The Path to Wellness is Not Always Straight

By Joe Nistler


It was the summer after my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madisona year of small successes and setbacks, ongoing struggles with anxiety and depression, and a budding addiction that I wouldn’t admit, much less address, for another two years.

Substance use hadn’t consumed my life yet, but things were moving in that direction. I was able to hide outward signs of addiction behind academic success and the norms of a campus culture that thrived on alcohol. My GPA said “functioning student;” the bottles and cans that filled my trash screamed “alcoholic.” But I didn’t look much worse than the crowd I ran with.

The goals I remember revolved around my drinkinglike telling myself I’d only get drunk on Friday and Saturday during finals week, rather than Wednesday through Sunday. Keep in mind that getting drunk, for me, was equivalent to blacking out. Drinking, on the other hand, was a casual, near-daily exercise in self-medicationone that I practiced while studying, between classes and before going out to parties to get drunk(er).

It was the only way I knew to get by. For as long as I can remember, I felt like something was missing in mesome secret to life that it seemed other people understood but I couldn’t comprehend. Drugs and alcohol brought on the illusion of understanding, so I used them to cope with emptiness and connect with people. I used them to hide from myself and as a cure for boredom.

As the school year wrapped and I returned to my parents’ home in Minnesota for the summer, I didn’t have the same access to alcohol and drugs that I had at school. Suddenly I came face to face with myself and a sense of isolated despair, fueled by intrusive thoughts of shame, self-loathing and emptiness. There had to be a better way of living, and a psychology course the previous semester turned me onto the idea of therapy as a tool. So, I made an appointment.

After a couple of introductory sessions, my therapist recommended that I try an antidepressant and abstain from mood-altering chemicals. I didn’t like the last part, but I agreed to it without intending to actually follow through. Most importantly, he started leading me in guided mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises.

Mindfulness meditation helped me from the first time I practiced it. In the therapist’s office, I felt relaxed, and the physical tension in my stomach was less constricting. My thoughts weren’t racing quite so fast anymore. After a couple weeks of mixed effort and equally mixed results, I began to follow his recommendation of listening to a 20-minute recording dailytwice a day, actually. And I started noticing changes in my daily behaviors.

The constant, agonizing feeling that I should be doing something, or that I was missing out on something, or that there was some “right” answer to every situation that escaped me, began to dissipate. I started feeling okay with myself in the moment. In social situations, I still felt awkward at times, but it didn’t get to me as much. I didn’t dwell on the negatives or beat myself up for days on end, which freed up time to create more positive experiences. I let myself move forward.

Finally, I felt like I had some semblance of control over my emotions. I kept up with my daily medication and meditation, as well as weekly therapy sessions. The feeling of freedom drove me to incorporate other improvements in my life, like eating healthier, exercising more and getting more involved in the things I enjoyed. My self-esteem was improving, so I was able to make plans with friends without assuming that I’d be bothering them or interrupting something. And perhaps most perplexingly, as a side effect of my newfound wellness, I stopped craving drugs and alcohol.

My thoughts no longer revolved around getting intoxicated to enjoy life (or escape it). Instead I enjoyed life for what it was. I never intended to get sober that time, and I still drank and got high at the occasional gathering, but using was no longer my main priority, and such occasions were infrequent by any standard.

After a great summer, I returned to Madison and, unfortunately, dove right back into the party scene. Still, with my meditation practice intact, I felt different than before. I was able to socialize—was somewhat outgoing, excited about life and less afraid to take chances. I started pursuing the things I enjoyed for the fun of it, without fear of failure. I started covering the arts and music scene for a campus newspaper. I made plans to travel and study abroad (and followed through with them). I chose a major: journalism (and a second major: Italian). I made new friends and had some great times, but I also became familiar with the local detox facilities.

Without recognizing my need for sobriety, eventually the partying caught up with me. The mental hygiene regimen had allowed me to maintain using for a while without any serious consequences. But then I turned to harder drugsprescription drugs, and later heroin and methamphetaminethat were great shortcuts for school, work, relaxing and socializing. Those drugs eventually replaced meditation as my primary tool for living, and I neglected my mental health entirely. The descent was slow, and the pit was deep.

I constantly looked back longingly at that summer of ‘09 when things felt right, but completely failed to recognize the role that sobriety had played in my happiness.

You see, I made a mess of my life when I was on drugs, and for a while, I thought they were the problem. But in the bigger picture, they were a solutiona fast-acting, unsustainable answer to the deeper issues I needed to face within myself. They were the easiest way to ignore the severe anxiety and depression I had experienced for most of my life.

It never dawned on me until recently, but back in 2009, I had my first experience with a form of recoverybefore my first treatment and conscious attempt at sobriety in 2012, and long before my most recent in October of 2015. Today, I base my recovery in large part on the mental wellness principles I learned and implemented during that first summer.

