Embracing the "Ugly Beauty" of Our Dissonant Lives

By Kevin O’Connor

I don’t really identify as an artist. But I am a creative person, albeit a highly reluctant and shy one. I write, paint and plow my way furtively through musical expression. And I create two-wheeled contraptions that are better labeled as art than conveyance. It gives me joy to ride them and even more satisfaction to build them for friends and family.

As a public radio programmer and host, I have devoted my life to supporting the creative endeavors of other artists, mostly musicians. I consider my own talents highly subordinate to theirs and am grateful to be in their company. I suppose there is an art to presenting the art of others, though I don’t expect the MacArthur Foundation grants to be rolling in anytime soon.

But dissonance? Oh my! I can certainly speak to that. In jazz and improvisational music, dissonance is never shunned. In fact, the most revered jazz artists always embraced atonality and what Thelonious Monk described in a famous piece as “Ugly Beauty.”

From the time I could hear notes, I was drawn not to melody or catchy phrasing but to tones of a decidedly more jarring nature. This was a logical response to a noisy, chaotic and traumatic childhood, or so I theorized.

My earliest heroes were people like John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Albert Ayler, and Charlie Parker. Less astonishingly, these and many other geniuses paid dearly for their visitations with addiction, mental illness, or both.

It’s pretty etched in jazz mythology that everybody took heroin so they could play like Charlie Parker. A more apt exploration might be to imagine what he would have sounded like without the junk. He’d have been faster, for sure, which really boggles the mind.

It is these dangerous myths, my connection to art and artists, and my own desire to be well that drew me to the Dissonance community. I had heard about the nonprofit from a colleague and attended its Unhappy Holidays event last year in Minneapolis. The idea of creating safe spaces where creative people with (or without) mental health and addictive issues can share a bit of solidarity and comfort resonated with me instantly.

Freely sharing support—however that manifests itself—among artists who identify as depressed, anxious and/or chemically dependent is nothing short of inspirational.  Dissonance is at once focused and inclusive. And, frankly, it serves such a clear need that it’s surprising such communities are so rare.

As for me, I certainly was experiencing dissonance years ago.

Some kids fantasize about being rock or movie stars, practicing in front of a mirror with a hairbrush microphone and broom guitar. Well, at age 10, I was practicing what I anticipated to be my first remarks at an AA meeting. Out loud. Tears and dramatic inflection were well rehearsed by the time I was 12. I wish I were joking, but that’s how hard-wired we were in my family toward a sort of soused pre-destiny. I confess to a slight saturation of after-school specials as well. Who knew Mary from “Little House” could play drunk so well? Or was that Laura?

All too often, it is the creative person who runs toward the fire. For many of us, that impulse is always there, despite varied – and often damaging – results. Finding a balance between following the risky calls to the fire and seeking safety and serenity is a goal I have not yet fully achieved, and precisely why I’m grateful for a community like Dissonance.

Kevin O’Connor is the music director and afternoon host at KBEM-FM, the overnight host at Classical Minnesota Public Radio, and a person in long-term recovery.

 

Editor’s Note: You are invited to the Warming House, an alcohol-free listening room in South Minneapolis, for a Happy Hour on Thursday, Oct. 26, at 5pm. It’s a chance to learn about the mission and programming of Dissonance, the network of resources and how to get involved, from events to blogs like this one to board service. There will be refreshments, light snacks and music from Theyself. It’s an open invitation to come, connect and unwind a bit.

Help the Helpers

By Carl Atiya Swanson

“Gonna forget about myself for a while, gonna go out and see what others need.” That line from Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain” rolls around in my head a lot, as a reminder sometimes the best way to help yourself is to help someone else. There have been innumerable studies showing the positive effects of helping others, and if you’re a 12-stepper or have been in a recovery program, you know that service to others plays a key role in the journey into wellness.

That was why, three years after getting sober, I decided to go through the Crisis Connection volunteer training. Crisis Connection is the 24-hour phone line & text service responding to people in crisis. It handles all the Minnesota calls for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. It’s a place for people who feel they have nowhere to turn to find someone willing to sit with them in their pain, listen, and help them plan to stay safe, stay alive. It is a quiet, irreplaceable service that catches us when we fall. And it almost just went away

The volunteer training at Crisis Connection was incredibly in-depth. Over 2 months, I learned about grief, loss, addiction, mandated reporting, and more. The nurses and clinicians who led the trainings were invariably kind, dedicated and funny people, because you have to have a sense of humor to stick it out in this kind of work. I learned listening skills, how to talk to people to find out if they were safe, how to make plans to keep people safe - skills that I use to this day.

I only made it through a few shifts. I was still pretty new in recovery, and the intensity of the calls shocked me. Biking home at 2 in the morning after a particularly long call, I threw in the towel. I still had work to do on myself; you can only forget about that for a while, like Dylan says. But it’s one of the first resources I offer to people, because I know how powerful it can be.

Crisis Connection almost shut down last month because of a budget shortfall at Canvas Health, which operates the service. We can’t let a resource like this lapse for lack of a relatively little amount of funding. The Minnesota Department of Health stepped in with funding to keep Crisis Connection in operation until late September, but we know that the need for connection and safety nets carries on, especially into the winter months. So we need Crisis Connection to stay, and stay strong.

If you have stories about Crisis Connection, or if you wish you had known about Crisis Connection when it mattered to you or your loved ones, make that known. Share comments below, or send us a note at dissonancemn@gmail.com that we can share with Canvas Health. Tell the Minnesota Department of Health that this is an effort worth funding. Tell Governor Dayton, tell your elected officials, share your story with the folks running for governor in 2018, and ask them to make mental health services a priority in our state.

We also hope to see you at the Stomp Out Suicide 5k on August 19. Funds raised will support Canvas Health's mental health, substance use, and crisis services. 

And, if you are in crisis, call (612) 379-6363, or text “Life” to 61222 to reach Crisis Connection. Talk to them, and stick around. We need you here.

Visiting Ghosts

By Katy Vernon

 

Editor’s Note: This is the third dispatch from Katy during her 2017 tour of the United Kingdom. Most of this was written on a train in Wales, where both of her parents were born and raised. The picture above is Katy at her mother’s favorite beach, in the precise spot where, according to relatives, her family had many picnics when she was a child. If you haven’t already, please make sure to also read her first post, The H.A.LT. Tour, and second post, Not Today.

 

I think I've gotten so used to feeling disconnected that I lost track of the connections I have.

After I lost my parents in my teens, I decided to make my own family, married very young, and became a homebody creating a safe little nest. I realized somewhere along the way that I wasn't a risk taker. Although I had left my home in the United Kingdom and travelled halfway around the world to live in the United States, I was a very anxious and unadventurous person in many ways. I had anxiety about getting on the wrong bus, saying the wrong thing, failing. It became easier to just stay on track and try to do all of the right things.

I tried to control everything and everyone in my life.

That doesn't work. Not for me anyway.

Once I finally admitted to myself that I was struggling, I started to learn the process of letting go.

A year ago, I would have agonized about playing a concert overseas. The sheer amount of things that might go wrong would have overwhelmed me.

The idea of taking time away from home would have also trapped me. Not due to any lack of backing from those I love, though. It was all self-inflicted.

So this year -- in a healthier place personally, and with the encouragement of friends and family -- I dove in.

Six weeks of travel and shows. All over the UK. Almost every few days, I have taken trains, buses, and tubes to all areas of Britain.

The kindness and generosity of strangers has been overwhelming. People literally opening their homes and hearts to me.

I have also walked the routes of my past and visited my ghosts.

The home I grew up in, the  schools I attended, the park where I walked my dogs. So much has changed, and yet most of it is the same. I was scared about how that might make me feel.

I recently stood outside my childhood house, and for the first time in years it just looked like a building. Windows, a door, a little garden. Most of it the same as it was, but just a house, not my home.

As part of this tour, I also was invited to play at the hospice where my mum spent her final days. My last memory of her is there. I rode my bike to see her that day, on my own after school. She had asked me to bring strawberries, and I sat in her bed and ate them. She had just had her 47th birthday, and there were cards in her room. I was so nervous making my way there alone, but I'm so grateful today. I didn't know at the time that it would be the last visit, but my Dad didn’t want me to see her once she went into a coma.

It felt so huge to even think about going back. I knew that meant I had to do it. I went back with my ukulele to sing for people there. I didn't say what my connection was to the place. My reason for being there was to use my voice to bring some beauty and happiness to people's day. I have finally learned that I have that to give. Yes, I have experienced tremendous grief. But it helps me to help others, and I can now see that, as much sadness as I carry in my heart, I have equal, if not more, joy to give.

With that deeply meaningful performance at the hospice behind me, I boarded the train to Wales -- making my way, in less than 24 hours -- from the place where my mum passed away to the house where she grew up. My cousin wrote me a family tree (something I have never had) for the occasion, showed me around the old place and and shared her memories of my mum. As it turns out, my mum was her favorite aunt. And to hear her talk about how much she loved my mum was amazingly touching.

This house, too, was just a building, with windows and a door, and a little garden. It was a perfect full-circle moment.

I don't need to visit ghosts because they already live on inside of me, my cousin and my daughters.

 

Katy Vernon is a Minneapolis/St. Paul-based singer-songwriter. She grew up in London, England, and has been writing and singing as long as she can remember.

 

Let Go Out Loud

By Jennifer Gilhoi

 

When I discovered Dissonance, it definitely struck a chord with me.

Ever since my sponsor -- a sort of mentor for staying sober -- moved to Miami, I’ve been in a “recovery meeting” funk. Some days, I’m totally OK with the idea of scaling back my weekly attendance at Twelve Step meetings, which I’ve kept up consistently for the past two years. Other days, I beat myself up for having little desire to go.

Then, along came Dissonance, which offers additional options for supportive fellowship, with an outreach component that I’ve been envisioning must exist somewhere in some shape or form.

That’s why I was so intrigued when I came across a Facebook post about a St. Patrick’s Day Happy Hour hosted by Dissonance. Meet up at one of my favorite coffee shops at 4 pm on a Friday? Count me in! This little gathering -- an informal and conversational meeting in a public location -- served as my first intro to Dissonance. No agenda. Just a group of people connecting with one another about struggle, wellness and life. And enjoying it.

I then discovered that Dissonance had held a public event last December with musicians, storytellers, food, and wide-ranging conversations about recovery and mental health. And that an upcoming event -- also open to the public -- promised music and yoga. Again, count me in!

I became enamored with the concept behind this group. I get the rigor of Twelve Step programs and their tradition of anonymity. Indeed, Twelve Step meetings have been critical to my recovery. At the same time, I’ve been wondering about other forms of growth-oriented support. I’ve also been wondering about the powerful role that people in long-term recovery can have in shattering the stigma of addiction simply by letting their recovery status be known. More and more, I see how stepping out of church basements to embrace a more integrated presence and acceptance in society sends a clear invitation to others that it’s OK to seek help sooner than later.

If I’ve learned anything in my 20 years of active addiction and nearly three years of continuous sobriety, it’s that ego and confidence can be a double-edged sword. My confidence can serve me well. But for two decades, my ego also kept me from setting foot inside a recovery meeting room. And while I avoided what I knew to be true -- that I had a drinking problem -- the people around me also turned away from the obvious.

Meanwhile, during those same 20 years, I never met a single person in recovery who noticed my behavior and reached out. Nor did I know a person living happily in recovery who might have attracted me to the path. Or, did I? Did they exist? They were mythical in my mind.

