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.