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.

Don’t die. Be Kind. Be Easy. What’s Next?

By Carl Atiya Swanson

Feb. 7, 2008.

I wrote this for the 10-year anniversary of leaving treatment. It's been just over a decade now since I began moving through life without alcohol or other drugs.

I had been trying to put something down about the work and the process, but mostly I started thinking about people who have made it possible, song lyrics and riffs, and weird quotes and phrases that have run through my head in doing the work.

Don’t die.

Thanks to Stacy, Rosanne, Mark, Karen, Ted, JoAnn, Hannah, Bekah, Kathy and Doug ... for making sure I didn't die. Sadly, others did along the way, and I remember their names: Amanda, Omar, Dan.

“I'm an alcoholic. I don't have one drink. I don't understand people who have one drink. I don't understand people who leave half a glass of wine on the table. I don't understand people who say they've had enough. How can you have enough of feeling like this?”
– Leo McGarry, The West Wing

There’s always work to do. I've had an enormous amount of privilege in my sobriety and recovery, starting with the fact that I got to go to treatment and access the health care I needed. I also come from an educated family and have degrees myself. I have people who loved and continue to love and support me. I have had jobs and homes to go to. I have the ability to choose to leave triggering locations; I haven't depended on being in a bar for work. I have choices about meetings to attend and resources and networks to help me build connections and social capital. To be sober is to be continually humbled and compassionate, to be deeply grateful.

Be kind.

Thanks to Natalie, Colin, Lizzie, Eric, Kristina, Shawna, Brian, Heidi, Karen, Kathleen, Alexandra, Chavis, Chris, Dana, Brandon, Laura, Molly, Andy, Noah, Nikki, Michele, Naomi, Dominic, Daniel, Jun-Li, Peter, Sam, John, Caly, Dennis, Zaraawar, Nancy, Caroline, Adia, Anna, Susan, Ashley, Lindsay, Brian, Jamie, Erica, Danielle, Sarah, Jarell, Cary, Cole, Brandon, Lauren, Pa, Naaima, Josh, Kat, Matt, Ashley, Sarah, David, Ali, Jeremiah and Katy  .... for giving me work, trusting and challenging me, and opening up new possibilities.

“But there are hundreds of ways
To get through the days
There are hundreds of ways
Now you just find one.”

– Conor Oberst, Hundreds of Ways

My aunt once asked me what I put my faith in, if not God. I told her I put my faith in people. “Good Luck with that,” she said. But that’s where faith lives for me—in our capacity for wonder and creation, in our curiosity and imagination. I know I wouldn’t have made it through my youth without being an artist, and I wouldn’t be alive now without believing in others, in all of us. That conviction, and the abilities art fostered to hold conflicting ideas, process ambiguity and open myself to collaboration, contradiction and the messy nature of things—that saved me. I wouldn’t be alive without saying yes to people and feeling the joy of what we can do together.

Be easy.

Thanks to Jacob, Amy, Jake, Jayne, Jeremey, Dianne, Alexis, Carly, Laura, Blake, Hannah, Mason, Heidi, Lisa, Russ, Eric, Rachel, Tanner, Emily, Christina, Foster, Nick, Andrea, Ben, Kyle, Molly, Leslie, Jamie, Betz, Erik, Erik, Erik, Ali, Tom, Dom, Mike, Mischa, Stephen, Colin, Alexei, Stephen, Joe, Bobby, Graham, Lindsy, Scott, K. Alex, Gigi, Susannah, Jay, Joey, Pete, Janey, Christian, Johnny, Molly, Jeremy, Chastity, Will, Brian, Sam, Chantal, Sarah, Levi, Seth, Brent, Tim, Bethany and Jenny ... for letting me create, and helping you create, things we enjoy and find meaningful. Thanks for making life interesting.

“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” – Miles Davis

It takes a lifetime to become ourselves, which is what I get to pursue now. It takes the support and connection of others I have found, or who have found me—friends who walk similar paths, who go to meetings, who say the Serenity Prayer, who are making it work because they work it. It takes all the people named here, as well as all the people not named who have shaped the way and lit the path knowingly or unknowingly. I am so grateful for you, your love and what is to come. Be in touch.

What’s next?

Carl Atiya Swanson is a Dissonance Board Member.