Of course, it turns out I did know people living well in recovery. I just didn’t know that I did, thanks to the culture of secrecy that surrounds addiction and its solutions.

Could being more open in recovery -- and less anonymous -- help smash some of the stigma attached to addiction? Could it subtly but effectively invite others to find help sooner? Could we actually meet publicly in normal social settings? Could we hold conversations that let us experience vulnerability with both others in recovery and “normies” … at the same time?

For some of us, experiencing Dissonance-styled fellowship in normal social environments strikes a helpful balance between Twelve Step support group settings and the typical "bar-concert-restaurant" scenes that, without the added context of recovery, can be uncomfortable and unhealthy. The idea of acclimating back into society -- maintaining the priority of protecting my recovery while at the same time re-integrating humor, fun, activity and celebratory shared interests (like music concerts) into my life -- appeals to me. I also like the idea of finding my own recovery crowd. Though we share a common condition, we are anything but a monolithic bunch, which should come as no surprise given there are more than 20 million people in recovery in the United States alone.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating against Twelve Step recovery or any other path. To me, it’s not an “either/or” proposition, but rather a “both/and” idea. I believe that the more I can do to lead a healthy, fulfilling life, the safer my recovery will be.

I appreciate what a daily gift recovery is and how tenuous it can be, especially at first. In fact, when I initially got sober, my confidence soared so high, I ended up drinking again. And I didn’t understand. I was doing so well on my path; why would I return to alcohol use? As it turns out, of course, that is the nature of addiction; my mind fought relentlessly for the belief that I could drink normally, even though that was clearly not the case. I also realize today that my recovery -- ostensibly, my life -- was missing something. I had cut out friends and social engagements in fierce protection of sobriety, or so I thought. The truth is that I avoided typical social settings because I no longer felt comfortable in them -- a reality my ego could hardly stand. I longed to just be normal. Comfortable again. Confident. Or at least secure. Twelve Step meetings were helping in important ways but I was separating myself from other important aspects of life that I thought I had to give up.

Dissonance -- and the idea of finding recovery fellows and allies who share my interests and passions -- is opening my eyes to broader possibilities. I love that a Calgary bar recently hosted an alcohol-free bash and that others are paving the way, like the Sober Bars brand in Pennsylvania and HazelFest right here in Minnesota. Can we do more of this? I think yes!

I spent the first year of recovery pouring out my soul in safe, supportive, anonymous rooms where others generously shared, through their own experience, “promises” of what recovery could bring. My second year, I began to see the world with fresh eyes, my perceptions expanding in the beauty that practicing gratefulness daily reveals. Now, in my third year, even more is unfolding. For example, I can see that the fourth step in my recovery program, which involved conversations and making amends to others in my most immediate circle, was actually the first step in bringing my condition out of the shadows.

Since then, I’ve slowly continued the transition toward a more unfettered openness -- the kind I see embraced by Dissonance. The kind that calls out to my own longing for a well-balanced life and allows me to fully explore my passions. The kind that may one day call out to others who come after me. I’m not doing any trailblazing just yet, but am on the cusp of restlessness and happy to discover there’s more to be explored in recovery. I knew there was. After all, part of this is outlined in the Twelve Steps themselves, which encourage us, not to passively hold onto recovery, but to actively be a role model for others. Sponsorship, service work, advocacy and activism -- as far as I’m concerned, just different ways to express our voice in recovery.

Some may choose a different path entirely, and that’s OK. But for those of us who are ready and inclined to do so, let’s share more openly about both struggle and wellbeing. I’m ready if you are. Let’s recover out loud. Let’s publicly model what the promise of recovery looks like for us. It’s time to let go of shame, fear and secrecy. In the name of social progress, let’s let go together.

 

Jennifer Gilhoi is a marketing, social media and events consultant, avid yogi and the co-founder of the wellness community Empowering All.

Not Today

By Katy Vernon

Editor’s Note: This is the second dispatch from Katy during her 2017 tour of the United Kingdom. This one is from Brighton, England, where, in addition to performing, she was busy writing songs like Look to the Sea. Make sure to also read her first post - The H.A.LT. Tour.

 

BRIGHTON, ENGLAND -- I'm now two weeks into my seven-week UK tour. It's my first time traveling back to play music in the country where I was born and raised, the first time I have toured alone anywhere, and perhaps most importantly, my first extended time alone, period.

I am also undertaking all of this excitement, anxiety and adventure without the crutch of alcohol.

Almost a year ago, I sat and listened to a woman discuss how she took a business trip to France. She was alone in a hotel room thousands of miles away from her family. Wine was served with every meal, and there was a fully stocked mini bar in her room. She didn't drink. She was proud of herself, and as I watched others congratulate her on her recovery, I couldn't imagine “that” ever being me.

Of course, at the time, I didn't fully believe I had an addiction. But—in what should have been a sign—I also couldn't imagine having the freedom to drink without witnesses or judgment, and not doing it.

Here I am, though. Two weeks into a tour of Great Britain, where there are pubs on every corner and it’s legal to drink on the streets, and where single-serve wine is sold in convenience stores. Every day I walk by literally dozens of places where I could sit and have one quiet, secret glass.

Not today.

I am keeping promises to myself on this trip – promises that have come to mean a lot to me.

I used to feel naked out in public, meeting new people. Only alcohol put me at ease. But I’m finding a more natural ease now. Every time I walk into a new venue, I have the choice to either take someone up on the offer of a drink or to introduce “sober me.” As soon as I let the words “I don't drink” come out of my mouth, I feel like I am holding myself accountable. Promise kept. I also feel thankful for how understanding people always seem to be. And how much easier it is to be me, when that’s all I have to be.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but instead of feeling left out at these venues and on this tour, I feel much more fully engaged than ever. I pay more attention than I ever used to. I soak in so much more.

It’s been 20 years since I lived in the UK. And, back then, I never traveled much. So, it has been mildly terrifying to navigate my way around. But all of the steps I have taken this past year have strangely prepared me for it. I have learned how to be more open to life. I have grown more comfortable with planning what I can and accepting whatever outcomes result. With train tickets to book, and shows to play, I can't completely live in the moment. But during my “in between” times, I can comfortably wander the streets, sit and write, and take time to watch people and listen. All by myself.

It's a luxury that I know I might not have again. While I’m able to cover expenses with shows—and could make another tour work in that way—I doubt I’ll ever have this amount of time again to travel. My family in Minnesota has been amazingly understanding and generous, and in fact encouraged me to take the opportunity to do this tour in the first place. Perhaps they knew I was ready. Or what I needed. Either way, I am grateful.

Instead of being lonely, I am learning how to be alone.


Katy Vernon is a Minneapolis/St. Paul-based singer-songwriter. She grew up in London, England, and has been writing and singing as long as she can remember.

The H.A.L.T. Tour

By Katy Vernon

Editor’s Note: Katy started this a day before departing Minnesota for an exciting and emotional trip to her hometown of London. Check back for updates during her six-week tour of the United Kingdom.

 

(April 30, 2017) -- A year ago today, I woke up with my last hangover. As usual, I replayed the previous night in my mind, feeling foolish about some of my conversations and a bit frightened by the parts I couldn’t remember.

All the years of minimizing and joking about whether I needed to cut back and control my drinking were suddenly inadequate. I needed to wake the hell up and get in control of my life.

Knowing how obsessive I can be, I didn't want to become a crazed bore about getting sober. But I didn’t want to deal with drinking anymore either. I think it’s probably true that you need to seek recovery in order to find it, and I was ready to look.

Early on in my journey (and trust me, I know I'm still early on), I was introduced to the acronym H.A.L.T. - Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired. These are feelings that can trigger unhealthy coping strategies like substance use. I realized that as a busy working parent -- with a history of mental health issues, grief and unbridled ambition -- I was experiencing those feelings every day! Clearly I needed to change.

I needed to stop making excuses and find new ways to be in the world. Reaching out to people whom I knew had walked this path was key. Thankfully, I learned about Dissonance. I also told my family I was going to make healthier choices, and several months in, sought additional group support.

With that as my foundation, I have managed to build a routine of recognizing and checking in with people whenever I feel “H,” “A,” “L” or “T.”

“H” is pretty easy to control -- snacks, family meals and little chocolate treats to replace my evening wine.

“A” has, for the most part, subsided, thanks to a lot of reading, talking and most importantly, listening to others. I realize now that my anger usually springs from resentments, which are tough to crack. But for me, moving beyond resentment starts with finding gratitude for what I have, every day. Some days, I am grateful to simply hug my dog! Other days, there is so much more, and I try to recognize it.

“L” was mostly self-inflicted. When you are ashamed of your behavior, you keep secrets. I didn't know I was shutting people out until I started to let them in again.

“T” is the reason I have embraced the weekend nap!

A year ago, I wanted desperately to change my life. Today, thanks to the love and support of others -- and practical tools like H.A.L.T. -- I can see the progress.

Tomorrow, I fly to the U.K. (my birthplace) for my first-ever solo tour. I'm going all-in with more than a dozen gigs, including two large ukulele festivals.

I would have been too scared to do this in the past, and even now it's daunting. It means a lot to me that I have mustered the moxie to embrace this opportunity to meet new people and play music in new places.

I have thought ahead and planned for the support I will need when traveling, and almost joked that it should be called The HALT Tour! I see challenges and potential triggers ahead, but knowledge is power.

I'm not the first person to follow this path, and I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

Adventure awaits!

 

Katy Vernon is a Minneapolis/St. Paul-based singer-songwriter. She grew up in London, England, and has been writing and singing as long as she can remember.

Stumbling Into Peace

by Johnny Solomon


About three years ago, I walked into a yoga class because it was freezing outside and I didn’t want to spend another winter hibernating at home. I wanted to get ahead of the coming three months of Christmas cookies and soup. I wasn’t looking to talk about chakras, though. And the last thing I wanted to do was sit through Yanni-inspired sitar music. My yoga goals were not lofty, but it was November and the promise of a polar vortex was right around the corner.

At that point, I had been sober for about three years. I also had my bipolar disorder relatively managed but still experienced bouts of anxiety that kept me isolated and unattached from the rest of humanity. I toured full time as a musician, so my schedule was pretty much the opposite of a “schedule.” And I was a year into writing my new record, feeling both crippling self-doubt and a sense of career-ending procrastination. According to everything I knew at the time, it was the kind of life an artist could expect.

Years before, I had pushed my way into some sort of success in the music world. Success is relative, of course, but I was making a living, which I figure is at least the ground floor. What I didn’t understand at the time was that my identity had become lost in my art. When I got sober and was finally healthy enough to commit to being a working artist, my sense of self got all wrapped up in my songs. I stopped being able to separate who I was from what I could create. I assumed every interaction involved the singer-songwriter Johnny of Communist Daughter. My neighbors didn’t see John Solomon; they saw the guy who wrote songs, and they liked me, or didn’t, based on what they thought of my latest record. I took commentaries on my music as commentaries on my very existence. The only time I talked to the outside world was before and after my shows, and that skewed my perception of daily life. I didn’t know where John Solomon ended and Johnny Solomon began.  

