Seeking ‘Love’: A Musician’s Struggle through False Confidence, Bullying, Broken Relationships, Alcohol and Finding the Meaning of Self-Worth -Joseph Figgiani

For as long as I can remember I have been chasing love.  Love from others mostly; later, love from and, more importantly, for myself.

It’s taken many years.  I’ve destroyed my mind and body, lost blood, had my arm shredded to the bone, where I could feel the air blowing through a gaping wound that took thirty-eight stitches to repair.  It was the last time I’d let alcohol totally destroy my senses, leading me to fall into the single-pane glass window in my apartment.

That wasn’t the first time I needed stitches.  In my early-twenties I smashed a lamp when my cousin provoked me with negative words about my oldest brother.  I guess I’d cared enough for my cousin not to use his face as a target, so instead I broke his cable box and lamp with my fist.  His wife took my to the ER, and while laying on the hospital bed I remember thinking: I’d gone through my whole childhood without a broken bone or major cut; (but all things come to an end).

While waiting for the nurse, I looked down at my jeans and sneakers thinking they looked eerily familiar to the pictures of Kurt Cobain after he ended his life with a shot gun.  I was into Nirvana and other angry music at the time.  I related to their aggressive sound, the moody, miserable-looking lead singer, screaming and sometimes moaning hauntingly through his guitar and into his microphone.  My feelings were in line with his, and like many young people, I’d found a major, public personality to relate to.

But I was on a negative path, and I knew it.  As I looked down at my blood-stained Converse sneakers, I remember thinking something had to change.  I tried to see it as a wake-up call, but I didn’t. My destructive path was only beginning.  Like the great song-title by Bruce Springsteen, I continued to go through my somewhat crazy, (but often blessed) life, “moving one step up and two steps back.”  It seems as we go through this life, that is usually how things go: a little progress, then a few set-backs to keep us in check.

In my early-thirties I traveled the country playing music and eventually settled in the Illinois.  There I found many other musicians as talented and as passionate as me, and we played, recorded and partied for years.  Since my teens I’d mostly experienced playing music as a solo performer, but in the small towns of the mid-west I found many peers to share the amazing feeling you get when making music with other people.  I liked the release of nerves and anxiety I felt performing alone and with others.  But, now spending so much time in bars, I was getting far too dependent on alcohol.  Some nights I played wildly and screamed out my own frustrations through a microphone.  It was a great release, but I’m lucky to have gotten through the punishment I put my body through.  When the alcohol wore off, I was still faced with whatever was fueling my frustrations.

During those wild years, a young friend of ours, a very talented musician, ended his life in a similar way to Cobain. (Another wake-up call.)  I had spent some good times with my friend, admired his talent and loved the incredible feeling of making music together, both while recording and in front of an audience.  But his own demons had gotten the best of him, and he was gone.

I was still drinking too much and went on that way for a few more years after his death.  It took a lot of time and more mistakes, but I started to realize if I wanted to survive, it was time for serious change.  I didn’t want my friend’s death to be in vain.

Back to the search for love…

I was raised by a good family in a mostly comfortable home.  My parents rarely argued or even raised their voices.  We woke up to a living-room full of toys every Christmas.  My dad drove my mom and all five kids hours away for vacations in The Catskill Mountains during the summer.  If a comfortable home, plenty of food and support and encouragement define love: then I definitely had it growing up.  I was also popular in our small neighborhood, a good athlete and sometimes even a hot-shot with a big mouth.  I had many friends and a big Italian family who I loved and trusted.  But all things end…

There aren’t too many, more horrible feelings for a child than having a close friend turn on you and make your life a living hell.  In fourth-grade, one particular “friend” became jealous when I got the interest of the prettiest girl in school.  He managed to climb onto the roof of our school and write our names on the building.   After years of a relationship that went from walking to and from school together; birthday parties at each other’s houses; playing handball after school, things turned to harassment that lasted for years.   That morning in fourth-grade the entire grades K through fifth got to see the words “Joey Loves Lisa” as they walked into the building.   Seems so silly today at age 48, but for a kid it was the last thing I wanted.

