Tearing Down the Walls

By Mariah Wills

I've spent the better part of the past year in excavation mode, tearing down walls. I can’t remember when it exactly started, but at some point along the way I realized I was sick of living within the boundaries of what was comfortable. So, I gathered some courage and started digging, and piece by piece, brick by brick, I've been tearing down the fortress I've been building for years. 

These days, openness looks a lot like shaky hands and stumbling words. I've never been good at talking about the hard stuff; in fact, I'm notoriously good at avoiding the hard stuff all together. But, as I've discovered time and again, this does nothing but make things worse. So here I am laying out the mess and holding up a sign inviting others to do the same—to put aside the facade of perfection and sit a moment with the hard stuff. This doesn't mean dwelling on your struggles or defining yourself by them. It means simply acknowledging them—sharing the not-so-pretty parts of life, the parts that play just as much of a role in shaping us as the good parts do. Our stories have so much more power than we realize, and when we share them, we have the ability to reach others, to make someone else dealing with similar things feel a lot less alone. 

My own story revolves around mental health. My experience with mental illness and recovery began when I was diagnosed with anorexia at the age of 10. At a time when most kids should be worried about sleepovers and soccer games, I worried about measurements and nutrition facts, suffocating myself with the need for perfection and control in my life. I spent the summer between fourth and fifth grade in an intensive outpatient therapy program. There, I learned about the role mental health plays in physical health and how inseparable the two really are. As if this wasn’t enough to wrap my head around as a fourth grader, my doctor also diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder, explaining that other conditions, like anorexia, can manifest as a result, or in a co-occurring fashion. 

There is certainly no standard experience of anxiety, but for me, it feels a lot like running a race without sight of the finish line. My back stiffens, my throat constricts, and I lose the ability to think about anything else. I get anxiety about most things, both big and small. Rationally, I know it isn’t warranted and it doesn’t make sense, but once it starts, the panic sticks in my mind, burrowing itself further into my brain and seeping down into every inch of my body. Anxiety is a natural part of life, but anxiety disorders differ in that the feeling doesn’t rise and fall like natural emotion; it is much harder to control.

Since that therapy program years ago, my journey with anxiety and mental health has been admittedly messy. For a long time, I kept that summer, and every appointment and treatment that followed, very quiet. Alongside the embarrassment and shame that often comes with mental illness, I’ve always felt a certain sense of guilt about it as well. What right do I have to be sad and anxious when there are other people who have it way worse than I do? What if I had to face problems that were bigger than these ones; how would I even be able to handle it? But this is the problem with mental illness. So often, we don’t talk about it because of these feelings of shame and guilt, and as a result, it makes the situation that much harder to overcome.

Last year at this time, I began taking medication for my anxiety. This decision came at a time in my life when I should have been the most happy and fulfilled. I was in school working toward a career I am passionate about, surrounded by friends and family who are as supportive and loving as can be, and I felt more driven and determined than I ever have before. However, at the same time, I felt like I was gripping on to all of it by the skin of my teeth. I came home every day exhausted from nothing but battling my own mind—my anxiety robbing me of the happiness that I knew I should have felt, that I so desperately wanted to relish in.

Because of my experiences, I have always tried to support others in their decisions to improve their mental health. However, when it came to my own journey, I couldn’t help but feel it was a massive defeat. I remember watching my doctor as she wrote out the prescription I had been avoiding for years. I have always prided myself on being independent, able to fix my own problems if need be. So, as she went on to describe how the medication, combined with other forms of treatment would help to “fix” my anxiety, I couldn’t help but think I should have been able to “fix” this myself.