But that day in November, I took a step down a path I didn’t even realize I was on. What started as me counting minutes on the mat, became me counting breaths. And then simply turning off my mind and counting on that one-hour break from whatever else was outside. I showed up to lose weight, but then I stopped caring about that (#dadbodforlife). I went because it felt good. If I was anxious, I knew things would be better afterward. If I had a decision to make, I knew I would have some sort of clarity after class. And two years into practicing yoga, I realized I had friends that didn’t even know I was a musician. They liked me without any prior knowledge of Communist Daughter. I felt like I had my own identity again.

In the recovery world, many of us like to get together in groups to talk and listen to each other. One of the ways we share is by recounting “what it was like, what changed, and how it is now.” But life doesn’t stop changing when you get sober; that’s one of the first things I learned in recovery, so every time I go back to my story, it’s a little bit different. And three years ago, my life and story shifted without me even noticing. Three years ago, I walked into a room to lose a couple of pounds, but I learned patience and gratitude, and recaptured an idea of who I was. I found a community that didn’t know I was a musician. Even three years later, I suspect most of them have never heard a single one of my songs. I found a group of friends that are as likely to be sober as they are to be anything else. I’ve also listened to more Drake than I ever thought I would. Apparently yoga isn't just for sitar.  

I have a lot of feelings about yoga, and none of them involve an understanding of chakras (yet), a nirvana, or an ability to say Namaste without smirking. But they do involve getting anxiety under control, finding patience with myself and appreciating a whole new world of Drake-loving, earnest human beings.

Once again, I find myself thinking about life in terms of “what it was like, what changed, and how it is now.” Today, thanks to yoga, I’m a different, more content, and connected person. I love to show up to the studio and talk to the people around me and to listen to what they’re looking for and what they have found.

I’m not trying to sell you a spiritual awakening. But if you get yourself to a yoga mat, you might be able to learn how to say Namaste without smirking, and hopefully you can teach me that.

 

Want to try it for yourself? Check out our upcoming event called Breathing Through Dissonance on April 23rd.
 

John Solomon is a Dissonance Board Member.

Reality Sets In

By David T. Lewis

 

"I'm an adult." It's such a weird thing to say out loud. I’m currently repeating it in the dusty, smudged mirror of a portable toilet in Helsinki, Finland. A film crew outside is waiting for me to emerge so we can continue taping an episode of a reality TV show my wife and I have landed on.  

I moved my family from Roseville, Minnesota to Helsinki last year for a job as a Communications Manager at the newly formed Aalto University. I wasn't fleeing anything. My wife and I both had stable jobs, a great house, happy kids. The move was, rather, a leap of faith: a romantic idea of adventure and the unknown.  

But, if I’m honest with myself, the move was also something of a midlife crisis. My father had recently died, and I’d been in a dark place ever since. He was the person I looked to for clarity or guidance. I was nearing 40, with a loving family, and yet I had become rudderless and felt I was drifting off-course.  

I had been trying to come to terms with all this yet no matter how profound I wanted to be, it felt so trivial. When talking about death, never in my life had something felt so un-containable, so massive, and so universal - yet so isolating. Maybe, unlike other major life events (marriage, parenthood, or masturbation), death is a secret. It's a late night step into a dark room; unable to find the language to ask for help, we are unbalanced and alone. I know this is normal. I know it ebbs and flows. I just wasn't ready for the awful and empty echo.

Unsure of how to recover, I started grappling with all those things the middle-aged do: I got hair loss pills to try to reclaim some kind of hipster man bun (I failed); I bought a skateboard and showed up at the local skate park to try to impress teenagers (more failure); I ate an entire chocolate bar of edible weed in Denver and locked myself in a hotel room for 12 hours (success?). Sadly, but not surprisingly, none of it was able to jar me from what was really an all-consuming sadness, a blanket of grey. I was, almost certainly, depressed.  

Weirdly enough, this is our second time on a reality show. The first was for a basement fix-up in 2012. We had a cool mid-century house and it was a sunnier time. I still dry-heaved between takes, but back then, it was just due to performance anxiety. Now all those TV questions seem to have taken on a new existential heft. "How do you like the living room space?" and "Are you happy with your move?" have begun to sound like "What does it all mean?" and "What legacy will you leave behind when you die?”

This is hardly the first time I've struggled with my mental health. As a teenager I had awful panic attacks. In college, on the first date with my wife, I vomited on her feet. She thought it was cute; I assured her it wasn't. I once hid in a bathroom at a New Jersey Dunkin' Donuts, unable to decide between jelly or cream-filled, whimpering, "I can't." It sounds ridiculous, but it happened. I know I can be profoundly sensitive and brittle.

Along the way, I've had success, too. I've worked at all those things you read when you Google self-care: therapy, medication, meditation. Now, no longer nearing 40 but actually there, I have coping skills and a better sense of humor. I'm less serious. At least I was until I wound up with two cameras staring me down as I do multiple takes of, "Yeah, but the cabinets are just too dark."

The irony is not lost on me: I’m pulling myself together so I can talk about how many bedrooms we'd like in our new apartment. It couldn't be more banal. Still, my alternating depression and anxiety don't seem to care as our cabinets become the focus. With so little at stake, it feels as if I have so much to lose: my composure, my purpose, my sanity.

My brain’s on a loop as I leave the bathroom and step in front of the cameras. The director asks, "So what do you think of the kitchen?" I choke back the tears and tell her, "I think it's great." She smiles and I start to wonder if I should apply to be on Survivor next year.

 

David T. Lewis is a Dissonance Board Member.


 

In-Between Days

By Caroline Royce

 

I was crying — alone at home — for what felt like the thousandth time.

It was a few weeks before I was due to give birth to my first child, an occasion I had waited and planned for and wanted for a long, long time. Why was I crying during this happy time? Boy … take your pick.

My time being pregnant was one of eager anticipation but also cold, hard depression. It was both the most creatively stagnant period of my life, and the loneliest.

About four months into my pregnancy, I was let go from my contract job at General Mills, where I was a graphic designer. It was well paying, and I had a flexible schedule. Most importantly, I enjoyed the work. Suddenly unemployed and pregnant, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find another job before my October due date. Finding a job, in my experience, was a demoralizing task, even without the added pressure of pregnancy.

Long before I was pregnant, or even had a regular job, I still knew that when I had kids, I would be a working mom. I am a feminist, and while I know that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to work when you have kids, it’s been a motivation for me to be my own person; I don’t want to be solely defined by being a mother. I want to show my kids that there is value in working, and that both mom and dad have an equal role in providing for the household. Plus studies show that mothers who work are generally happier, as they have social interactions outside the home, and aren’t totally bogged down by the stress of raising children full time.

The decks are stacked against women no matter what. Mothers who work, on average, make less than women without children. And we already know women make less than men.  Truly a damned-if-you-do scenario. Even though I’ve always wanted children, I’ve never been totally sure what it means to be a mom. The image that seems most prominent in our culture is that of the mommy blogger; the woman who quietly puts aside her job and hobbies to become fully devoted to her “LOs” (Little Ones) and writes self deprecatingly about how hard it is (ok, guilty). On the flip side, there is the super cool, J. Crew-wearing mom who continues her fast-paced marketing job and somehow is wearing skinny jeans three weeks after giving birth. I was worried about becoming the mother whose life became completely dominated by being a mother.

On top of all this--losing my source of income, and my main creative outlet--I’d lost something that could’ve kept me sane: a social life.

Not only was I unemployed, but pregnancy had profoundly changed my circumstances. As someone who already has suffered from lifelong depression and anxiety, this new element to my life was crippling me socially. I didn’t know how to relate to people. I couldn’t go out drinking. I was usually too exhausted even to hit up an early trivia night. Here and there, I would do the occasional lunch with a close friend, even once or twice going out after 10 for dancing. The buzz you get from seeing friends sustained me for a while, but eventually I slipped back into a deep despair, feeling guilty that I had all this free time, and no earthly idea how to enjoy it.

I would think back to what I would do with days off from work, and the answer was usually along the lines of lunch, movie, shopping, errands. If every day is a day off, those once-enjoyable activities become tedious, almost an obligation (i.e. “Maybe I should go see a movie, but I don’t want to, ugh”). Then I would start to think how pitiful it was that I couldn’t come up with any ideas for how to spend my time other than to go to the mall again. One particularly difficult night found me hunched over my desk at home, sobbing into the crook of my arm while my husband stood next to me, totally helpless to console me. I was stricken with self-pity. I didn’t know what to do with myself, and that made me depressed.

I was trapped between two lives. There was the happy, creative career gal, who went out drinking and smoking with friends--some great days to be sure. Then there was the woman with great days ahead, raising a child and getting to know the little person that I made. The time between these two lives though was agony. It felt like a life without purpose.

In my third trimester I began to see a therapist--a cool, compassionate woman specializing in Postpartum Depression. I had a feeling that I would be extremely susceptible to this form of mental illness, but what I had not anticipated was that I would suffer greatly from Prenatal Depression, which I’ve hardly ever heard anyone talk about. Have you? Would you want to listen to a woman complain about how sad she was all the time? Basically nobody does. People asked me all the time during my pregnancy, “How are you feeling?” Lonely, existentially conflicted, in constant discomfort, waiting for my life to have purpose again. I was pretty sure nobody knew how I was feeling--and I didn’t figure they were actually interested in the messy truth--and that is the worst, loneliest feeling of them all.

Now that I’m on the other side — blissfully exhausted and constantly overwhelmed with new motherhood, I think about all the things I should’ve done. I should’ve reached out to my friends. I should’ve gone swimming more. I should’ve reorganized my kitchen. I should’ve written a ton of blogs or done some photo projects. It’s easy to look at a time of depression in hindsight and solve your problems. Harder to see when you’re in it.


Caroline Royce is a freelance graphic designer, photographer and blogger living in Minneapolis with her husband Alan, son Alexander and cat Arya.

The Best Gifts Can't Be Wrapped

By Joe Nistler

 

The “Unhappy Holidays” event presented by Dissonance brought to light some great perspectives on navigating the holiday season when you suffer from addiction, mental illness or—if you’re like me—both. For most people, holidays mean reuniting with family. And for many, that means diving into an unhealthy atmosphere that we do our best to avoid throughout the year. But the panel got me thinking that the holidays don’t have to be unhappy. I can find plenty of things in the past year for which to be grateful—things that will get me through the season unscathed, even when circumstances conspire against me.

This holiday season has been humbling, to say the least. For all intents and purposes, I got laid off from my full-time job yesterday. They call it a "two-week unpaid vacation," so technically I’m still employed, but I’m pretty certain that I won’t be called to go back—no one will, the company’s done. I loved my job to the point that it often felt too good to be true. Now the cynic in me is laughing, saying, “See? I told you it wouldn’t last.” The funny thing is, despite being thrust into easily the most unstable financial situation since I’ve been sober, with more unknowns than I ever hoped to encounter at once, I can’t help but feel grateful—even happy—for the spiritual wealth I’ve come to grow in my recovery, and the friends and family that helped me along the way.

I’m fortunate enough to have a family that is starting to understand my substance use disorder and my recovery and support me in it. I was looking forward to buying gifts for the people I care about, to show them how much I care. It would have been the first time in years I would have been able to wrap presents, and now that option is gone. But I don’t feel the shame or disappointment in myself that I thought I would, because in the past year I’ve stumbled upon something much more valuable than the things we put under the tree.

This day last year, December 16th, was the last time I picked up drugs, and in two days it will be the anniversary of the last time I put them down. Last Christmas was the first in this new era of recovery for me, but it didn't feel all that different from the other unhealthy ones in my past.

