For years I opted out of applying for Bonnaroo because I believed that TWLOHA would simply get lost in the enormity of the event; as it turns out, there was absolutely a place for us.
The very first people we connected with were our neighbors. They handcraft djembes and facilitate drum circles. They make their living by traveling circuits of Renaissance Fairs, and Bonnaroo was set to be their first music festival. They asked about us, and before I could finish the mission statement, Megan, the co-owner, said that she had just watched the Anis poem on Upworthy from our HEAVY AND LIGHT event. Throughout the week she opened up about her life with bipolar disorder. She said a half dozen times how thankful she was and how serendipitous it seemed to be placed next to us. It’s safe to say that we have new friends in the percussion industry.
Then there was Stephanie. She was in her 50s, and she found our site in the darkest part of a season of suicidal thinking. She offered her life as proof that our FIND HELP page works.
Tori was celebrating her birthday during the festival. Her mom died by suicide nine years ago, and she resorted to self-injury as a way to cope with that void. She is 21 now and five years removed from self-injury. I offered her a wristband as a gift for her birthday, but she insisted on buying two so that she could help a friend going through a rough stretch.
A gal named Carmen stopped by on Friday evening. She was obviously a bit shaken, and I asked what was going on. She said that she just got off the phone with her boyfriend who was threatening suicide. After seeing our booth earlier in the day, she knew upon hanging up the phone that she had to come straight to us. Thankfully, she was from one of the cities that we had printed resources for, and I was able to share some of the crisis lines that were available. I walked her through some brief QPR intervention methods and encouraged her to immediately call friends and family to check in on him. I didn’t see her for the rest of the weekend, but I have a good feeling that the darkness passed. That moment represented so much that is at the heart of what we do: speaking hope into vulnerable places.
Then there was Elizabeth who stopped by every day to say hi and promise that she would one day apply to be an intern. Each time she returned with a new family member, introducing us with smiling eyes full of pride. Her parents grinned knowingly back at us, a subtle ‘thank you.’
Josh celebrated eight years of sobriety from meth addiction in April. We shared some stories and encouraging words. He had never heard of TWLOHA before this weekend but was happy to see our booth contrasting with the reputation of Shakedown Street.
An Iraqi conflict veteran stopped by just before we began loading out. He walked with a cane and introduced himself as Radar. He spoke of losing friends to suicide as a result of PTSD. He gave a short history of how the disorder has been misunderstood over the years and expressed frustration that Congress identifies PTSD as a combat injury, yet Purple Hearts are intentionally and explicitly withheld from those returning with it. He remembered his friend Carl who took his own life in the parking lot of the VA after a session left him feeling as if his heart was damaged beyond repair. Radar thanked us for carrying on in our work in the hopes that our efforts would ensure Carl’s death would never be forgotten or dismissed.
One of the last conversations I had was with a young man named Q. He runs Sober-roo, the recovery community at Bonnaroo. This growing community has caught the attention of many other big-name festivals that welcome him on site each year: Outside Lands, Governor’s Ball, Lollapalooza, and more. He has been an alcoholic in recovery for 3 years now and thanks us for saving his life. He revealed scars that date back to when he was 16, when he was determined not to see another sunrise. After a tiring weekend, I cannot possibly communicate how much life I got from this connection. We are looking forward to finding ways to connect, expand, and serve. As we spoke, my eyes were drawn to a pin on his dingy brown baseball cap. It was a Grateful Dead skull, but instead of the two-toned lightning bolt in the skull, there was an Narcotics Anonymous diamond. He told me about recovery groups within Jam-band and Psychedelic Rock circles. The pin was for the Wharf Rats, a network of Dead Heads who reserve a room at the venues to hold recovery meetings during intermissions of shows.
Bonnaroo offers something for everyone, including the stubbornly hopeful. Music is for everyone. Community is for everyone. It’s possible to talk about recovery across the aisle from a booth selling bongs. It’s possible to enjoy the music and yet be aware that many in the audience are struggling.
We loved our time at Bonnaroo and can’t wait to be back next year to continue sharing a message of hope and help and community.