It was during this time that I came across Dissonance at a concert for one of my favorite artists, Your Smith. Board members were there talking to concert-goers about mental health and recovery and selling T-shirts created in collaboration with Your Smith, then known as Caroline Smith. The T-shirts—both a Dissonance outreach campaign and a fundraiser for the nonprofit—featured a quote from Caroline: “Literally everyone can benefit from therapy.” I am not usually someone who looks for signs, but something about the way they spoke about mental health in such a casual and supportive way stuck with me. That night, something shifted in the way I viewed my situation. Slowly I began to open up, first to family and then to friends, pouring out the ugly, the uncomfortable, and the strange. To my surprise, I found that as I opened up to others, they began to feel comfortable enough to open up to me about their experiences as well. All this time, I had been dealing with these things alone, while some of the people closest to me were dealing with them, too.  

So today, I am trying to remain open and honest. I don’t talk about these things to be weird or depressing. I talk about them because—although they do not define me—they make up a part of who I am. Maybe these things play a role in your life too, and maybe, like me, you need someone to reach out and say, “me too.” We all deserve to be loved and known for our most authentic selves. Until we start sharing our stories, bearing our mess, and listening to each other, we cannot truly be understood. So grab your shovel, and let’s get to work.

Mariah Wills is a student at the University of St. Thomas and a Dissonance board intern.

See Mariah and the rest of the Dissonance crew on Dec. 20, 2018, at the third annual Unhappy Holidays event in St. Paul. It’s free, but seats are limited, so please reserve yours ASAP.

Crashing into Nature: Survivor Guilt and Butterflies

By Mary Bue

I could easily say, “I wasn’t your normal American teenager,” but I don’t think there is such a thing as a “normal teenager” … or even “normal” in general. Sometimes I’ve heard that your first trauma is where you might stay stuck developmentally. And I wonder if that’s why often I feel reckless and distracted, and consistently on an emotional roller coaster, like the 16-year-old I was when I rolled my parents’ Buick LeSabre and hung upside down by my seat belt while the trance music blasted and the car interior bathed eerie electric green from the clock on the dash.

I hate to say it because I love and adore my parents to the absolute “nth" degree and have nothing but respect and gratitude for them, but I was a terrible lying scumbag of a teenager. I was also a goodie goodie, getting mostly straight A’s and able to start college two years early, but still, a lying cheating scumbag.

One weekend I went to a camping rave and partied hard with my first love, my besties and that bumping, thumping house, trance or dub music that still gets me on both a core level and an aversion level. This was the mid-90s — an era of pink halter tops, phat pants and secret numbers to call for the location of each night’s gathering.

That weekend, I had somehow locked my keys in the trunk. My friends managed to pry off the back bench seat and get my keys out, but damn, I’ve often wondered if that was a good thing. Or, does everything happen for a reason?

Driving the three or four hours home on Sunday (I was sober, but hadn’t slept … and is sleep deprivation worse? Or is just being a 16-year-old behind the wheel bad enough?), I dropped off a dude friend who had a tattoo of barbed wire on his neck (I hope you’re still alive, man!). Still 45 minutes from my own home, I turned up the trance music — amped and stoked from the fun weekend — and did a little “car dancing.” You know, dancing around in your seat to the beat.

But soon — I’m not sure what happened; maybe it was the hypnotic quality of the dance-y trance music or the relative emptiness of the freeway — I somehow swerved and hit the lip of the tarmac, over-corrected and began rolling side over side, over and over, down a deep ditch next to highway 169 between Elk River and Zimmerman, Minnesota.

When I came to my senses, I was hanging upside down from my seat belt. Christopher Robin’s mix tape was blaring. I COULD NOT SHUT IT OFF. IT WAS SO LOUD. ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS SHUT IT OFF AND COME TO PEACE AND QUIET. There was shattered glass all around me. It didn’t take long to realize I had to get out of the car. I unbuckled, crumpled to the ceiling, crawled and exited the opening left by the shattered back window.

I had NOT A SCRATCH. Not a scrape. Not a bruise. Not a cut.

The music was still blaring.

I walked up to the side of the highway. People had stopped at that point. One of them was a nurse. I cracked a joke. “My parents said it was a good family car,” I chuckled. It was NOT funny to her.

Soon enough, a cop came around and drove me home. He seemed nice enough. A few weeks later, I got a ticket for “inattentive driving.” Bastard!

