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Straight Edge Interview Project: Sylwia Kowalski, 27, Romania, she/her or they/them

Tell us about yourself.
I have a wide range of interests and hobbies, from hiking and collecting stones to writing, reading, and painting. My job is a little unconventional in the sense that it offers me a lot of freedom – I am a content writer working remotely for a San Diego, CA, company. I write mostly for a law firm and a hospital, but also for businesses focusing on golf, limo transportation, scalp micropigmentation, and crystal healing. What I love about my job is not necessarily the writing per se, as it doesn’t require as much creativity as I would like, but: the fact that I can do my hours whenever I want, work fewer hours than I should a month if I don’t feel well, get more paid days off than the regular jobs in my country give you, start working whenever I want during the day, and last but not least, the salary, which is quite above average for where I live, which allows me to live comfortably, have great experiences, and make awesome gifts to the people I love.

I am also a vegan, a cause for which I feel strongly. I have wanted to become vegetarian ever since I was 11 or 12, but only had the guts to refuse eating meat at 16. My mother wasn’t very pleased and thought it was just a phase, but time was about to prove her wrong. I was a vegetarian for about 6 months, then I stumbled upon Emily from the YouTube channel Bite Size Vegan, Gary Yourofsky’s amazing speech, and documentaries with live, real footage from inside slaughterhouses and dairy farms, such as Earthlings. Needless to say, I became a vegan immediately, appalled and outraged about what was and still is going on. I am vegan for ethical and environmental reasons only, but especially for ethical reasons. The only circumstances under which I couldn’t eat a plant-based diet was when I was hospitalized, as I had to eat what they were serving, which brings us to the next and last important or noteworthy thing about me: I have BPD (borderline personality disorder) and bipolar disorder, among other less relevant mental health issues, and I have been hospitalized twice, voluntarily.

For a long time, I have let my mental health problems define me, but over the last year, I have finally realized that they’re only a small part of who I really am. Yes, I take psychiatric medication. No, I don’t think needing it makes me non-straight edge. When you need medication to function in your everyday life and to prevent you from experiencing hypomania or mania, which could lead to psychosis, psychiatric medication is without a question necessary and a straight edge person shouldn’t think twice about taking it if it means stabilizing their symptoms, in my opinion. The same goes for any other type of medication that is vital for the proper functioning of your body or mind. Back to my mental health, I’m in a way better place now than where I was a year and a half ago.

What are you listening to these days?
I love hardcore punk, folk punk, crust punk, and depressive suicidal black metal, mostly. Even though a lot, and I mean a lot, of folk punk songs are about drinking or getting drunk, I enjoy the vibe and I love attending their concerts. It may be contradictory, but a lot of things in my life are. That doesn’t mean I’m not straight edge and that doesn’t mean I’m “less” straight edge. I also like some pop artists, such as Lana del Rey and Melanie Martinez. The bands I love the most (or listen to most of the time these days) include

Nu, Pogodi!
Fall of Efrafa
Tears Of Gaia,
Days ‘N’ Daze
Rail Yard Ghosts
Stick and Poke

What’s your straight edge story?
I found out about straight edge while exploring the punk subculture online. I think I was 16 when I first heard about straight edge. In Romania, where I live, there is no straight edge scene or community, only some people who have this lifestyle scattered here and there from what I could gather from Facebook groups. There is no community per se, so it can be pretty isolating even for a misanthropic recluse like me. I would love to meet some people in real life who chose to live a drug-free life. I’ve been having issues with alcohol my entire life – I would go to school drunk when I was 14. I was actually self-medicating with alcohol because I had undiagnosed depression and anxiety. It was very difficult for me to be around my classmates, most of whom were bullying me. I didn’t claim edge at 16, but I decided to try this lifestyle to see if I would feel better when it came to my alcohol issue. I managed to stay off alcohol for about one year and a half, as during my last year of high school, I developed an obsession for a guy and I would go everywhere he went on the weekends after just one date (obviously failed, but I didn’t see it as failed at that moment). In turn, this made me date a much older guy just to have a reason to go to pubs and bars. It wasn’t even dating – we kinda had a mutual agreement that we would keep each other company, as he was miserable as well. On most nights, because the guy I was obsessed with would not even say ‘Hi!’ to me, I would end up crying with the older guy, who was heartbroken from a very old relationship. It was a very twisted relationship, we weren’t even romantically interested in each other, we used each other to feel better and get through the weekend.

There is a very long story behind why I chose a straight edge lifestyle, but I’ll try to keep it as short as possible. Between 2019 and the end of 2021, I used to hang out with the wrong people and I would use my (now other) boyfriend as an excuse to go out – the same pattern from high school. During these times, I would get into physical fights with my mother because I would come home wasted and I had stopped working completely. My parents were desperate and didn’t know what to do with me anymore because we couldn’t get along at all. My mother was really considering disowning me and leaving me to live on the streets. I had become unrecognizable. That’s what addiction does to you. Combine it with a personality and mood disorder and you have a surefire way to cause things to go south.

I claimed edge one year and four months ago, after an almost deadly accident, which I caused to myself, while completely wasted. In the fall of 2020, I also developed a psychological addiction to weed, in addition to drinking a lot and smoking regular cigarettes, right after I got out of psych ward (which I went to in the hope of finding a better treatment for my depression and BPD symptoms, but there I attracted a sociopath who manipulated me and we got into a twisted romantic relationship). My parents found out about the fact that I hadn’t worked a day since returning from the psych ward and that I smoked weed, so before leaving for work, they locked me inside the apartment. I drank everything with alcohol in the house and left cryptic messages on Facebook to people I didn’t even care about but whom I desperately wanted to care about me, including the sociopath from the psych ward.

