaps. I think that seeing someone else make a career in music showed me that such a thing was objectively possible. And my upbringing definitely fostered a love of music. But, in many ways, the opposite is true.

I grew up singing – most often with my dad and brother. But, as soon as I expressed interest in pursuing music on my own, I received the message – very clearly – that there wasn’t room for me there. I stuffed that dream down for years.

It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I started to chase that dream. Of course, it felt like a longshot. I was figuring it all out on my own, with my partner. We didn’t have any kind of infrastructure, apart from what was in our minds. We bootstrapped it. We did it all ourselves. I didn’t talk to my family about what I was doing. I didn’t want to be shot down. In the house where I grew up, I had to make myself small. Once I was on my own, I finally tried out my wings.

There’s a lot I could say but the short story is that my father is abusive. And it’s not ok. My homelife was toxic when I was growing up and the effects of it have followed me into adulthood. I struggle with basic things – confidence is one of those. But the list goes on. My dad has been verbally, emotionally, and psychologically abusive to me throughout my life. Often, extremely so.

Five years ago, he was arrested for physically assaulting my mother around the time that they got divorced.

Despite it all, I’ve loved him. And I’ve tried hard to have a relationship with him. It’s really all I’ve ever wanted. But he has rejected and abandoned me every step of the way. I can’t describe the pain it has caused me. It still does. The depth of it is impossible to put into words.

When my parents got divorced, my dad’s focus turned to me. And his abusive behavior intensified – it became as bad as it was when I lived at home. As bad as it was when I was in college and he disowned me for loving the person I loved. He said degrading things to me, then. He’d call me on the phone to make ultimatums and demand that I obey him. I wouldn’t. His harassment lasted for two years and became so intense that I lost twenty pounds from stress. Every time I came home, he’d physically corner me and yell at me for hours.

I suffered, in the hope that I could give him what he needed. I thought it was my responsibility to restore his faith in people by allowing myself to be emotionally pummeled over and over again. It wasn’t. I didn’t know how to defend myself. Boundaries were a foreign concept.

Throughout my life, the abuse has affected me, physically. I’ve had numerous health problems in adulthood due to stress. I’ve developed autoimmune disorders. I disassociate when there’s conflict. I retreat into myself when I have a problem. It’s difficult for me to trust people – especially men. It’s difficult for me to let my guard down. Deep down, I expect people to leave, to hurt me, to manipulate. I have trouble caring for myself because I don’t feel worthy of basic things.

I developed debilitating OCD at 7 and an eating disorder at 13. I still struggle with anxiety and OCD. After the surge of abuse surrounding the divorce, I developed food allergies for the first time in my life. Stress would make me throw up after I listened to my dad’s tirades on the phone.

When I see a picture of him, talk about him, or hear his name or his voice, my teeth chatter and I shake. Sometimes, I even jump when I see my own name because of the last name there.

That’s one of the reasons I perform under a different name. It feels like a safe space for me.

In the past five years since my parents got divorced, I’ve made an outsized effort to see my dad, even though doing so causes me immense anxiety. He has never come to visit me in the 7 years I’ve lived where I do. He has only agreed to see me once a year. And I have had to travel 6 hours each way to meet him for lunch. One day a year.

I did it every year because I wanted to see him. Because I wanted to give him a chance.

And then, last year, after I got home from the visit, he sent me a barrage of abusive messages. That was nothing new to me. It’s been happening, in one form or another, my whole life. But, this time, something was different. I realized I couldn’t let the pattern continue. I had to break it.

I was lying, immobile, on a mattress on the floor. I was crying and unable to breathe or move. I felt the familiar feeling of everything inside of me shutting down. My children saw me like this. And, for a moment, I saw myself from the outside. I realized I couldn’t keep doing this to myself. I had people depending on me. I had more to live for. I was worth more. It couldn’t go on this way.

The relationship I wanted was never going to happen.

And I’ve internalized this – feeling like it was my fault. Feeling like, if I just endured enough, he’d love me. Feeling like it was my fault he didn’t want a relationship with me. Feeling like something was wrong with me. Feeling like I wasn’t good enough to be loved or seen or heard. Feeling like it was my fault when he told me, again and again, that he didn’t consider me his child.

I stopped speaking to him after that visit last year and then reached out to him, once again, this past spring in a moment of optimism to invite him to a zoom celebration for one of my children. I hoped he would respond differently than he had in the past. But it was worse than I’d expected. It just opened the door to more abuse. He emailed me tirades of anger and insults.

This time, I defended myself. And I realized that I had a voice.

I haven’t spoken to him since then – it’s been 6 months. A year since I’ve seen him. And, in that time, I’ve gained clarity. I’ve realized that the relationship I want is impossible. I’ve realized that he’ll never be a father to me. I’ve realized that he can’t be the person I want him to be.

I’ve realized that it’s time to stop holding out hope.

This is not easy. It’s a grief-filled process. And I still deal with all of the repercussions of the relationship – the effect it’s had on me. On my life. On my psyche. On my development. Even though I’m an adult, I feel a void where a father should be. Luckily, I have others to fill that role. John Agnello, who produced my forthcoming record, has become like a surrogate father to me.

My dad – it feels weird to call him that now – has told me, over and over again, that he’d ‘wipe his hands of me’ if I ever spoke publicly about my experiences. If I ever spoke about him. He told me he’d write me out of his will. I don’t think I’m in there, anyway. And I don’t care about that.

I have sacrificed so much of myself in the hope I would be loved.

And I can’t do it anymore. I won’t.

I can’t tell you how scary this is for me. I don’t know what to expect now. And that’s terrifying. But this is something I have to do. I’ve felt crushed by the weight of shame and silence. It’s a heavy burden. I need to cast it off. It’s the only way I’ll be able to grow. For a long time, I’ve felt like a sprout with a rock set on top of it. It’s time to lift that rock away and invite the sunshine in.

I still feel vulnerable, but not as vulnerable as I used to. I feel stronger than I did before. I have people in my corner. I have people who care who I know will be there for me. I don’t know what to expect. But I know I can’t hide anymore. The cost of that is too high. It’s crippling me. I can’t be myself until I own who I am. And I can’t connect authentically to others until I share my story.

There’s more to my story than this. And there’s more to me than this story. But this is a piece of it. And I’m going to move forward now, unburdened by this secret and the shame of it. I’ve been afraid to speak – afraid of judgment, repercussions, even of indifference. But I’m willing to risk it if it means feeling free of the pain and darkness that’s followed me for so long. I’m moving into the light.

I don’t know what will happen next but here I am – I’m not hiding anymore. And it’s scary. But it feels freeing, too.

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:: stream/purchase my new cover album here: Rediscovered ::

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Rediscovered - Roan Yellowthorn

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:: Breaking the Record ::

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