This same “friend” went through phases where he’d decide we needed to fight and would whisper “Figgiani is dead” during class as the teacher spoke, and I tried to do my work.  I remember my face getting hot and the muscles tightening with anxiety as he sat behind me.  It was fucking torture that I will never forget.  Thankfully, I was given some advice that worked.  I haven’t always agreed with my father, particularly his thoughts on my choice of career path, but in this case he was surely right: I had to stand-up to this guy.    It wasn’t until I faced my “friend” in the schoolyard and punched him in his jaw that the torture stopped for good.  After our fight, we sat in the dean’s office, and he cried to me, begging me to pretend we were only playing around.  He said his own father was a maniac, an undercover cop who kept a gun strapped to his ankle and would fly into rages turning his bedroom furniture upside down.  I remember thinking: you mother-fucker. You torture me all these years, and when I stand up for myself, you beg me to pretend it never happened…  Oh well, all things end…  Years later, after we’d grown into young men, that same kid showed up on my doorstep to reconnect and remember the good times.  He seemed to have no memory of the horror he’d put me through.  (Ironically, he had become a cop himself.)  I rarely trusted anyone after that.

As I grew toward the kind of person I knew I wanted to be, my interests in traveling and playing music for a living lured me away from my family, my neighborhood and anyone who had their own ideas of how to pursue a “stable and secure” future.  My dad didn’t always approve of me giving up high-paying union jobs to go after a life playing music.  But after many years of trying to understand the true nature of our relationship I’ve come to realize my parents always did the best they could and always wanted the best for their family.  But, they did not live up to the ideal of what so many of us have been led to believe is “real” or unconditional love.  So, this I needed to find within myself.

Recently I’ve come to realize, for most my life, I’ve been searching for people who love me for who I really am: a love without any expectations or conditions.   Every decent parent does their best for their kids.  But every living thing has some selfish intentions: it’s just nature.  Parents often think they know what is best for you, but I always knew I had to listen to my own instincts in order to be at peace with myself and the world around me.  As long as you choose to live, every individual has to fulfill themselves first; that is the only way toward being happy and being able to share that happiness.  Choosing to live every day is choosing survival; and I did.

Life is a gift that doesn’t last forever.  Maybe we go on to another life after we die, but for now, this life is all we have; and it’s a shame to waste that gift.  This past year I’ve taken control of the drinking.  I’ve slipped up several times, but have mostly avoided drinking alcohol and the other behavior that had previously kept me on a very dangerous path.  I began to value life and try to be thankful every day for what I have.  I began to see that I could be happy with myself without being messed-up on alcohol or any other mind-altering drug I was putting into my body.

There is no ideal love or relationship: only love and relationships.  Like saying ‘the sky is blue.’  It is, and when we die: it may no longer be something we experience again.  The sky will probably always be blue with or without us having spent time on this earth.  But when our body shuts down for the final time, it’s likely we will never see that sky in the same way again, or that relationship that gave us so much trouble, or that ‘love.’  So as long as I’m here, I continue to work toward loving myself and hopefully learn to share that love with others.  Some cultures believe human beings, at their very core, are ‘love,’ that when we die off, we return to spirit form, the essence of our being, the truest form of love that created us, and is us.  I feel most alive now when I’m creating, so I create as often as I can; and that, in a sense, is choosing life and choosing love.  (Now if I could only stop smoking cigarettes…)

Looking Back Toward a New Beginning (updated)

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– by Joseph Figgiani

A couple of weeks ago I sat down and tried to put into words my experience with being bullied as a kid.  I only write when inspired, and it’s been a while.  But a week later a conversation with a friend about an ex, who is still making their life hell, inspired me to take action.  We talked a while about different ways to handle this but ultimately realized that, to take strong action, they’d need a good lawyer.  The conversation crashed after the ultimate reality that affording a decent lawyer was a major issue.  I thought of the recent popularity of on-line fund raisers and offered to organize a benefit, with all money  going toward legal representation to stop this person from abusing my friend any longer.  Long story short, my friend wishes to not go through the mess of a court case and all it entails.

But after putting down my phone, I realized a fire had been lit by this awful news.  I realized, for several reasons, I was now wanting to do something very different from anything I’ve ever attempted in the past.  First, I started to understand why my friend’s situation was making me so angry.  I’d realized that when an adult is being harassed it’s just like ‘bullying for grown-ups.’  I started to think of my own experiences with being bullied again.  I soon got on my computer and figured my best shot at reaching the most people was through my facebook page.  So, I decided to create an on-line community page,        “Fig and Friends Community for Bully Awareness,”where anyone interested in raising awareness or just talking about being bullied can share their thoughts and ideas.

