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.

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.