This year is different. I can feel satisfied with my accomplishments and stand tall on them, rather than using them like a smokescreen to distract from the underlying addiction. I have seen the people around me grow and learn along this journey, too—I don't feel envious of them anymore. I can share honest moments with the ones I care about without crawling through the foggy haze of addiction. I welcome the unknowns and see them as opportunities, rather than devastating setbacks.

I still worry about what will come next, and how to find the right way—the worrying is a part of a clinical disorder with which I'll always have to live. But this holiday season, most importantly, is the one-year anniversary of the day I decided that everything would be all right. It was more powerful than a realization, it was truly a decision to start doing right, with the understanding that somewhere, some cosmic force would recognize that decision and allow me to persevere through the hardships. If I can remain genuine in my humility, gratitude and servitude to my community and higher power, I strongly feel that things will work out how they're meant to.

Call it faith, call it "turning my will over to a higher power as (I) understood him," call it a spiritual awakening—the only thing I realized last December was that things were never going to improve in the long run if I kept acting on the same impulses and trying to cheat the system for instant gratification. Looking back, my decision touches on several of the Twelve Step principles that have proven such an effective solution for me—turning over my will, addressing character defects, taking personal inventory and practicing the principles in all my affairs. But it’s hard to nail down just which step led to that moment. How do I really explain the instant I decided to change my life? How much of a role did I, myself, even play in that?

I'm certain of one thing—without loving people and opening up to some positive forces in my life, I would not have come to the same conclusion. I would not have recognized the blessings around me and the journey that lay ahead, and I would not be able to look around today and recognize the same loving joy around me amplified by my spiritual presence.

Life is stressful right now. There are a lot of unknowns, and I’m waiting to see what comes next. I always thought having to file for unemployment the week before Christmas Eve was a Dickensian cliché that couldn’t happen in real life, yet here I sit. Before, these circumstances might have broken me, but not anymore. The only antagonists in this story, though, are my addiction, my mental illness, and that one drink or hit that could return me to despair. I hear it calling to me from time to time when I’m most vulnerable, but thankfully I haven’t had to feed it for a full year now.

So maybe I can't fulfill that ego-driven homecoming fantasy of showing up at my parents’ door with presents under each arm. But at least that’s the only thing this holiday has in common with those in the past. I don’t think that’s the point of the holidays, anyway, nor is it the point of recovery. The desire to give “things” to my loved ones wasn’t entirely altruistic to begin with. Instead, I see that the best gifts can't be wrapped. They are the ones that keep on giving, for as long as I work at them. They are the ones reassuring me that when one door closes, another one opens. And until I find the next door, I have a lot to celebrate this year.

 

Joe Nistler is a Twin Cities-based writer for recovery-focused magazines across the country. He also covers local music and culture for 608 Magazine in Madison, WI, and is a graduate of the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Getting Back to Where it All Began

From the beginning, Dissonance has been about convening community and sharing experiences, in the hopes of smashing stigmas and bringing to light the all-too-common struggles and challenges many of us face in trying to live healthy, happy, and productive lives. As Dissonance has grown and evolved we've concentrated on building a network, crafting our mission and vision, and launching as a non-profit entity. We are so thrilled with the community that has developed around us and the connections we've made during this time. And now, we are ready to get back to our first love: hosting creative people in conversation with each other.

Everywhere we look, starting the day after Halloween(!), we are inundated with images of happy families, celebratory friendship groups, and romantic couples frolicking in winter wonderlands of merriment and joy. We are invited to countless parties in our work and home lives, and exposed to thousands of images of various types of overindulgence. It can be suffocating and oppressive for those who are lonely, who are dealing with loss or illness, who don't drink or have eating disorders, or who can't navigate a stress-free family situation.

Good news! You're not alone. Please join us for our next event, "Unhappy Holidays", on December 15th at Open Book in Minneapolis, as we look at the challenges presented by the holiday season. We'll get real about how hard this time of year can be, we'll hear from some very creative people about how they cope with the stressors, and we'll be treated to their creative output in the form of song and storytelling.

We'll gather together in a stress-free, supportive environment with people who aren't related, but who can relate.

Our guests include Nora McInerny Purmort, Katy Vernon, and Davina Sowers (of the Vagabonds). Nora is the author of "It's Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too)" and host of "Terrible, Thanks for Asking". Katy is a Minneapolis-based British singer-songwriter and Dissonance blogger who calls herself a "singer of sad songs on a happy instrument" (the ukelele!). Davina heads up the internationally acclaimed and high energy jazz-blues group Davina and the Vagabonds. The conversation will be facilitated by longtime friend-of-Dissonance and interviewer, David Campbell along with Dissonance board member and psychotherapist, Sarah Souder Johnson. 

It's important to us at Dissonance that anyone who wants to attend our events can do so, so we don't charge an admission fee; however, we are a non-profit organization that believes in paying the artists we work with. If you can chip in to attend the event, or make a contribution to Dissonance so we can continue to host events like this, please select that option on the reservation page and pay any amount you can. Every contribution makes a difference and goes directly to overhead costs.

Here is the direct link to the event and ticket page: http://tinyurl.com/UnhappyHolidays

We hope you can join us, and we want to thank our hosts Open Book Minneapolis and Milkweed Books for making this event possible. What better space for an event like this than a bookstore? You can browse their shelves and find inspiration or do some holiday shopping while you're there. NO PRESSURE THOUGH.

I'm so proud to be part of this great community, and I hope you join me and this fantastic group of people in this new format of Dissonance events, and we look forward to many more events in the near future. Stay tuned.

 

Ali Lozoff is a board member and the marketing chair for Dissonance. Now the Director of the 50th Anniversary at Minnesota Public Radio, Ali has twenty years of experience in the fields of branding and identity, strategic planning, vision and mission work, event and project management, idea development, writing, social networking, partnerships and sponsorships with strong ties to the local arts and culture community. She also enjoys long walks by the lake.

What If Nothing is Wrong With You?

By Jordan Hansen

 

What if nothing is wrong with you? What if my favorite part is the part you think is broken? 

I am a therapist. I love my work. I don’t think there is much wrong with the people I see. At least not in the way they think there is something wrong.

I find that the biggest struggle for most of the people I work with is that they are unable, for a variety of reasons, to be the only thing they are capable of being: Themselves. Not the façade-appearing-authentic that most of us cultivate as if our life depended on it. Not in the cliché, saccharine, eyeroll-inducing sort of way that we are used to either. I’m talking about the inimitable, kind, ferocious, authentic, at-ease way that we come by through sweat, tears, courage, risk and connection.

This is the journey of a person who only felt comfortable as a woman, in feminine clothes in makeup, in a small town, as a teenager, with all eyes identifying her as a man. This is the journey of the person attempting to live life without the protective shield of chemicals, bombarded by a harsh, vicious perception of human existence, tempted by the ease that comes with that first shot, hit, drink. These are the people who feel that their lives depend on producing authentic work and finding meaning, and yet can’t get themselves to put pen to paper or pick up their instrument due to some vague fear or anxiety. These are the journeys of those who feel they have no right to their pain, as if their life was too good to experience existential terror, the horror of solitude or the pain of self-loathing. Pain combined with judgment is potent. There are many who, seemingly without cause, are drawn to anxiety, depression, chemical use. We often find through our work that there is a piece of them beaten, forgotten, buried, neglected. This is what we look for, together.

The trick—under all of the techniques, pedantic jargon and fancy terms that can take the life out of therapy—seems to be to find truth. And the truth (as I see it today) is that we are really weird creatures flying around on a weird rock, doing amazing, beautiful, awe-inspiring things. We are busy finding secrets in others and ourselves, and if we are able to have some idea of what we are meant to do and connect with our people and the universe around us, we can feel better. If we can find safety in our world while being the true, distilled, unadulterated, authentic people we know we are, we can find something like happiness. Even if our entire experience seems to have conspired to convince us otherwise.

I am invested in the scientific and clinically-measured approaches in my field, but I embrace them while anchored by belief in the ecstatic weirdness of the deal. Why does driving around listening to music with the windows down, heat on, music up, on a sleepy Minnesota night feel the best? I’d like to see a peer-reviewed study on the therapeutic effect of a drumset or the length of sobriety achieved both with and without an 808. Drum machines for everybody! Medication saves lives, but maybe we should mandate that it be paired with musical recommendations for specific diagnoses.

Anxiety? Mazzy Star, Sigur Ros, Spiritualized  
Depression? The Funky Meters, tUnE-yArDs, Os Mutantes

Or maybe we lean into the turn?

Anxiety: Aphex Twin, Death Grips, King Crimson
Depression: Bill Callahan, Elliott Smith, anything off Beck’s Sea Change

I want to ask for $9 million to design and execute a study to finally determine why cats are helpful for anxiety and dogs seem able to pierce the fog of depression.

So many other questions too, like ...

If I imagine motivational readings in Mavis Staples’ voice, will they be more effective? Why do the hugs at NA meetings and the laughter in AA meetings feel awful and amazing at the same time? Why can’t I write the same affected stories I used to? Will she/he/they still like me? Why do new songs feel so terrible and amazing to make? Is quitting my job to knit an appropriate reaction to crippling anxiety from a “real” job? What is a real job? Did I dance without arms when I was drinking, and if so, did I enjoy it as much as when I am able to dance alone? How do I feel comfortable dancing? Without substances? While using my arms? What do the arms do while dancing? Will I ever be OK being me? Is there another way? Why do I STILL feel terrible, even as I get better? If you hold a drink, that is normal. Maybe adding something in the other hand would work. Or, is holding two things too weird?  Can I write a blog about being a therapist and how great it is without thinking I am a fraud and contributing to some sort of in-crowd exclusion that I feel myself judging, like I would judge anybody who wrote about Bill Callahan …

There are times when I want to recommend people to people.

“Hey. There’s this guy, Bob. He owns a coffee shop. He is kind and rad and will tell you that we are all lucky to be alive and that he loves you. See him and then meet with Laura. She’ll get you fired up to be alive. She really lives, that one. A jolt out of the doldrums when you need it.”

Add it all up, and a treatment plan might look like:

  • Drums – hit hard (or soft) daily/as necessary
  • Look out some windows for at least a half-hour each day (bus windows very effective; also looking at anything like crowds, clouds, rivers or trains)
  • Hang out with cats (dogs, or even children, can be substituted as needed)
  • Tell people about the super shameful thing that you think is unique to you, but is in fact universal
  • Listen to Lizzo or Jenny Lewis when negative self-talk occurs
  • Talk to rad people
  • Dance (exercise in other less-fun forms can be substituted)
  • Don’t beat the hell out of yourself when you sleep too much, drink, cut yourself, or have a panic attack
  • Find nice people, and do nice things for them
  • Find what makes you you, and hit it hard

This is the work of therapy. It is so much bigger than what happens in my office, but what happens in my office is meaningful. When those of us who feel broken show everybody what it looks like to be broken, everybody gets to tell us that we’re f---ing amazing and that their favorite part is the “broken” part. We get to find out why we are here and what makes us special and useful. Sometimes, we find out that the thing that made us hurt—the thing that we thought was useless, futile, random—is actually the thing that makes us uniquely useful. We find out there is something we have always been that we didn’t know about, or were too afraid to embrace—something that makes us us.

