Crashing into Nature: Survivor Guilt and Butterflies

By Mary Bue

I could easily say, “I wasn’t your normal American teenager,” but I don’t think there is such a thing as a “normal teenager” … or even “normal” in general. Sometimes I’ve heard that your first trauma is where you might stay stuck developmentally. And I wonder if that’s why often I feel reckless and distracted, and consistently on an emotional roller coaster, like the 16-year-old I was when I rolled my parents’ Buick LeSabre and hung upside down by my seat belt while the trance music blasted and the car interior bathed eerie electric green from the clock on the dash.

I hate to say it because I love and adore my parents to the absolute “nth" degree and have nothing but respect and gratitude for them, but I was a terrible lying scumbag of a teenager. I was also a goodie goodie, getting mostly straight A’s and able to start college two years early, but still, a lying cheating scumbag.

One weekend I went to a camping rave and partied hard with my first love, my besties and that bumping, thumping house, trance or dub music that still gets me on both a core level and an aversion level. This was the mid-90s — an era of pink halter tops, phat pants and secret numbers to call for the location of each night’s gathering.

That weekend, I had somehow locked my keys in the trunk. My friends managed to pry off the back bench seat and get my keys out, but damn, I’ve often wondered if that was a good thing. Or, does everything happen for a reason?

Driving the three or four hours home on Sunday (I was sober, but hadn’t slept … and is sleep deprivation worse? Or is just being a 16-year-old behind the wheel bad enough?), I dropped off a dude friend who had a tattoo of barbed wire on his neck (I hope you’re still alive, man!). Still 45 minutes from my own home, I turned up the trance music — amped and stoked from the fun weekend — and did a little “car dancing.” You know, dancing around in your seat to the beat.

But soon — I’m not sure what happened; maybe it was the hypnotic quality of the dance-y trance music or the relative emptiness of the freeway — I somehow swerved and hit the lip of the tarmac, over-corrected and began rolling side over side, over and over, down a deep ditch next to highway 169 between Elk River and Zimmerman, Minnesota.

When I came to my senses, I was hanging upside down from my seat belt. Christopher Robin’s mix tape was blaring. I COULD NOT SHUT IT OFF. IT WAS SO LOUD. ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS SHUT IT OFF AND COME TO PEACE AND QUIET. There was shattered glass all around me. It didn’t take long to realize I had to get out of the car. I unbuckled, crumpled to the ceiling, crawled and exited the opening left by the shattered back window.

I had NOT A SCRATCH. Not a scrape. Not a bruise. Not a cut.

The music was still blaring.

I walked up to the side of the highway. People had stopped at that point. One of them was a nurse. I cracked a joke. “My parents said it was a good family car,” I chuckled. It was NOT funny to her.

Soon enough, a cop came around and drove me home. He seemed nice enough. A few weeks later, I got a ticket for “inattentive driving.” Bastard!

My police escort left after my mom answered the door. She was in shock. Because I wasn’t hurt, it was even harder for her to believe the story. She got really angry. I get it now; I would have gotten angry too. I went to the shower, and that’s when it hit me.

I thought, “I could have died.”

I could have died. I could have died. I repeated it in my mind. And then I cried. And then I started saying it out loud, like a mantra: I could have died, I could have died, I could have died, I could have died … louder and louder and louder in my head.

The weeks after that were a total blur. We went to the junkyard and saw the car and the smashed-in windshield. Took a Polaroid of it. I could have died.

I went to school, most days. But I could have died. I could have been dead.

And then it switched to, “Why am I alive?”

Why am I alive, Why am I alive, Why am I alive, Why am I alive, Why am I alive, Why am I alive, Why am I alive? Again, like a mantra, it repeated louder and louder and louder in my head.

And then, deeper than that: “Why am I alive, and why do so many other people die in accidents like these?”

Why do I get to live? Why do I get to live? What makes me so special? What if I had killed someone else? Why do I get off so easy? Why do I get to live? I went down, baby, down down down. Down into a very sad place. A survivor guilt place, even though no one had died. A place of dark worthlessness. I felt like the scum of the earth. I don’t know how long it lasted, but it lasted a while.

And then, I went for a bike ride.

I went to the forest on my mountain bike. Sometimes the wheels would get stuck in the sandy soil and I’d spin out and get back on the weed-strewn path. I was headed for my favorite place on the land, a curve in the road through deep, tall, thick pines. Some white pines, some Norway pines. Green heavy branches all around — protective arms with the softest looking fringe of needles. So thick, the sunset shifted like a strobe as I moved along the path. So quiet, except for the wind. To this day, that is my favorite sound of all — the wind through thick pine branches.

I had a hint of a suicide wish that day, consumed by a repetitive, negative mantra of worry and guilt at having survived my car wreck. I felt like I was unworthy of living, unaccepted by my friends, not good enough to my parents, and not cool enough to be loved by my first love.

When I arrived at my favorite place in the forest … there was a fluttering of wings.

The monarch butterflies were in their migration. It was late summer, time for them to fly to Mexico, and they had perched in the limbs of my favorite trees to rest. Clumped together in packs, they fluttered above my tormented little head.

As I watched, it was trance-like. I became totally present for what Maslow dubbed a “peak experience.” All of my sadness and guilt disappeared. Nothing else but this. My internal compass led me to that place, I truly believe, to see these creatures on their way to something new, at a distinct transitional juncture in their life cycle.

My hope, my magic, my love for life slowly began to return in that moment.