For the past week I’ve been jumping up from bed, powering up my lap-top and getting to work.  I’m emailing and getting emails and messages from like-minded people.  Communication skills I never knew I had are coming to me naturally, and I’m making a lot of new contacts.  Turns out, there are many, many people already doing something similar to help children and victims of bullying.

While slowly thinking of  ways to use social media for some good I remembered a story told to me by another friend a month back.   Last August, Staten Island resident Daniel Fitzpatrick ended his short life at age 13 after being bullied by several kids at his school in Brooklyn.  His mom refuses to take this tragedy laying down.  She’s learned that, while public schools already have a law in place to protect children from being bullied, private schools do not.  So, Danny’s mom has created “Danny’s Law” to honor her son’s life and is hard at work toward getting this law passed for all schools.  My compassionate friend, herself a business-owner; artist, musician and mother of two, has already succeeded in running the first benefit for Danny and his family.  While we first discussed a possible musical collaboration to raise awareness of this growing epidemic, my friend and I are now organizing the second benefit for this broken but incredibly brave family to take place in April.

Along with my new venture into philanthropy, I am still writing.  As I dig deeper into this behavior that has somehow led to children ending their lives, I am learning more about others and myself.  While the torture I went through in grade and junior high-school has stayed with me well into adulthood, today’s kids have it far worse.  The internet, cell phones and social media have now made it possible for acts of cruelty to be shared with a seemingly infinite amount of people all around the world; and with this, the suicide rate of victims of bullying is rising fast.

My one-page essay about being bullied myself has grown into 8000 words.  I’m hoping that I may finally be on my way toward writing my first book.  I’ve also started an internship for a new organization out of Memphis, “Bravery Over Bullying,” working on illustrations, assisting with writing and editing documents, and contributing to all facets of creative marketing toward helping the company achieve their goals.

I’ve been singing in bars and other public places for over 25 years, and it mostly pays the bills.        To write and perform music is one of the most effective ways to get a message across.  As I continue to enjoy writing my first book of memoirs, I’m looking forward to this new venture into helping others through additional forms of communication; continuing to grow my on-line group; working on charity events and raising further awareness of important social issues; and continuing my internship with Bravery Over Bullying.  

Please Visit FFCBA My Online Community for Bully Awareness

A Shift in My “Work”

My whole life I’ve been committed to finding a career that means something to me.  But while living on the east coast particularly, wanting to hug trees or “Save the Whales” for a living never seemed practical.  If money weren’t an incentive, I’m sure a lot of us would have chosen very different ways to spend our time. I’ve tried many different kinds of work but always spent time on my art or music.

I’ve been playing musical instruments since a very young age, writing songs from junior-high, and will continue to write, record and perform as long as I can.  I’ve traveled through half the country with my cousin and performed anywhere from a Waffle House in Texas to hundreds of people on Elvis Presley Blvd.  Through my travels, I now have friends outside of New York, even a group of people in Illinois I consider a second family.

After a quarter century of playing guitar and singing in public I’m confident of my talents and enjoy sharing them most of the time.  Back in New York, I perform during dinner several days a week at a beautiful lakefront restaurant, and it pays the bills for now.  I continue to put out original music when inspired, but promoting myself in any way has always made me very uncomfortable.  It just hit me recently that I’m pretty tired of something many performers ‘suffer’ from, call it the “look-at-me” syndrome.

I was moved by a friend recently who told me about a young boy who ended his life because of being bullied.  I’ve wracked my brains over this for 46 years and am coming to accept that, when you put us humans around other humans, we will disagree and fight from a very young age.  Kids can even tease and torment each other to the point of making life a living hell.  I have my story about being bullied as a kid, but today’s kids have it far worse.

Through our reliance on the internet and other technology it is now possible to spread gossip, for example, to a seemingly infinite number of people all over the world.  Sadly, there are kids interested in doing this, and lives are already being lost.

I’m not looking to use such a delicate and tragic issue to promote myself as a musician or in any other way.  But it’s time I use my talents and social networking for a more important purpose.  I’m willing to use my experiences as an artist and teacher to help in any way toward raising awareness about this epidemic and help educate teachers, parents and other students on how to deal with this.

I won’t deny that helping someone other than yourself can make you feel good.  But most importantly, I hope I stay brave and maintain the integrity needed to shift toward more important and meaningful work.

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