If you are hurting, find a therapist you love. Find music you love. Try to read books you love, meet people you love, love people who love you. Don’t stop until you find them. Acknowledge the pain, and hold it close when you need to and loosely when you should. Listen when the people who love you say that you are lovely and that, despite your best efforts, you have no idea how to accurately gauge your worth. Let those who love you decide. When in doubt, find a person to help, be vulnerable, listen to the little scared, squeaky voice inside you that knows the kind truth. Love that thing. Dance.

 

Jordan Hansen, MA, LADC, LPC, is an experienced clinician, speaker and writer focused on integrating the science of cutting-edge treatment modalities with the wisdom found in peer-supported approaches to recovery. His approach is based on authenticity, interpersonal connection and a steadfast focus on person-centered, evidence-based interventions. His experience within residential, long-term and outpatient levels of care is informed by his background in journalism, vocational counseling and nonprofit management. Areas of recent focus include assisting in the design and implementation of Medication-Assisted Therapy for opioid addiction, policy work with the MN state legislature, distribution of naloxone kits to local opioid addicts at risk for overdose, and artistic and literary efforts aimed at sharing his experience with long-term recovery from addiction and mental illness.  

Creative Conversations: Turning Up to 11 With Music and Mental Wellness

By Brian Zirngible

 

Like many musicians, I live and breathe music. Every morning I wake up with a song in my head. I’m in two different bands myself, and I listen to music in my car, in my office, with my clients, and when I DJ weddings (I also own a wedding business on the side). And as the day closes, I’ll usually drift off to sleep with the theme song from Bob Ross’s “The Joy of Painting” gradually fading out inside my mildly ringing eardrums. For me, that’s a very relaxing way to end the day.

As a therapist, I am very curious and often joke that I get paid to ask really dumb or obvious questions. I am curious about how other artists take care of themselves when the world at times seems to be imploding on us. I am curious about how performing artists create when they are “blocked” or are living with crippling self-doubt in their talents and abilities. And I am extremely curious about WHY musicians write and perform music. What is the motivation or drive? Is it external motivation such as fame or money? Is it recognition among peers and family? Or is it an internal drive to create something new to the world - something that would not otherwise exist if not for them putting pen to paper, pick to guitar, lips to mouthpiece?

I am also curious about how musicians and other artists maintain healthy balance within the creative scene and how they are supported by friends, families and collaborators.

The creative life comes with some unique stresses. And there's truth to the stereotypical “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyle, which poses obvious challenges to wellness. Indeed, substance use problems are relatively common within the artist community. Co-occurring mental health issues are prevalent as well. Hence my curiosity about how artists can and do stay well.

I’ve learned a lot from resources like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a superb book recommended my own former therapist. I’ve also learned from and been inspired by the stories of people like Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, who, in a recent Rolling Stone article, discussed his struggles with substance use and how he finally was able to reach out for help. Thankfully, more artists are opening up about their efforts to be well.

I recently checked in with two Minnesota musicians – Holly Hansen and Justin Bell – to discuss their perspectives on creativity and wellness. Big thanks to them for their time, energy and honesty.

HOLLY HANSEN

Holly is the former lead singer/songwriter for Zoo Animal and is currently writing and recording as a solo artist. Although Holly and I have never met and I’ve never seen her perform, we struck up a conversation after she posted this question on her Facebook page: “How does an artist not feel guilty?” Her comment stood out to me, and I needed to learn more. You can also listen to her inspiring interview with Andrea Swenson, host of the “OK Show” on 89.3 FM The Current, and watch a documentary about Holly’s history and development as an artist on Pioneer Public Television.

Q: When did you first realize you were a musician?

A: Hmmmmm, I'm not sure. I feel like it all just kind of happened. And yet, I'm still not sure I am one.

Q: What are some healthy ways that you maintain a "work/life" balance?

A: I used to be horrible at this. Now I am super picky about what I agree to do. I also make sure i have at least one whole day every couple of weeks that has nothing scheduled. I need time where I can just float, I've learned that.

Q: How important is it for your music or songs to be "perfect?" I know there is pressure from record labels, fans & band mates to make the music "just right." When do you know when a song or album is complete?

A: I actually struggle to care about perfection. I am a big idea person, so the details can be exhausting to me. I do care about them though, although I often find the best details are things that happened without effort. I like to work in a loose structure and let the details fall where they may.

Q: How do you practice self-care, and is there anything you would change about your routines?

A: I make sure to get enough sleep, eat greens whenever I can, and try to scoop out some meditative time in each day.

Q: What are some of your musical inspirations?

A: Everything always. Music is the way I process everything I experience. Are there certain artists that get you excited about being a musician? Always changing, but at the moment... Aphex Twin, Jenn Wasner, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Curtis Mayfield, Lijadu Sisters, PJ Harvey, Kanye West, William Basinski, Tsegue Mariam Gebru, Angel Olsen, Bill Callahan, 2 Chainz, Nina Simone.

Q: Do you have another job or career? If so, is your employer understanding of your music career and schedule?

A: Yes and very much so.

Q: How important was your formal school education to your current career as a musician?

A: I have a sound art degree, from MCTC (Minneapolis Community and Technical College). It has been very, very helpful. Love that place, it's a great school.

Q: Does your family and/or spouse/partner support you as an artist? If so, what are some of the best ways your loved ones support you?

A: Yes, she is very supportive. Helps me stay calm about money. Doesn't make me feel guilty when I spend money on gear that I find inspiring. Doesn't make me feel guilty when I hide away for hours making weird noises.

Q: Do you ever struggle with songwriting or ever experience "writer's block?" If so, what gets you through to be able to create or write music?

A: Yes. So far in my life, my lyric writing comes in three-month purges; then there is a two- to three-year waiting period. Luckily I feel like there's always enough material to always be making something if I feel like it. What helps? Listening to other music, reading books, experiencing something new, listening to lectures.

Q: Why are you a musician? I hear it's a pretty rough gig!

A: It is. That's why I work a day job.

 

JUSTIN BELL

Justin is a singer/songwriter and the frontman of j.bell & the Lazy Susan Band. He is currently in the process of releasing a new album, “Underneath A Minnesota Moon.” Full disclosure here … I am in two different bands with Justin, and we share more than 20 years of personal and professional history. It was great to sit down with him and have a lengthy conversation about music and mental wellness.

Q: When did you first realize you were a musician?

A: I started playing violin when I was 4. Not sure if you could call that being a musician … but I knew then that I wanted to make noise on instruments. I played a bunch of instruments as a kid, but everything changed when I got a guitar. My uncle Rick was a guitarist in a band, and the way he talked about playing music was always captivating to me. I love talking to other musicians about music and about instruments and gear.

Q: What are some healthy ways that you maintain a "work/life" balance?

A: I am an anxious person by nature. I always have to have as many irons in the fire as possible. I get very antsy if I sit around too long without doing something. So I’m probably the wrong person to ask this of. Because for me, it’s a matter of having enough things going on to keep me interested moment by moment.

Q: How important is it for your music or songs to be "perfect?" I know there is pressure from record labels, fans & band mates to make the music "just right." When do you know when a song or album is complete?

A: I don’t think they’re ever perfect, and sometimes songs have to age. I have songs that I’ve been playing for 10 years that I am just now figuring out how to play. You can continue to tweak forever if you want to. I like to try and capture the essence of a song, get it out there into the universe and let it become what it’s going to become. That can be frustrating when listening back to older records and thinking, “I wish we would have recorded that the way we perform it now.” Some of that comes from being an independent band with day jobs too. You can’t spend all the time you want to rehearsing/recording/perfecting. You have a finite amount of time, and you have to make it count.

Q: How do you practice self-care, and is there anything you would change about your routines?

A: I suffered most of my life from pretty severe insomnia, and I think that caused a good deal of the other problems I had as a teenager and young adult. I would frequently stay awake for days at a time or sleep only a couple of hours a night. I tried embracing that by working extra overnight jobs or being productive during that time, but it was just a bad scene. Nowadays, I sleep pretty normally and get six or seven hours a night. Because of that, I feel better now than perhaps I ever have. Exercise is the key to that for me. When I exercise regularly, I sleep better, I eat better, I focus better - everything is just better.

Q: What are some of your musical inspirations? Are there certain artists that get you excited about being a musician?

A: I’ve always had a hard time fitting into a genre or style, or describing my music to other people in a meaningful way. So I’m drawn to other artists that have the same kind of deal. My favorite band is Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers. They became my favorite band when I read on one of their album covers, “This ain’t country like Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett ain’t country.” That really spoke to me because I feel like I like that style, but you can’t tell most people that you like country music because you get bombarded with what is called country music now (Modern Country or “Bro Country”), and I really don’t like or relate to that. I also have a lot of Minnesota roots, so Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks, the Replacements (and Paul Westerberg’s solo work) and Golden Smog are a big part of where I come from and what I consume. I recently got to meet one of my musical heroes, and he listened to our “$80 Whiskey” album. He said, “There’s a lot of Jayhawks in there. Even the harder rock stuff has Jayhawks flavor.” I said, “I grew up here. I can’t help it.” I’ve also been obsessed with a few bands lately that make me want to keep writing and playing: Shovels & Rope, Dawes, the Old 97s.

Q: Do you have another job or career? If so, is your employer understanding of your music career and schedule?

A: Yes, a few! They don’t really affect each other, but all of that is time management. I’m a firm believer that if you want to do something, you can find a way to do it. I hate when people use phrases like “free time,” or say “I don’t have time for that,” because in my experience, people do what they want to do and are willing to work for. The rest is mostly excuses. Too often, I think people expect things to be placed in front of them in a perfect little package, when most of the time it’s going to take some work, and it’s a matter of priorities and OWNING your priorities. “Oh, I can’t practice 2 hours a day.” Well, you CAN, but you prefer to prioritize other things, and that’s different, and perfectly valid. But don’t talk about it like it’s out of your control.

Q: How important was your formal school education to your current career as a musician?

A: It helps in a few ways. My knowledge and comfort with music theory helps things move faster and makes it easier to communicate with other players and producers. I don’t have the ear that some of the other guys in the band do, so if I had to figure everything out by trial and error, it would take a long time. I know what harmony parts are supposed to be without having to try them out for 20 minutes first. I also can’t stress enough how much my improvisation training and experience helps. There’s a certain amount of “just go with the flow” that the guys in our band have that other bands don’t. We rehearse, but not as much as other bands do, and I credit our jazz & improv background there. Like Tom (Adams – Lazy Susan Band bassist) has said, this band can get to 80 percent of new songs in about two dry runs. Many other bands rehearse over and over and over again to get there. I actually credit my improvisation background with some of my success in other areas of my life too. I am frequently credited with my ability to think on my feet or “wing it” in any situation. I think that comes from studying jazz. You get a lead sheet, a basic structure of a song, and then you just go for it, and what happens … happens. I’m always surprised at how many people aren’t comfortable with that. I do a good amount of public speaking, and often someone will ask, “Did you write out and practice a speech? Do you have your speech memorized?” And I’ll say, “Nah, I’m just going to talk for a while.” That really surprises some people. I don’t need to see everything and have everything worked out to do something or feel comfortable. If I see the basic structure (real life lead sheet), I’m fine jumping in.

Q: What are some of the best ways your loved ones support you?