My police escort left after my mom answered the door. She was in shock. Because I wasn’t hurt, it was even harder for her to believe the story. She got really angry. I get it now; I would have gotten angry too. I went to the shower, and that’s when it hit me.

I thought, “I could have died.”

I could have died. I could have died. I repeated it in my mind. And then I cried. And then I started saying it out loud, like a mantra: I could have died, I could have died, I could have died, I could have died … louder and louder and louder in my head.

The weeks after that were a total blur. We went to the junkyard and saw the car and the smashed-in windshield. Took a Polaroid of it. I could have died.

I went to school, most days. But I could have died. I could have been dead.

And then it switched to, “Why am I alive?”

Why am I alive, Why am I alive, Why am I alive, Why am I alive, Why am I alive, Why am I alive, Why am I alive? Again, like a mantra, it repeated louder and louder and louder in my head.

And then, deeper than that: “Why am I alive, and why do so many other people die in accidents like these?”

Why do I get to live? Why do I get to live? What makes me so special? What if I had killed someone else? Why do I get off so easy? Why do I get to live? I went down, baby, down down down. Down into a very sad place. A survivor guilt place, even though no one had died. A place of dark worthlessness. I felt like the scum of the earth. I don’t know how long it lasted, but it lasted a while.

And then, I went for a bike ride.

I went to the forest on my mountain bike. Sometimes the wheels would get stuck in the sandy soil and I’d spin out and get back on the weed-strewn path. I was headed for my favorite place on the land, a curve in the road through deep, tall, thick pines. Some white pines, some Norway pines. Green heavy branches all around — protective arms with the softest looking fringe of needles. So thick, the sunset shifted like a strobe as I moved along the path. So quiet, except for the wind. To this day, that is my favorite sound of all — the wind through thick pine branches.

I had a hint of a suicide wish that day, consumed by a repetitive, negative mantra of worry and guilt at having survived my car wreck. I felt like I was unworthy of living, unaccepted by my friends, not good enough to my parents, and not cool enough to be loved by my first love.

When I arrived at my favorite place in the forest … there was a fluttering of wings.

The monarch butterflies were in their migration. It was late summer, time for them to fly to Mexico, and they had perched in the limbs of my favorite trees to rest. Clumped together in packs, they fluttered above my tormented little head.

As I watched, it was trance-like. I became totally present for what Maslow dubbed a “peak experience.” All of my sadness and guilt disappeared. Nothing else but this. My internal compass led me to that place, I truly believe, to see these creatures on their way to something new, at a distinct transitional juncture in their life cycle.

My hope, my magic, my love for life slowly began to return in that moment.

I was granted a gift from the beauty of nature, so supreme that I knew it was a sign I was meant to be on this earth for some more time. To do what, I still am not exactly sure. But this gift of beauty and delight was not wasted on me.

My first album in 2000, when I was 19, included the title track, “Where the Monarchs Circled” ...

the calm within yourself
the ice and the fire
liquid muscles
winged feet
running farther

water and purity
silence seeks and open door
the roots of emotion
guide us here

soft siren
breeze and shafts of light
knowing your soul elicits safety
knowing the peace of sight

wind grasps the fear
swirling mists of sun and frozen tear
feel days brush against your cheek
they’ll slip away, yes,
but you know now what to seek

soft siren
breeze and shafts of light
knowing your soul elicits safety
knowing the peace of sight

During my first tour in 2004, while in Austin, Texas, I got a monarch tattooed onto my upper-left arm. A forever reminder of hope and transformation. The fact that monarch butterflies are now being assessed for endangerment kills me. The degradation of our beautiful natural places makes me wither. But I try to do my part, and that includes sharing this story.

I still don’t know exactly why I’m here, but if gifts like my experience in the forest are also here to be found, that is enough to keep me awake and alive on this beautiful earth.

Mary Bue is an indie musician and yoga studio owner based in Minneapolis. 

We Could be Heroes for Just One Day

By Kara W.