Then I proceeded to jump out the window from the third floor. I landed on a platform that was just above the first floor and I landed on my feet, which caused my spine to fracture severely. I couldn’t move. Some neighbors dragged me through the window inside the building and called the emergency number for an ambulance. I spent 2 weeks in a hospital in another city, waiting for my surgery, not being able to see my parents because of COVID. I had to undergo 2 surgeries, one after another, a total of 8 hours in the operating room.

I saw this as a sign, as a second chance, and I was dead set on making the most of it. I stopped drinking altogether. I cut ties with everyone who was toxic, which only left me with my parents. I eventually quit smoking tobacco, too. And I claimed edge one year after my accident. I could have so easily fallen directly on the ground or landed on my head, breaking it. I am so, so grateful to be alive. Weirdly, this experience has also erased all my suicidal thoughts. Now I get along extremely well with my parents, even better than before I had started acting recklessly at 23.

How do you define straight edge? 
After the experience I’ve previously talked about, I can’t see myself not being straight edge. I can confidently say that I will remain straight edge for my entire life. Personally, I see straight edge as a strong moral commitment to living drug-free and I usually associate it with the hardcore subculture as well. Also, most people, when they hear you’re sober, they usually think of alcohol and only alcohol. For drugs, they typically use “clean”. So being straight edge encompasses being completely drug-free. Being straight edge also entails more commitment and I see it as a stricter lifestyle you choose to live. Once you claim edge, you are kinda expected to keep being straight edge, whereas when it comes to sobriety, people often relapse and it’s not a big deal for those supporting them. I think that’s the main difference. The seriousness with which you treat the lifestyle. Being straight edge is a very serious commitment, whereas being sober puts less pressure on you and you are “allowed” to relapse. I don’t want to imply that being straight edge should feel pressure, but l see it as a more serious commitment than just being sober.

Over the past decade or so individuals in recovery have stumbled upon straight edge, and it has really spoken to them.  Do you feel that the straight edge community has been, and should be welcoming to those in recovery?

I am one of them! I strongly believe the straight edge community should be welcoming to individuals in recovery, as it can be a great source of support and the decision could help people who have stopped using any mind-altering substances make a serious commitment to live their life drug-free. Whether the person in recovery is into hardcore or not, I think this should be an exception and I hope people who are in recovery could safely and confidently reach out to the straight edge community. Sadly, there is no straight edge community where I live and I’m only getting to know the communities abroad, so I can’t say how people in recovery are usually seen by the straight edge community as a whole.

Have you ever felt that your gender has had influenced your experience in the “straight edge and/or hardcore scene?
Oh yeah! Apparently, people attending a punk or hardcore punk concert – most of whom are men from my experience – are not used to seeing women getting into the mosh pit. The guy I was with when I was 17 would drag me away from the pit during concerts to “protect me”, which was killing all the fun for me. However, while men are not used to seeing women in mosh pits, I’ve had positive experiences several times, with men making more space to include me in the pit, quite surprised, and giving me thumbs up for participating. They were really surprised, but not hateful, and really welcoming and they didn’t try to be more gentle when I was in the mosh pit – I almost lost a shoe once and I totally loved the experience! I love letting go of my anger in the mosh pit and it’s a pity some women don’t dare try to participate or are intimidated. When I go to a concert, I want the full experience and I don’t care how anyone sees me!

Do you feel that the straight edge movement/scene is inclusive?
Once again, since I don’t have a straight edge community where I live, I can’t comment a lot on this, but from what I’ve experienced abroad, the straight edge scene could definitely be more inclusive. Women should feel more encouraged to start a hardcore band or play in one, to get in the mosh pit, as I was previously saying, and some men should be more respectful and learn how to get rid of toxic masculinity, as sexism does not have a place in the straight edge community, yet there are some people who apparently didn’t understand this and they can make the entire community seem intimidating to women if they have a negative experience with one of these folks. I admit I was a little intimidated during my first concert when I was 17, but I am more impulsive by nature and I didn’t let the atmosphere and how some men acted deter me from partaking in the concert.

Has being straight edge had an impact on your relationships (family, friends, significant others). If so how would you characterize that impact?

Ever since I’ve become straight edge, my life has changed enormously for the better. No more fights with my parents for arriving home drunk, no more suicide attempts while under the influence, no more worries about my health because of tobacco smoking, no more paranoia while using weed, a more stable mood, fewer and less intense symptoms of BPD and bipolar because my medication is actually working since I no longer mix it with alcohol, I can work full-time, which gives me the necessary money to travel, go to concerts, get tattoos, buy books etc. Also, I’ve noticed that I learned to assert myself better and to set clear boundaries ever since I claimed edge.

There’s an ongoing debate on whether one can be straight edge without being a part of the music scene, what are your thoughts on this?

I believe the music is a pretty significant part of being straight edge, but at the end of the day, if a person identifies with the values this lifestyle entails, they can claim edge. I wouldn’t have a problem if someone would say they are straight edge but didn’t listen to the music associated with the movement.

Final Thoughts?

Straight edge is the best thing that I have ever chosen to be part of and I am certain I will be straight edge ’till the day I die. I encourage everyone who has even a very small interest in the scene to start exploring, no matter their age, history of substance use, or gender.

Mother, wife, small business owner.

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