A: Having a supportive partner is such a crucial thing for someone like me or any artist/musician really. Someone who understands that it is a part of who you are, and a GOOD part of who you are. But logistically too. Someone who gets that this is not a regular hobby or pasttime. It means being gone for stretches of time. It means being distracted for stretches of time. When you are preparing a new album or getting ready for a big show, you need to spend maybe several nights a week focusing on that, especially if you have another job and other responsibilities. I am very lucky in that department, and I have a wife that does support that part of my/our life. I think she understands (and always has) that this is a huge part of the person I am, and without it, I wouldn’t be the person she loves. Also, it’s part of what makes me a good husband and father. That’s certainly not to say it isn’t hard at times, because it is. I’m at an age where people I know are starting to get divorced and, personally, I see some pretty clear patterns. One of those patterns is simply creating a perfect environment for resentment. For example, people who don’t do anything outside of their job and family because they honestly feel like they should prioritize that with ALL of their time and focus - they seem to miss allowing for an outlet or room to grow into a better and more fulfilled person FOR your family. I’ll never be able to say that my loved ones and partner didn’t support me and music. I’ll never be able to say that I didn’t do something that I wanted to do because of my wife. Because she’s always understood that about me. I assume that is probably pretty rare and that most musicians and artists don’t have that. I try not to take it for granted, but I’m sure I do from time to time.

Q: I know you had some "writer's block." What got you through and got you "unstuck" to be able to create your new album?

A: That was brutal for me. I went almost seven years without writing something I liked. It was a dark time, and I didn’t feel like me. I tried forcing it, and the result was some of the worst musical ideas anyone has ever heard. There are probably several factors that contributed to the end of the dry spell, but I really think about two primary things that snapped me out of it:

  1. I started playing with $2 Bill Turner (organ & piano player in the Lazy Susan Band). He and I started playing duo shows, and he was sort of new to playing in bands. He was excited about everything and wasn’t jaded like the rest of us about everything related to performing. Playing with him got me excited about gigging again and really made me want to write new material. Plus, the Hammond B3 organ is my favorite instrument and having someone who wants to be in your band that can play it was a good motivator to do something.

  2. Simple, but powerful jealousy. During my dry spell, I had worked on becoming a better producer and engineer, and built a home studio. My good friend and songwriter Sarah VanValkenburg let me produce her first album when neither of us knew what we were doing. By the time I had talked her into letting me produce her second album, I had become a significantly better producer, and she had become a significantly better writer and performer. We started getting really great sounds, and her record was sounding fantastic. Although I was at the time, and am still now, very proud of that record (Guitar Picks & Bottle Caps), I was insanely jealous. If we could make her songs sound this good, why can’t I be making MY songs sound this good? I was thinking about Sarah growing as a writer and player, getting better and better. And I couldn’t help but think that, at best, I was fading, and at worst, I was just finished. I think that was really the turning point. Shortly after that, I had one song (Ricky & Randy) just sort of fall out of me in about 10 minutes one day, and the juices started flowing again and haven’t really stopped since.

Q: Why are you a musician? I hear it's a pretty rough gig!

A: It’s not really a choice. It’s something I have to do. It’s a big part of who I am, and I’m not sure who I’d be without it … but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like that guy.

 

Brian Zirngible is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist as well as an actively working musician and performer. His passion and specialty is helping other musicians and creative artists live a more peaceful and balanced life. Clients find it helpful that he understands and is currently living with some of the challenges in the entertainment industry. This post was originally published on Brian's blog at www.brianzirngible.com

 

The Path to Wellness is Not Always Straight

By Joe Nistler

 

It was the summer after my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madisona year of small successes and setbacks, ongoing struggles with anxiety and depression, and a budding addiction that I wouldn’t admit, much less address, for another two years.

Substance use hadn’t consumed my life yet, but things were moving in that direction. I was able to hide outward signs of addiction behind academic success and the norms of a campus culture that thrived on alcohol. My GPA said “functioning student;” the bottles and cans that filled my trash screamed “alcoholic.” But I didn’t look much worse than the crowd I ran with.

The goals I remember revolved around my drinkinglike telling myself I’d only get drunk on Friday and Saturday during finals week, rather than Wednesday through Sunday. Keep in mind that getting drunk, for me, was equivalent to blacking out. Drinking, on the other hand, was a casual, near-daily exercise in self-medicationone that I practiced while studying, between classes and before going out to parties to get drunk(er).

It was the only way I knew to get by. For as long as I can remember, I felt like something was missing in mesome secret to life that it seemed other people understood but I couldn’t comprehend. Drugs and alcohol brought on the illusion of understanding, so I used them to cope with emptiness and connect with people. I used them to hide from myself and as a cure for boredom.

As the school year wrapped and I returned to my parents’ home in Minnesota for the summer, I didn’t have the same access to alcohol and drugs that I had at school. Suddenly I came face to face with myself and a sense of isolated despair, fueled by intrusive thoughts of shame, self-loathing and emptiness. There had to be a better way of living, and a psychology course the previous semester turned me onto the idea of therapy as a tool. So, I made an appointment.

After a couple of introductory sessions, my therapist recommended that I try an antidepressant and abstain from mood-altering chemicals. I didn’t like the last part, but I agreed to it without intending to actually follow through. Most importantly, he started leading me in guided mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises.

Mindfulness meditation helped me from the first time I practiced it. In the therapist’s office, I felt relaxed, and the physical tension in my stomach was less constricting. My thoughts weren’t racing quite so fast anymore. After a couple weeks of mixed effort and equally mixed results, I began to follow his recommendation of listening to a 20-minute recording dailytwice a day, actually. And I started noticing changes in my daily behaviors.

The constant, agonizing feeling that I should be doing something, or that I was missing out on something, or that there was some “right” answer to every situation that escaped me, began to dissipate. I started feeling okay with myself in the moment. In social situations, I still felt awkward at times, but it didn’t get to me as much. I didn’t dwell on the negatives or beat myself up for days on end, which freed up time to create more positive experiences. I let myself move forward.

Finally, I felt like I had some semblance of control over my emotions. I kept up with my daily medication and meditation, as well as weekly therapy sessions. The feeling of freedom drove me to incorporate other improvements in my life, like eating healthier, exercising more and getting more involved in the things I enjoyed. My self-esteem was improving, so I was able to make plans with friends without assuming that I’d be bothering them or interrupting something. And perhaps most perplexingly, as a side effect of my newfound wellness, I stopped craving drugs and alcohol.

My thoughts no longer revolved around getting intoxicated to enjoy life (or escape it). Instead I enjoyed life for what it was. I never intended to get sober that time, and I still drank and got high at the occasional gathering, but using was no longer my main priority, and such occasions were infrequent by any standard.

After a great summer, I returned to Madison and, unfortunately, dove right back into the party scene. Still, with my meditation practice intact, I felt different than before. I was able to socialize—was somewhat outgoing, excited about life and less afraid to take chances. I started pursuing the things I enjoyed for the fun of it, without fear of failure. I started covering the arts and music scene for a campus newspaper. I made plans to travel and study abroad (and followed through with them). I chose a major: journalism (and a second major: Italian). I made new friends and had some great times, but I also became familiar with the local detox facilities.

Without recognizing my need for sobriety, eventually the partying caught up with me. The mental hygiene regimen had allowed me to maintain using for a while without any serious consequences. But then I turned to harder drugsprescription drugs, and later heroin and methamphetaminethat were great shortcuts for school, work, relaxing and socializing. Those drugs eventually replaced meditation as my primary tool for living, and I neglected my mental health entirely. The descent was slow, and the pit was deep.

I constantly looked back longingly at that summer of ‘09 when things felt right, but completely failed to recognize the role that sobriety had played in my happiness.

You see, I made a mess of my life when I was on drugs, and for a while, I thought they were the problem. But in the bigger picture, they were a solutiona fast-acting, unsustainable answer to the deeper issues I needed to face within myself. They were the easiest way to ignore the severe anxiety and depression I had experienced for most of my life.

It never dawned on me until recently, but back in 2009, I had my first experience with a form of recoverybefore my first treatment and conscious attempt at sobriety in 2012, and long before my most recent in October of 2015. Today, I base my recovery in large part on the mental wellness principles I learned and implemented during that first summer.

I meditate daily, attend at least one Twelve Step meditation meeting each week, and keep in close contact with my sober support network. I still see a therapist, take my medication as prescribed and try to live healthy. Mental wellness, Twelve Step principles, and a sober community are the foundations of my recovery. From there, everything else has kind of fallen into place. I have an appreciation for art, music and creativity that is stronger than ever, and I have a gig that lets me write full timethat, in itself, was a lifelong dream. I’m able to connect with people in my lifeto provide help, and ask for it when I need it.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that recovery is complicatedespecially from co-occurring mental illness and substance use. It takes a lot of moving parts falling into place just right. Sometimes those parts show up out of order and provide a glimpse of recovery before we’re ready to put it all together. But with each supposed failure comes a lesson, and with each lesson comes wisdom to connect the next piece of the puzzle, whenever it presents itself.

I was lucky to have a good relationship with my first therapist, and to respond to the first antidepressant I tried. I was lucky to learn about meditation early on, which made it easier to return to later. I was lucky to get into treatment one last time, and desperate enough to listen.

I’m a year into my recovery, and for the first time since 2009, life feels pretty good. I’m still learning and living one day at a time, and grateful for the lessons that come every day.

 

Joe Nistler is a Twin Cities-based writer for recovery-focused magazines across the country. He also covers local music and culture for 608 Magazine in Madison, WI, and is a graduate of the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

We All Need Help Sometimes

By Katy Vernon

 

On Twitter, I call myself "a singer of sad songs on a happy instrument."

I've realized lately that this is more than a cutesy tag about my singing and ukulele playing. It also says a lot about who I am and how I've tried to cope in my ongoing battle with depression.

I have always felt like the "sad girl." My early life was rocked by the deaths of both my mother and father, and grief is still overwhelmingly present in my life. I also had the crappy luck to develop a condition called endometriosis, which means I live with chronic pain as well. (My heart goes out to anyone dealing with daily pain. It makes you crazy!)

This dangerous mix of emotional and physical pain led me to self-medicate with alcohol, which only made things worse in the long run. I drank because I was in pain. I drank when I was sad. I drank when I was lonely, angry or nervous. I drank because it allowed me to manipulate how I felt. And that was the key. It wasn’t necessarily about how much I drank, but why. I needed to feel better. And alcohol helped, until it didn’t anymore. Eventually, it stopped making me feel good, and with all of my other health issues, my body couldn't tolerate it any longer.

I have always wanted to be the happy little instrument in this world. But sad songs kept coming out. And they still do, perhaps because I have struggled so much. Not just with mental health and substance use disorders, but with even thinking about them as disorders or diseases. When something is inside your own head (i.e. part of the brain is functioning improperly), it is so difficult to separate disordered feelings from our own character. The mind lies to you, and tells you it's your fault. Even asking for help or acknowledging a problem feels negative, like it’s attention-seeking.

But, with the help of others, I have learned the truth about these health conditions, and I am taking steps to get well. It started with sobering up and realizing that I was merely numbing myself. And it continues today as I look closer at my mental pain, which has come more into focus as I’ve gotten further removed from drinking.

The truth is that on my worst days, I can't imagine the future and don't want to face another day. That hurts so much, but also makes me realize that it isn't me, that it isn't real—and that I need to do something to change. It hurts so much. I just have to hug my kids and take it one day at a time. For them. For the little voice inside of me that tells me I'll get better.