When I was a kid, I used to close my eyes and internalize my own death. Inside, I would dissipate, folding into sheet after sheet of darkness. Even the sheep in rows on my sheets couldn’t protect me from this paralyzing terror. I would call out to my mom just to remind myself I was alive. I am a girl. I am 9. I have a dog named Missy. I have a mom and a dad. I live in a house, in a suburb. I am in a warm bed, and I am safe.

I have always been fascinated by death because of my fear of it. One either fears that which we don’t understand or has a reverence for it. I have a mix of the two and therefore have always felt a need to push life to the limits. It is this supreme fear of death that also drives me to create. Like novelist Herman Hesse’s character Goldmund, I have an unusually strong motivation to leave a footprint on this earth.

He thought the fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all things of the mind. We fear death, we shudder at life's instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something that lasts longer than we do.   
- Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund

Anxiety has always been with me, along with some perceived obligation to give back to the world the gift of life, which was so freely given to me. I create for different reasons, but first is survival. Second is transmission: communicating a thought or feeling to the world that reflects my own human experience and connects it to yours. When I am not creating, I am not happy, mostly because I feel disconnected. Creating allows me to merge the inner world I protect so much with the outside world. It allows me to be in the present, to be the present.

At one time, I bought the popular myth that to create I needed an altered experience, for the doors of perception to be cleansed. And for that, I believed I needed to be intoxicated with substances.  That, of course, is the falsest belief I have ever tested over and over and over and over. The mindscapes and moods I experience sober have proven far more profound than any of the short-lived highs I once had.

Never did I dream that I would become addicted to heroin three years out of high school. Total annihilation was not part of my life plan. I moved from stealing chicken from Jewel at age 20 to hustling for cash at gas stations on the West Coast by age 22. I made it to California, but was eating out of the garbage. What a pity. No one back home in Illinois really knew; the West Coast provided a great cover. In reality, I was in a desperate survival cycle: next money, next fix, next meal, in that order. No time or energy for anything else. And, all the while, I was overwhelmed with frustration and anger at my inability to change.

Thinking back to high school, I can see a pattern in the music I liked: John Frusciante, Syd Barrett, PJ Harvey, Joni Mitchell – artists who at some point destroyed themselves with darkness or displayed it vividly in their work. Like Shakespeare once said, as an artist, you reflect nature, and my nature was that of fear-fueled destruction.

It wasn’t just the drugs. I became addicted to dying and being reborn, a thousand times over. Because isn’t it transformation that we are all after? That transformative experience where we can leave one skin for the other? Like Lazarus, I could come back from the dead. But life didn’t change. I got into a cycle that was governed by nature; I would get sober in the fall, then pick up in the winter and be full blown in my addiction by the time warm weather arrived. I did this for three years, never actually experiencing rebirth – only pauses in my self-destruction. I was stuck in a purgatory, burning until I could make a decision.

Maybe I thought chasing death would cure me of my fear of it. But it didn’t. And at some point, I became willing to try something else. For the first time in my life, I started to listen to what others told me to do. Believe me, I didn’t take all their suggestions, but enough to get me through that first door. My grandmother was an integral part of my life during this period. I lived with her after I got out of a halfway house in 2009. She was the first person to trust me, even though I stole more than $1,000 worth of quarters from her the year prior. She taught me about faith, because she was so unwavering in her own right, a straight-up Irish Catholic mother of seven. She had an underlying faith and trust in me, and that gave me courage because no one else trusted me at the time. Riding on my grandmother’s faith in me, I began to change.

I initially got sober in 2009, from heroin. But each time I would get a year sober, I would relapse on alcohol or weed. For three years I did this. It was the turning-over period, but I gradually transitioned to a life of sustained recovery in 2012. During this transitional period, I went to Africa and shot a documentary film with my friend, wrote tons of music and went back to school. I was getting my footing – learning anew about the world around me and how the God of my understanding speaks through people. I took an immense liking to blues music – the real blues music, because I could relate to it. Listening to old howlers like Son House, Johnny Lee Hooker and Blind Willy Johnson taught me how to talk to God through music. It was a great awakening. Learning how to live sober, and communicate again. I felt like a newborn babe. I began going out more than ever – playing music, really enjoying socializing, laughing and creating with other people. I discovered that creative collaboration fulfills a great need for connection and intimacy – a need I had previously neglected by isolating myself from others. I learned to have a relationship with a higher power by having relationships with other creatives and sober people. Recovery has enabled me to evolve creatively from visual art to music and film – every medium leading to the next, just as every experience and person I have met in sobriety has led me through the next door.

