How to Leave

By Carl Atiya Swanson

As an artist, I think a lot about endings. As a writer, I want the right line to finish with, to leave the story with the right emotional impact. In theater, the experience is ephemeral and that memory after the ending is the point, the joy of it.

I think about endings because as 2018 draws to a close, I will be rolling off the Dissonance board of directors. Since our first conversations three years ago about taking a series of panel conversations into a nonprofit organization that brings people together to make and share resources to support the creative community, building Dissonance has been a profound and satisfying experience.

I often describe the work of Dissonance as being loud and open about smashing stigmas so that we get to have quiet and personal conversations.

In the first part of that equation, Dissonance has been a platform to share my own story of sobriety and recovery. In 2012, when the first Dissonance panels took place at McNally Smith College of Music, I was relatively new in recovery, and to see other artists sharing their own paths—and to connect with them through art—was inspiring.

Human connection is one of the keys to living a meaningful life and countering the isolation and separation that can feed addiction and mental illness. Being able to work with Dissonance has connected me to so many great colleagues and offered me so many opportunities to grow through sharing my own experiences publicly. I couldn’t be more grateful for the work, especially as we’ve been able to do this at a time when so many others – from the talented folks who make up the Dissonance community to celebrities like Kevin Love, Mariah Carey, and Pete Davidson – are sharing their own stories about mental health, addiction and wellness. When we name something, we make it manageable. We make it shareable. We put off the burden of having to carry things alone. Sharing stories publicly makes us more empathetic and compassionate, and we need all of that we can get in the world right now.

The second part of the Dissonance equation — getting to have quiet and personal conversations — has been one of the ongoing and tremendous joys of my experience on the board. So many people have reached out and shared their stories, or their needs — some at tremendous low points — and it has been an enormous privilege to be able to sit, talk on the phone, or text with each person, connecting in quiet support. Very little makes me as happy as hearing how people found a therapist in our Get Help Directory or seeing them share wellness milestones and anniversaries. The work of being well is everyday work, and it happens all around us.

Matt Rasmussen’s poem “Chekhov’s Gun” opens with the line “Nothing ever absolutely has to happen.” That’s been so true in my own recovery. Addiction makes demise feel inevitable. Ten years ago, when I was just coming out of rehab, the life I lead now was not unimaginable, because I had little framework for imagining it. But the day-to-day work, the support of many others, the opportunities to connect — these are the exercises that strengthen imagination, and that have helped build a life rich with meaning.

So in this ending, I need to thank those who have helped build all this meaning. The artists who have shared their talents at events and in conversation over the years, folks like David Campbell, Davina Sowers, Nora McInerny, Saymoukda Vongsay, Levi Weinhagen, Charlie Parr, Leah Ottman, MaLLy, Mark Mallman, Nicholas David, Caroline Smith, and everyone who has written for the blog, thank you for your brilliance and vulnerability. My fellow Dissonance board members past and present are so passionate and so talented, so to John Solomon, David Lewis, Haley Johnson, Kyle Frenette, Jen Gilhoi, Brian Zirngible, Katy Vernon, Ali Lozoff, Jeremiah Gardner and our fearless leader Sarah Souder Johnson, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

What’s in that list of names is also this truth — the work we do is driven by the people who show up to do it. If this work has resonance in your life, come, build the next steps of Dissonance. There are so many ways you can connect – write for the blog, make a donation on Give to the Max Day, volunteer for Unhappy Holidays on Dec. 20, talk to one of us about joining the Dissonance board.

In that sense, this isn’t an ending. I’m not really leaving, I’m just making some more space for myself and for others to shape the future. I hope it’s you who chooses to step up. What’s next?

Carl Atiya Swanson is a Dissonance Board Member.

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.