I met someone new recently at a meeting that I attend to support my sobriety. She immediately said I seemed really sad. I never hear that. People usually say I'm funny or sweet or they like my accent. But she somehow got right to heart of it and told me to get help for my depression. (No one will tell you the truth like people in recovery, which is one reason I’m so grateful for recovery support groups.)

Not long ago, with the encouragement of my new friend and mentor, I sat in a doctor’s room and told my truth.

I have a long way to go in my journey to be well, but now I'm sharing my truth here for anyone who thinks they are alone in such struggles. For anyone who thinks life is rosy, fine and fun for everyone else. It’s not. We all need help sometimes.

Peace. xxx

 

Katy Vernon is a Minneapolis/St. Paul-based singer-songwriter. She grew up in London, England, and has been writing and singing as long as she can remember.

The Scene and Self-Care

By Linnea Mohn

 

“The scene” is relative. My scene tends to be music. Venues range from seated theaters to dive bars. It’s an exercise in contradictions since I’ve chosen to spend time in places that largely disagree with my preferred way of being in the world. Crowds? Only with an escape plan. Noise? If I’ve got some plugs. Booze? Once upon a time, but I was more interested in happily ever after, and alcohol was my wicked stepsister, sobriety my prince.

So, how do I—as a sober, introverted musician, music lover and new mother of a lively and lovable 8-month-old—not only stay sane but actually have fun in environments that can deplete me, even as they energize the extroverts among us?

There must be a reason I want to be there, right? Yes. I love to play and to see other people with that same love. Strip everything else away—the lugging of gear, the waiting around, that fleeting notion that those drink tickets burning a hole in my bra (dresses need pockets) could make it all more fun and me more fearless—and you’re left with the music part. Give the drink tickets away. Start playing. Leave feeling lighter.

Side note: If you are a new parent, this particular “scene” may seem impossible to navigate for a while. That’s OK. You’ll find your way back if you want to. Patience. Also, make peace with sleep deprivation. If you feel frustrated and irritable, there is a reason. It’s not you. It’s sleep. Or lack thereof. Not being rested torpedoes well-being. My keys were in the fridge the other day. And I called a colleague Doug, even though his name is Gary. I slap my forehead every time I think about it. Yet another reminder to practice asking for help. Trust me. Your friends and family want to hold the baby so you can nap and shower. Let them.

Back to the scene.

Shows both big and small, work functions, holiday parties and family gatherings have unique ways of sneaking up on anxiety blind spots. If you’re like me, these events can end up costing you hours, even days, of recovery time—whether you drink or not. The thing that defines me as an introvert isn’t that I dislike or struggle to get along with people—I don’t—but at a certain point, I get drained. I used to compensate for that with alcohol because, let’s face it, when you drink, you cease to care, and become willing to put off exhaustion until later. Now that I don’t drink, I have to be aware of my social threshold. Simple as that. Simple is not necessarily easy. Progress not perfection, right? Right.

Here are three examples of strategies to boost enjoyment and resilience in situations that suck your life force.

  1. Plan ahead by centering yourself before you leave. That means meditate (that hot, new, 5,000-year-old trend). Just sit and breathe deeply for 10 minutes. It works. Also, eat a meal, bring water and cash along, and make sure your phone is fully charged or that you have a charger with you. Have a pre-game conversation with your crew about the who, what, when, where and why questions of the evening. This isn’t meant to stilt spontaneity but to help you feel prepared.

  2. Define and defend your boundaries. Are you the designated driver? Do you want to be home at 1 a.m. because things reliably start to devolve after that time? Communicate that, and make a game plan for what happens at 12:30 if your pals aren’t ready to go. Pre-paid taxis for all!? Organize it. Ask for your money back the next day and settle up. Resentment is toxic. Most importantly, when you’re done, just call it.

  3. Relax. Make that your internal mantra. Repeat it. I often think to myself, “What would Bill Murray do?” I don’t actually know. But I’m pretty sure he’d at least seem relaxed while doing it.

The operative word is balance. Balance in all things is the secret to life, but let’s stay focused. Prioritizing self-care in social situations is key when you want to make the most of your night and the day after. You may start to notice when other people aren’t comfortable with your rock-solid sense of self. Be patient with them and steadfast in the knowledge that they are struggling with finding balance too. In my four-and-a-half years of sobriety, I’ve never been given heat about not drinking by a person with healthy habits.

Cheers to you with my club soda, lime and dash of bitters.

 

Linnea Mohn is a keyboardist and vocalist in the Twin Cities band Rogue Valley, a DJ at Go 96.3 FM, a voice-over actor and a mom. She’s a graduate of Augsburg College.

How It Doesn't Work

by Phil Circle                                

It’s a famous story in the lexicon of Phil.

Here's the setup:
It had become well known to my fans that I enjoyed it when they’d bring shots to the stage and place them at my feet. I’d grab them and knock ‘em back while playing guitar one-handed, or, in another display of mock showmanship, pretend I wasn’t watching while bandmates snatched them up. It was a (deadly) bonding experience with my audience. This night was no different.

Here's the pitch:
I’m on stage at Chicago’s Double Door on a Saturday night before a standing-room-only crowd. I look down. There are seven shots of tequila. I shrug my shoulders and reach for one. Then another. People cheer. And the next. They egg me on. Soon, all of the shots have made their way into my addicted body, and I think I’m feeling the warm fuzzies.

And the swing:
The emcee grabs the microphone and gives a brief and flattering rundown of who I am, concluding with, “Ladies and gentleman, Phil Circle!” As the applause ensues, I strut to the mic and let go in grandiose fashion: “Go f*#k yourself! A one, two, three … .” And the band and I kick into our set.

A strike or a hit?
This wasn’t the worst of it. Neither was my 10-minute version of a song that usually goes six. Or my raunchy comments during the show. Or the fact that my drummer quit after the show. The worst part of this evening was the response I received. People loved it. They wanted to see me abuse myself and share my pain with them. They wanted the spectacle.

When I left the stage, I was patted on the back and “treated” to more free drinks. The other bands on the bill all complimented my show. The manager of one of the bands asked me why such a professional group as mine was even sharing a stage with the other bands. I was encouraged to act this way! I was given a free pass to be an ass! I was told in no uncertain terms (that is, I heard it this way) that it’s perfectly fine if I rage in my alcoholism and let it affect my gift … the music. And from that show forward, I used that evening as an example of how great I was. How sick is that? Loaded question.

When I look back at my 30 years of playing music, I see a trend. Every time I got a pat on my back, it went to my head. I guess there’s an “activate ego” button on my upper vertebrae. Once it went to my head, I felt as if I didn’t need to give as much or work as hard. Oh, but I could still drink as hard. When that led to fewer gigs and smaller crowds, I blamed the music business and the public’s poor ear for talent. When this led to resentments, I drank even more. All of this would restart several times until the pats on the back became fewer and turned into skewed glances of concern or scrunched-up wincing faces.

It wasn’t the pancreatitis with its excruciating pain and puking blood that eventually made me quit drinking. It wasn’t the liver disease. It wasn’t the loss of my livelihood. It wasn’t the many ways I was wasting away physically or the potential loss of my best friend, my wife. It wasn’t that my spirit had been squashed and replaced with a debilitating painful despair. The final straw was the difficult realization and admission that I no longer had my art. The thing I loved most in the world, the means by which I shared my genuine love for people, the gift the universe gave me -- it was gone.      

When I went to treatment, the first thing my very insightful substance use counselor did was connect me with a spiritual counselor, who also was a guitarist, to discuss grieving. What was I grieving, I asked. The loss of your music, he answered. Soon, my treatment plan included an assignment that scared the crap out of me. I was to play a set of music -- just me, my voice and my guitar -- for the 25 guys in my unit. Sober. No meds. I had only coffee and Skittles® to get me by, and the loving encouragement of a bunch of guys who were strangers to me a couple of weeks prior. It was the first of several performances to my fellows in the treatment center, and slowly, my music came back.   

When I returned home, I was asked to play an opening solo set for a woman whose band I had blacked out in front of at my last show, just before leaving for the sober woods up north. She introduced me by telling the story of my previous show, dirt and all. She ended by saying that now she sees a different man. Instead of a cocky strutting rooster, she sees a humble and loving man who just wants to share his gift of music.

“Shit,” I thought, “that’s all I ever wanted to do.”           

Afterward, she posted online that I “absolutely kicked ass.” I got teary and felt a strangely different reaction. I wanted to work hard to keep giving something, not taking. I knew this was going to require a lot of hard work, both physically and spiritually.

Today, I keep busy in Buddhism. I keep busy with my guitar and voice. I keep writing. I’m thrilled if three people enjoy something I share. Suddenly, I remember why I started doing this. I love to give. I don’t really care for the so-called rock star image. I don’t want it. I never did. I was immersed in the throes of a disease that pushed for any excuse to stay alive, even at the expense of my life.

And a funny thing has happened at shows. No one asks me if I want a drink. They just tell me how glad they are I quit. And that button on my back when you pat it? It’s turned into an “activate gratitude” button.

 

Phil Circle has been a working singer, songwriter and guitarist based in Chicago for 30 years. When he’s not writing, recording or performing music, he writes for local music publications and works on the 2nd edition of his book, “The Outback Musicians’ Survival Guide,” a whimsical and informative look at the frontline musician that will include a new chapter, “And Then He Got Sober.” Phil also teaches guitar and voice privately, offering one new piece of advice for aspiring young adult musicians: “The fact that the sex, drugs and booze are typically free is proof they’re potentially bad for you. So, focus on your music.”

Be a beacon. Offer light.

David T. Lewis

I was maybe 11 or 12. My bedroom door was closed and I was having a profound moment. Facing my mirror, mouthing out the words, "Show a little faith there's magic in the night. You ain't a beauty, but, hey you're alright." I am sure my parents were smirking a floor away. Their son prematurely shouting along to Bruce Springsteen's blue-collar ode to aging underdog lovers in Thunder Road. It didn't fit, it was pre-teen relationship pantomime.  

Profoundly sensitive and raw, I was always touched by art. Music was it's most unadulterated form. I had a cassette single of Eternal Flame by the Bangles. I'd listen intently to this totally saccharine song and cry for all the following 3 minutes and 58 seconds. Then once the song ended, I'd collect myself, rewind and start again.  

As I got older this catharsis trigger started to morph into hormonal shame. Epic ups and downs. This nagging dread. As I spent many of my youthful days crippled by this sense of free floating existential anxiety: what if I'm not good enough? what if I fail? what if I'm humiliated?  

By what? It didn't matter: small talk with girls, speaking in class, ordering donuts. Anything could trigger it. I remember clearly being paralyzed at the prospect of getting off the school bus. Somehow unable to do something so simple was insurmountable. I sat in the back of the bus, trembling, sweaty with my stomach grinding. The bus driver yelling at me. Phil Collins on the radio, "Well if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand." It felt like an emotional seizure.  

Now that I am over 40 I can look back and see these stories as cute - endearing, even - but truth was they were deeply painful at the time. The other - more difficult - fact is that I still suffer with both anxiety and depression. Only now I have perspective, outlets, and methods to move forward. I am more forgiving and I have a sense of community that I didn't when I was younger.  