I meditate daily, attend at least one Twelve Step meditation meeting each week, and keep in close contact with my sober support network. I still see a therapist, take my medication as prescribed and try to live healthy. Mental wellness, Twelve Step principles, and a sober community are the foundations of my recovery. From there, everything else has kind of fallen into place. I have an appreciation for art, music and creativity that is stronger than ever, and I have a gig that lets me write full timethat, in itself, was a lifelong dream. I’m able to connect with people in my lifeto provide help, and ask for it when I need it.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that recovery is complicatedespecially from co-occurring mental illness and substance use. It takes a lot of moving parts falling into place just right. Sometimes those parts show up out of order and provide a glimpse of recovery before we’re ready to put it all together. But with each supposed failure comes a lesson, and with each lesson comes wisdom to connect the next piece of the puzzle, whenever it presents itself.

I was lucky to have a good relationship with my first therapist, and to respond to the first antidepressant I tried. I was lucky to learn about meditation early on, which made it easier to return to later. I was lucky to get into treatment one last time, and desperate enough to listen.

I’m a year into my recovery, and for the first time since 2009, life feels pretty good. I’m still learning and living one day at a time, and grateful for the lessons that come every day.


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.

How It Doesn't Work

by Phil Circle                                

It’s a famous story in the lexicon of Phil.

Here's the setup:
It had become well known to my fans that I enjoyed it when they’d bring shots to the stage and place them at my feet. I’d grab them and knock ‘em back while playing guitar one-handed, or, in another display of mock showmanship, pretend I wasn’t watching while bandmates snatched them up. It was a (deadly) bonding experience with my audience. This night was no different.

Here's the pitch:
I’m on stage at Chicago’s Double Door on a Saturday night before a standing-room-only crowd. I look down. There are seven shots of tequila. I shrug my shoulders and reach for one. Then another. People cheer. And the next. They egg me on. Soon, all of the shots have made their way into my addicted body, and I think I’m feeling the warm fuzzies.

And the swing:
The emcee grabs the microphone and gives a brief and flattering rundown of who I am, concluding with, “Ladies and gentleman, Phil Circle!” As the applause ensues, I strut to the mic and let go in grandiose fashion: “Go f*#k yourself! A one, two, three … .” And the band and I kick into our set.

A strike or a hit?
This wasn’t the worst of it. Neither was my 10-minute version of a song that usually goes six. Or my raunchy comments during the show. Or the fact that my drummer quit after the show. The worst part of this evening was the response I received. People loved it. They wanted to see me abuse myself and share my pain with them. They wanted the spectacle.

When I left the stage, I was patted on the back and “treated” to more free drinks. The other bands on the bill all complimented my show. The manager of one of the bands asked me why such a professional group as mine was even sharing a stage with the other bands. I was encouraged to act this way! I was given a free pass to be an ass! I was told in no uncertain terms (that is, I heard it this way) that it’s perfectly fine if I rage in my alcoholism and let it affect my gift … the music. And from that show forward, I used that evening as an example of how great I was. How sick is that? Loaded question.

When I look back at my 30 years of playing music, I see a trend. Every time I got a pat on my back, it went to my head. I guess there’s an “activate ego” button on my upper vertebrae. Once it went to my head, I felt as if I didn’t need to give as much or work as hard. Oh, but I could still drink as hard. When that led to fewer gigs and smaller crowds, I blamed the music business and the public’s poor ear for talent. When this led to resentments, I drank even more. All of this would restart several times until the pats on the back became fewer and turned into skewed glances of concern or scrunched-up wincing faces.

It wasn’t the pancreatitis with its excruciating pain and puking blood that eventually made me quit drinking. It wasn’t the liver disease. It wasn’t the loss of my livelihood. It wasn’t the many ways I was wasting away physically or the potential loss of my best friend, my wife. It wasn’t that my spirit had been squashed and replaced with a debilitating painful despair. The final straw was the difficult realization and admission that I no longer had my art. The thing I loved most in the world, the means by which I shared my genuine love for people, the gift the universe gave me -- it was gone.      

When I went to treatment, the first thing my very insightful substance use counselor did was connect me with a spiritual counselor, who also was a guitarist, to discuss grieving. What was I grieving, I asked. The loss of your music, he answered. Soon, my treatment plan included an assignment that scared the crap out of me. I was to play a set of music -- just me, my voice and my guitar -- for the 25 guys in my unit. Sober. No meds. I had only coffee and Skittles® to get me by, and the loving encouragement of a bunch of guys who were strangers to me a couple of weeks prior. It was the first of several performances to my fellows in the treatment center, and slowly, my music came back.   

