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.

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.


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.