During those panicked bus rides throughout middle school, I didn't talk to anyone about my symptoms or fears. It felt stupid or dorky. I was also deeply ashamed. It wasn't until my freshman year that I found something that spurred some hope: punk rock. Not the genre per se, but the DIY "scene". I started to go to concerts, I started hanging out at art galleries, I started making terrible movies. What drove me was this sense of misfit belonging, coupled with absolute and earnest expression.  

I cringe a little bit now thinking about my most pretentious self, talking at length about Fellini films, pseudo-political hardcore revolutionaries like Refused or Fugazi, the cultural critiques of Damien Hirst, Raymond Pettibone's subversive drawings. It was just a movie, just music, only a painting but really it was much more to me. It served a deeper purpose, because it helped me set a new horizon line.  

Now, I'm not writing this as some homage to Nick Hornby, but just as a backdrop to my unyielding empathy for how difficult it is to be a young person. How truly uncomfortable it can be as you sort through the emotional baggage of your life. Your place in the world in plain view of this newly digital age.  

More than all that though, I firmly believe that we leave our young creatives stranded, without an outlet or healthy notion of self-care. I'm writing this as a time machine to my younger self. I want to say loudly, that the romance of suffering and isolation is total bullshit. Being sick is not part of your gift.

I have lost 3 people in my life, in recent years, due to the grip of depression. I’ve known countless more. Sadly, the darkness of depression is too often accompanied by suicide, addiction, and self-destruction. So as I write this, I’m reminded of how important it is to discuss the challenges that so many of us face in our mental health. If for no other reason than to attempt to normalize the loneliness that comes along with the acute discomfort of depression. 

We should take care of ourselves and those around us.  Be open, offer acceptance, patience and kindness. Listen. And if you are in this dark mind or feel trapped and treading water, speak up. For yourself, but for others too. Advocate. Be that beacon and offer light. 

September is Suicide Prevention Month, if you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (TTY 800-799-4TTY). This number can be dialed from anywhere in the United States 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

 

David Lewis is a Dissonance Board Member.

Broken and Complete

by Johnny Solomon

I've spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about how I want to introduce myself on this inaugural post.  Do I lead with my accomplishments? Do I lead with my struggles? Do I just start in the middle and hope we all get to the end together?   It seems I’ve spent the better part of my adult life staring at blank pages thinking about how to start something.

I’m a musician, and I’m an addict, and I’m bipolar, and I’m broken, and I’m complete, and I’m happy.  It’s taken me years to find peace with all of those things.  It seems that my life up until about 6 years ago was a constant struggle.  I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water or maybe I was slowly starting to drown.  Right up until that fateful night when I decided there must be another way I just thought I was cursed.  I looked all around me and I saw people succeeding and growing. I had no idea how they did it.  I seriously had no idea.  It felt like everyone had one more sense than I did.  That 6th sense that allows you to step forward and grow.  I lived my life trying to trick the world out of success.  If I could hold it together for just a little bit I might find a little success, then hopefully when it falls apart there will be something left to build on.  It was an exhausting and wholly disheartening way to live.

The only thing that seemed to make sense was that people called me “creative.”  I was an artist, given to emotional explosions, both good and bad.  They say “out of great suffering comes great art,” so of course my life should be a hallmark of suffering.  There was some part of me that felt maybe I was just touched by God to put into words and music the plight of the undeserved and under achiever, the loser and the has-been.  I was the musician for those of us that fail and self destruct.  I knew that everyone struggled, so maybe my life was to struggle so that I could be a martyr for my music.  It was a noble way of saying I was ready to fail, and ultimately, I was ready to die unloved.

5 years and about 8 months ago from today I couldn't handle that anymore.  I had some sort of epiphany, or maybe I was going to fail at failing. I realized that the only conclusion to my life was death, and that I was dangerously close. I was scared.  So maybe I would give one little shot to the other direction, just to see what it was like.  I checked into rehab, I was there over Christmas and New Years, I was there for months, I watched people come and go and come back again all while I slowly came back to life.  While there, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and they put me on medication, and I with a lot of help, and a little grace, I came to terms with something I never thought I would be able to.  

I wasn't cursed, I was just a little broken.  And luckily, with a little help I was able to work around that and find out that life was quite a bit easier then I thought.  Life, and everything that came with it was more good than bad.  I still struggle, and I still write songs about it.  But who doesn't struggle?  Why am I any worse then someone diagnosed with diabetes, or even someone that simply has a bad back.  Just change some things about your life, adjust the way you find your place in the world and you’ll be fine.  I take medicine, I don't drink or do drugs, I exercise, I eat healthy (most of the time) and I accept that my reality is different than yours, but we both understand each other.  I’m still an artist, in fact, I’m an artist that can finally step forward and grow.  So yes, I’m a little broken, but just like a brick wall, sometimes patching up what’s broken actually makes it stronger.  

That’s the main reason I want to help.  I want to reach back into that dark place and help some people climb up.  Everything is better up here and you can still be an artist without the curse that addiction or untreated mental diseases bury you in.  Hi! My name is John, I’m an addict, I’m bipolar, I’m broken.  I’m also complete, and happy, and I’m a musician.

 

Johnny Solomon is a Dissonance Board Member.

Making it to Woodstock

by Jeremiah Gardner

After a dozen years of writing songs and playing in bands, it was not the Woodstock I had dreamed about.

Rather than rock ‘n’ roll, revelry and youthful excess, tiny Woodstock, Minn., was, and remains, best known for sobriety, and for launching folks on a search for so-called serenity. Surrounded for miles by giant windmills and little else, it is home to a quaint little place for people with substance use disorders. People like me.

I’ll never forget that drive to New Life Treatment Center almost 10 years ago. It was a Monday, and I had woken up in a hotel – late for work, sick, tired and crying. For reasons I cannot fully explain, that was the day I decided to give up trying so hard and ask for help.

As a friend drove me to Woodstock, he made the prescient comment that my life would never be the same. It seemed a little dramatic at the time, but those words were burned into my mind. Perhaps it was a good expectation to set because, sure enough, my path and trajectory changed profoundly that day.

A decade later, I’m grateful to be able to share with anyone who will listen that recovery from substance use and mental health concerns is real. It happens. Tens of millions of people like me serve as living proof. And not just people like me. Doctors, lawyers, bankers and baristas, singers, sinners and saints. Humans struggle with these issues. All genders, races, ages and socio-economic statuses. And while some people certainly face more barriers than others, recovery and wellness are possible for everyone.

I am fortunate to work at the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy, where every day I get to spread the dual message that:  1) These are very common health issues, worthy of neither stigmatization nor glorification; and 2) with help, they can be managed and overcome.

In other words, there’s no shame in struggling, and no reason to think we can’t be well. The evidence is in.

But I didn’t always know that.

When I first started having an internal dialogue about my own drinking, I didn’t have a clue where to turn. Left to my own devices, I started adding “Stop Drinking” to my to-do list, as if I could check it off the same as “Get Groceries.”

When “Stop Drinking” never seemed to get checked off the list, I felt like a failure. And when I lied and did stupid, irresponsible things while drinking, I felt like a bad person.

At times, it just felt like who I was – the result of my family culture, as well as the cultures of my first chosen career field, journalism; my dream, rock ‘n’ roll music; and my inherited country, the land of the free spirit. It’s probably true that I didn’t just choose to become a user of mind-altering substances – that I also was bred to become one, and that I was attracted to the sexy glory of it.

But I didn’t count on the problems mounting. I didn’t count on losing control. I didn’t count on developing a substance use disorder involving my brain. I didn’t even know that could happen.

So, as my illness and its symptoms – my behavior – worsened, all I could conclude was that I was weak and somehow willing to betray the values of my innermost self.

Neither shame-laced conclusion was something I wanted to admit.

As a result, I found various ways to deny the problem to myself and others. Like the vast majority of people with substance use and mental health concerns, I avoided and put off getting help. Instead, I’d make trips to the library to see if I could figure things out on my own – maybe learn how to drink normally.   

Alone in my thoughts, increasingly discouraged and desperate, I wanted to escape the guilt and shame, and I wanted to feel better. But I also was afraid that if I found a way to quit drinking, I’d lose my identity – not just as a drinker, but as a musician.

What I didn’t have were people in recovery to help or provide a model – no one to say: It’s OK to experience these problems with your health, you’re far from alone, you can get better, and it will be totally worth it – recovery is cool.

I wonder what might have happened if I had known other musicians open about their recovery, or if I had known any happy, successful people open about their recovery. What if I’d seen recovery represented in TV or movies, or taught in school? If substance use and mental health problems, and recovery, weren’t so secret, would I have pursued help sooner?

More importantly: How many people aren’t as lucky as me and never get help at all, suffering through life with their substance use and mental health problems? How many die? And what can we do about it?

That’s where Dissonance comes in. Part of our mission is to smash social stigmas related to mental health and substance use disorders. We do that by producing public events, collecting stories and sharing insights from people whose lived experience demonstrates the reality that these health issues can be managed and overcome – with positive impacts on creativity. The idea is to bring addiction and mental health out of the shadows within the arts community, and shine light on resources and solutions that support wellness and creative work. Ultimately, we want to help and inspire people – both inside and outside the arts community – to take care of themselves and ask for help sooner than later.

With more than a third of households affected by substance use and mental health disorders, it’s safe to say we’re bumping into people every day who might benefit from our messages.

Messages like:

My name is Jeremiah, and I’m a person in long-term recovery. For me, that means I haven’t needed to use alcohol or other drugs in almost 10 years. It also means I’m able to support friends and family members when they need it. I’m able to have honestly deep and enjoyable discussions - not the drink-addled rantings that passed for philosophical musings in my previous life. I’m an engaged community member. I vote, own a home and pay taxes. I got married and also did the most unlikely thing ever, for me – made a conscious decision to finally have a child – and, as fate would have it, ended up with two!

Recovery has also allowed me to pursue some personal dreams, and start doing smart routine things like going to the doctor and dentist. It has taught me about gratitude, honesty, humility, responsibility, service, authenticity, and the value of listening. Recovery, and the life principles I draw from it, have allowed me to grow up, to see the world anew – and to breathe life into my own life. It has been the most exciting, successful and creatively inspiring period of my life.

Now, if that sounds a little Pollyannaish, let me assure you of two things. First, my recovery is possible only by grace and the gift of others. Second, I’m still flawed as ever.

My ego is still a vast swath of confidence with a raging river of insecurity running through it.

I’m still inclined to perfectionism and procrastination.  

I still need to do things to help myself feel decent – like exercise and sleep, even though my instinct is to sit still and stay awake.

I’m still self-absorbed too often, in both obvious ways and subtle ones that I need help seeing.

I’m still streaky most of the time, riding momentum up or down while searching for the secret to steadiness.

And I’m still in the dark about what it all means and why we’re all here.

In short, I’m still human. Only now – in the absence of alcohol and other drugs – I am grateful for the adventure, eyes wide open, soaking it all in. I can see the beauty and spirituality in my, and our, imperfection. I am able to navigate and free to appreciate it all, without habitually hurting myself or others.

It’s a special experience, this life on earth – which is not only the source of all art but a grand work itself. And we’re fortunate to be here, smack dab in the middle.


Even more fortunate to be here together. That’s our ace in the hole – each other. While stigma leads us to believe otherwise, the truth is we are all stumbling. And whether we stumble into a festival in Woodstock, NY, or into a treatment center in Woodstock, MN, we are never alone.

 

Jeremiah Gardner is a Dissonance Board Member.