I was granted a gift from the beauty of nature, so supreme that I knew it was a sign I was meant to be on this earth for some more time. To do what, I still am not exactly sure. But this gift of beauty and delight was not wasted on me.

My first album in 2000, when I was 19, included the title track, “Where the Monarchs Circled” ...

the calm within yourself
the ice and the fire
liquid muscles
winged feet
running farther

water and purity
silence seeks and open door
the roots of emotion
guide us here

soft siren
breeze and shafts of light
knowing your soul elicits safety
knowing the peace of sight

wind grasps the fear
swirling mists of sun and frozen tear
feel days brush against your cheek
they’ll slip away, yes,
but you know now what to seek

soft siren
breeze and shafts of light
knowing your soul elicits safety
knowing the peace of sight

During my first tour in 2004, while in Austin, Texas, I got a monarch tattooed onto my upper-left arm. A forever reminder of hope and transformation. The fact that monarch butterflies are now being assessed for endangerment kills me. The degradation of our beautiful natural places makes me wither. But I try to do my part, and that includes sharing this story.

I still don’t know exactly why I’m here, but if gifts like my experience in the forest are also here to be found, that is enough to keep me awake and alive on this beautiful earth.

Mary Bue is an indie musician and yoga studio owner based in Minneapolis. 

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.

Rediscovering an Artistic Life

By Roger P. Watts

“You ought to write a book,” is something I’ve been told most of my adult life. That’s because many people who have known me through the years have found that I have lived an interesting life full of stories that have generated both laughs and tears.

In fact, you can easily separate the two halves of my life by one day: December 19, 1987. That was the day that I didn’t drink or take any drugs for the first time in 21 years.

I began recovery as most people do with a shudder and a lot of apprehension. But that’s a story better saved for another time. For now, it is important just to say that this day was a turning point for me in my life, and I have never looked back on any time before that day with nostalgia or yearning for “the good ole days.”

Early recovery took me into a new career from the photojournalism and editing work I had been doing for a decade. I began my work in the addiction treatment field only a few months after getting sober. From that point until 2012, I worked as a front-line counselor for a variety of clinics from the East Coast to the Midwest.

But, that career is not what brings me to Dissonance.

In 2012, two significant things happened to enhance the quality of my life. I received a PhD in psychology that year and began my first university teaching assignment. But, I also reprised my earlier work as a photographer, and I have been making documentary photographs ever since.

Today, I both teach and make photographs. The teaching is also better discussed on another day. For this post, I want to talk about my artistic work history and the meaning it has in my life.

Photography was always a hobby of mine, starting in my youth as an assistant at a tiny studio on the south shore of Boston. I loved the idea of capturing images and found, through Al Davidson’s studio, the chance to make interesting and, it turned out, high-pressure photos. I became a wedding photographer for his studio and applied what he taught me about how to capture the visual memory of a bride’s biggest day. I did that throughout my senior year at college and loved just about every minute of the 40-or-so weddings I photographed.

But, I was also imbued in that year--the crucible year of 1969--with the juvenile idea that armed with a college degree I ought not “settle” for just being a photographer the rest of my life. So, I stopped taking photographs and entered the business world.

I would not pick up another camera until 12 years later! After losing the election of 1980 to Ronald Reagan, many of us who worked in the White House (I was a “press advance man” for President Carter) found ourselves out of luck and out of work. With my addiction raging at the time, I one day imagined I would take photographs of the first launch of the space shuttle Columbia. To a drug addict, this was the most reasonable thing to think -- that without gear or experience, I could do such a thing. Undaunted, I borrowed a camera, raced to Cape Canaveral on my motorcycle, shot a few rolls of Kodachrome, and found in one of my frames a picture that ended up in Newsweek magazine. At that moment, I was of the honest and deep yet delusional belief that I was about to become the world's greatest photojournalist!

Soon, of course, I found myself bartending and driving a taxi in Washington D.C., getting politicians loaded at an Irish bar, or ferrying patrons to and from the very White House where I had a security pass only months before.

Yet, despite the setbacks of being a rookie in the pressurized world of Washington photojournalism, I didn’t drown, but kept my head above the tide and became, by 1985, fairly well established with a fledgling role as a sometimes-contract photographer for the now-defunct Gamma Liaison Photo Agency out of Paris. But, still grandiose and fueled daily by alcohol and other drugs, I thought it a good idea to drop all that and become an editor with a national news weekly in Florida. It was there that I worked when I crashed my drug-addled life on that fateful day in 1987.

Fast forward to 2012. Having not shot any photos for 25 years, I decided to try my hand again at photography as a way to interpret my world for others and have a meaningful artistic life.

The first thing I did after buying a camera was search for a subject. Right away, I found that a local theater in Minneapolis, the oldest continuously operating theater in the Twin Cities, needed someone to shoot production stills for publicity and the theater’s archive. To this day, after volunteering to photograph for three seasons and dozens of plays, I still shoot the performances of the incredibly talented actors who tread the boards at the Theatre in the Round.

I have rediscovered my own art by training my lens on theirs. And, as a sober man in long-term recovery, I can finally appreciate how much that means to me.

What good fortune it is to discover, here in the Dissonance community, others who are committed to art and being well. And to sharing our stories. Perhaps we all have a book to write.

Dr. Roger P. Watts is an adjunct professor at Augsburg and Concordia universities, where he teaches psychology courses, in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Also a photographer, he is leading a campaign to produce a photo-documentary called "Beyond the Arena," a touring exhibit that would feature an intimate behind-the-scenes look at acting and live theater.