When I returned home, I was asked to play an opening solo set for a woman whose band I had blacked out in front of at my last show, just before leaving for the sober woods up north. She introduced me by telling the story of my previous show, dirt and all. She ended by saying that now she sees a different man. Instead of a cocky strutting rooster, she sees a humble and loving man who just wants to share his gift of music.

“Shit,” I thought, “that’s all I ever wanted to do.”           

Afterward, she posted online that I “absolutely kicked ass.” I got teary and felt a strangely different reaction. I wanted to work hard to keep giving something, not taking. I knew this was going to require a lot of hard work, both physically and spiritually.

Today, I keep busy in Buddhism. I keep busy with my guitar and voice. I keep writing. I’m thrilled if three people enjoy something I share. Suddenly, I remember why I started doing this. I love to give. I don’t really care for the so-called rock star image. I don’t want it. I never did. I was immersed in the throes of a disease that pushed for any excuse to stay alive, even at the expense of my life.

And a funny thing has happened at shows. No one asks me if I want a drink. They just tell me how glad they are I quit. And that button on my back when you pat it? It’s turned into an “activate gratitude” button.


Phil Circle has been a working singer, songwriter and guitarist based in Chicago for 30 years. When he’s not writing, recording or performing music, he writes for local music publications and works on the 2nd edition of his book, “The Outback Musicians’ Survival Guide,” a whimsical and informative look at the frontline musician that will include a new chapter, “And Then He Got Sober.” Phil also teaches guitar and voice privately, offering one new piece of advice for aspiring young adult musicians: “The fact that the sex, drugs and booze are typically free is proof they’re potentially bad for you. So, focus on your music.”

Broken and Complete

by Johnny Solomon

I've spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about how I want to introduce myself on this inaugural post.  Do I lead with my accomplishments? Do I lead with my struggles? Do I just start in the middle and hope we all get to the end together?   It seems I’ve spent the better part of my adult life staring at blank pages thinking about how to start something.

I’m a musician, and I’m an addict, and I’m bipolar, and I’m broken, and I’m complete, and I’m happy.  It’s taken me years to find peace with all of those things.  It seems that my life up until about 6 years ago was a constant struggle.  I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water or maybe I was slowly starting to drown.  Right up until that fateful night when I decided there must be another way I just thought I was cursed.  I looked all around me and I saw people succeeding and growing. I had no idea how they did it.  I seriously had no idea.  It felt like everyone had one more sense than I did.  That 6th sense that allows you to step forward and grow.  I lived my life trying to trick the world out of success.  If I could hold it together for just a little bit I might find a little success, then hopefully when it falls apart there will be something left to build on.  It was an exhausting and wholly disheartening way to live.

The only thing that seemed to make sense was that people called me “creative.”  I was an artist, given to emotional explosions, both good and bad.  They say “out of great suffering comes great art,” so of course my life should be a hallmark of suffering.  There was some part of me that felt maybe I was just touched by God to put into words and music the plight of the undeserved and under achiever, the loser and the has-been.  I was the musician for those of us that fail and self destruct.  I knew that everyone struggled, so maybe my life was to struggle so that I could be a martyr for my music.  It was a noble way of saying I was ready to fail, and ultimately, I was ready to die unloved.

5 years and about 8 months ago from today I couldn't handle that anymore.  I had some sort of epiphany, or maybe I was going to fail at failing. I realized that the only conclusion to my life was death, and that I was dangerously close. I was scared.  So maybe I would give one little shot to the other direction, just to see what it was like.  I checked into rehab, I was there over Christmas and New Years, I was there for months, I watched people come and go and come back again all while I slowly came back to life.  While there, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and they put me on medication, and I with a lot of help, and a little grace, I came to terms with something I never thought I would be able to.  

I wasn't cursed, I was just a little broken.  And luckily, with a little help I was able to work around that and find out that life was quite a bit easier then I thought.  Life, and everything that came with it was more good than bad.  I still struggle, and I still write songs about it.  But who doesn't struggle?  Why am I any worse then someone diagnosed with diabetes, or even someone that simply has a bad back.  Just change some things about your life, adjust the way you find your place in the world and you’ll be fine.  I take medicine, I don't drink or do drugs, I exercise, I eat healthy (most of the time) and I accept that my reality is different than yours, but we both understand each other.  I’m still an artist, in fact, I’m an artist that can finally step forward and grow.  So yes, I’m a little broken, but just like a brick wall, sometimes patching up what’s broken actually makes it stronger.  

That’s the main reason I want to help.  I want to reach back into that dark place and help some people climb up.  Everything is better up here and you can still be an artist without the curse that addiction or untreated mental diseases bury you in.  Hi! My name is John, I’m an addict, I’m bipolar, I’m broken.  I’m also complete, and happy, and I’m a musician.


Johnny Solomon is a Dissonance Board Member.