In recent years, I have taken my recovery even more seriously, leaning into it. I have had some tumultuous periods: periods where I could have been committed to a psych ward, but I managed through with the help of others and by creatively exorcizing my demons. Instead of picking up alcohol or other drugs and ending up in jail, I made a short film, entitled Red, about my internal fire (which was related to my intimate relations at the time.)

As humans, and artists especially, we want to be loved and understood by others. I have always had a problem with priorities, but recovery has helped me focus on what I can control – learning to love and understand others and myself. And that’s an effort that continues to require ongoing commitment. I am a relatively needy person, as it turns out, and demand an awful lot. Satisfaction and peace are elusive, but I experience them in longer stretches as time goes on. I have astral expectations for myself, and those closest to me, but am lucky to get cut down to size pretty quickly. I’m able to focus on the more important need – loving and seeking to understand my family and friends, and helping them love and understand me. Recovery has helped me see how much, in the past, I have overlooked the needs of those closest to me. I’m learning more every day one of the great paradoxical wisdoms of life – that self-love actually comes from focusing less on self. Love transforms you, and God is love as far I am concerned. If you can love, you can experience God, and that experience can push you forward. I have been transformed by love: looking for it, learning about it, losing it and finding it again.  

On occasion, I envy those who seem to have all the time in the world to devote to themselves and their art. I occasionally wish I had more time and less responsibility. But it’s clear now that such singular devotion comes with a cost – one I can no longer pay. Over time, I have come to be extremely grateful for the roots I have dug, the people I have met and the experiences we have shared. I wouldn’t be where I am, or have what I do, without them. Relationships are the plants that produce the seeds from which all else grows, including my art. Giving birth to my son in 2014 allowed me to see and appreciate the power of creation in a natural, biological sense. Though I am not necessarily a nurturing woman, I have found that motherhood suits me; it is surprisingly natural. It also has drawn my focus away from myself, which in turn has opened me to a whole new world of inspiration. I love being a mom – so much so that I now want many more children.

The great thing about being a sober artist is the endless amount of raw emotion that you may kindle.  These days, I am focusing on film work and getting out lesser-told stories that need to be told, providing a voice for the unheard. My friend and I are about to release a feature-length documentary, which is rather exciting. I also have a TV pilot swirling around in my head, inspired by the senior housing facility where I work during the day. Imagine Days of Our Lives meets the movie Cocoon! Yes, I need a lot of stimulation. I need to be constantly learning. If I get bored, I start to be destructive. It is up to me, with the support of others, to initiate the stimulation and connection I need in my life. I thrive on constant transformation, and that is a good thing. But it also requires consistent effort. I have found that recovery has guided my effort in the right direction, gently pushing me where I need to go when I am ready. I do not determine when that is, by the way; some other force is at work. Typically, I want quick results that I can physically see. And sometimes I get those results, but usually in long strides and rarely when I want them. The biggest changes for me have happened from within – subtly and quietly. Profoundly.

The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of the world, but those who fight and win battles that others do not know anything about.   
- Jonathan Harnisch

I am so grateful for those before me who have told their tales of moving beyond addiction. They are heroes to me. And I’m grateful now to share my own, and, most importantly, to have learned what they knew – that to defeat the fear of death, we must participate in life. I am a hero just for today.

Kara is a mother, musician and filmmaker. She works and advocates for seniors on the North Side of Chicago, and loves animals and being outside with her family.

Photo is John Duncan's painting, “The Riders of the Sidhe” from 1911.