When Kiki Vonn met Jesse Veils in the inpatient program at Pride Institute, an addiction treatment center serving members of the LGBTQ community, Vonn’s life had reached a particularly low point.
When Vonn showed up, Veils had already been at Pride for several weeks and was beginning to feel much more confident in his recovery. Vonn, who uses they/them pronouns, was still in the shaky early days.
“Jesse was assigned as my treatment buddy, the person to make me feel at home,” Vonn recalled. “I was so unsure of myself. I’d just come back from San Diego where I was homeless for a time.” Originally from Minnesota, Vonn had been struggling mightily with addiction and had been living in a park near the U.S.-Mexico border. “I didn’t know what journey would lie ahead of me,” they said.
Eventually, with encouragement from friends and family, Vonn returned to the Twin Cities, where they had a broader net of support. At Pride, with Veils’ mentorship, Vonn’s mental health slowly began to improve. “Jesse was the best treatment buddy I could have,” they said. “He set the tone for my own recovery.”
That tone was based firmly in the supportive community that Vonn discovered at Pride. Walls that were built by addiction were now crumbling, and this freeing feeling was something they wanted to share with the world.
“For me,” Vonn said, “substance use and active addiction was very isolating. I didn’t ask for the support I needed — and my own actions further isolated people from me.” As their recovery took hold, Vonn felt driven by a desire to connect with others about this new way of living: “I wanted to find a way to give back to people, not only people in recovery but also the ones who are struggling right now,” they said.
By the time Veils completed inpatient treatment and had moved into a sober house, he was also looking for a new way to give back to his new community. Recovery from addiction is hard, and many people experience serious setbacks in the process, he said; he wanted to tell others about all the hopeful things he’d discovered in his journey.
Veils found inspiration everywhere, even on the walls of his sober house. “I was looking at this really cool art that people had left there,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is what the world needs to see about the recovery community. Not just the mental illness and addiction we face, but also the dignity and talent that a lot of us possess.’”
This idea of highlighting the dignity, talent and inspiration of members of the recovery community eventually grew into something bigger. Veils and Vonn got together with their friends Andrew Blake Stam and Caleb Fritz Craig. The group talked about their shared desire to spread a message of hope and pride. Eventually they came up with the idea of starting a magazine for the state’s recovery community.
Each member of the founding group brings a special skill to the mix. Veils, for example, is a writer. Vonn has experience with publications and design.
“When I was trying to figure out a way to express the things I needed to understand during this process and give back to the community, I had to look at what I am skilled in and what I can do,” they said. “I was on the high school newspaper. I know how to use Adobe Suites. I was in school for photography. It just made sense that I would want to do a magazine. It ended up making sense for all of us.”
Birth of a magazine
A magazine needs a name, and Veils had one in mind.
Since starting recovery, he’d begun meditating as a way to calm his mind and focus his thoughts. “I was using the mantra, ‘I am blessed and highly favored,’’’ he said. “It was a way of reminding me that I still matter.” Because of the words’ significance in his recovery journey, Veils figured Highly Favored would be a perfect name for a recovery magazine. His co-founders agreed, he said: “We want to extend that idea of the mantra to everyone who can relate to the content that we have in the magazine.”
Some might say that in this changing media landscape, it’s unclear whether print publications are still a going concern, but Highly Favored’s founders feel that it’s a gamble worth taking.
“People still read magazines from what we researched,” Vonn said, “and if you look in grocery stores at the cashier counters obviously there is still a market for them.”
Print and digital copies of Highly Favored are available for purchase online, Veils said. “We do also have some pickup locations that we will be dropping off at for low-income readers.”
The magazine’s first edition includes a mix of personal essays, visual art, poetry and features with a focus on the intersections between integrity and drugs. Veils and Vonn said that all contributors are “substance-familiar individuals.”
The first issue, which the founders developed and produced at weekly meetings over many months, features innovative design and thoughtful ccontent from a wide range of contributors. “I really love the diversity of the pieces that we were able to assemble,” Vonn said.
Though Highly Favored’s founders all identify as LGBTQ, the magazine isn’t singularly focused on that community.
“We didn’t intend on it being a queer focus,” Veils said, “but since all of us are part of the LGBTQ community, the magazine leans that way.” Still, he said, Highly Favored is intended for a much wider audience: “We strive to invite everyone into the conversation.”
This intention is important, he added, because addiction and mental health impact everyone. “Even if you’ve never touched a substance in your life you still pay taxes for every ambulance that shows up for someone who is overdosing.”
When Veils first thought about creating a magazine for the recovery community, he felt that its most important role would be to be a space to highlight people’s recovery stories so that others might find inspiration.
It’s a basic principle of the recovery movement, he explained: “When you first go to meetings one of the things they tell you is, ‘You never know who needs to hear your story and when they need to hear it.’ Sharing your experience and how you’ve overcome the struggles involved is paramount to taking part in use, abuse and recovery communities.” He said he sees Highly Favored as tangible evidence of the importance of stories, something that people can hold in their hands and read over and over again.
So far, Veils said that reader reviews of Highly Favored have been highly positive. People are excited to see this new publication. They’ve told him and his co-founders that it feels like a key piece of the local recovery community that they’ve been wanting for years.
“I am just humbled by the fact that an idea we had and a project we put together has already had such a profound impact on a lot of people in the community,” Veils said. “It’s really exciting that we’ve already made an impact.”
With Highly Favored’s spring 2023 issue complete, Vonn, Veils and their co-founders are already hard at work on the next issue.
“We’re planning a quarterly publication,” Veils said. “I would love it if we could come out every month, but just because of how busy we are in our normal lives, this has to be a passion project of us.” It took about six months to produce the first issue, but the timeline for the next is much shorter. “The second issue will be coming out in June,” Veils said, adding that the deadline for submissions is May 1.
So far, the magazine’s staff and contributors have been volunteering their time, but Veils said that he and his co-founders hope that will change in the near future. “We do this out of the kindness of our hearts, but we’d really love by the end of the year to make sure that all contributors are paid for their submissions.”
A sense of mission and contribution to the larger cause of recovery fuels Highly Favored, Vonn said. “At the end of the day this magazine isn’t for our profit. It is meant to be for the community. If we would get to the space where we are able to help others who are going through recovery, that would be the best thing we could possibly do.”
The magazine already has some financial sponsors, including Pride Institute, Southside Harm Reduction and the Aliveness Project, and staff is working to build more connections with other players in the state’s recovery community.
“There is a lot of downtime in inpatient treatment,” Veils said. “This magazine is something that people can really take time with and think about. Ultimately I would love to see this publication in the hands of everyone who goes into inpatient [treatment].”
As Highly Favored’s circulation grows, its founders hope that its presence in the state will also grow. They’d like to be able to become more of a movement than a magazine.
“Our long-term goal is to be able to establish a few different funds where we can help people coming out of inpatient and going into sober living,” Veils said. Because they’ve been through it themselves, they understand just how tough that transition can be: “We want to start a recovery registry so people can apply for bedding or toiletries or toothbrushes — things that you need when you get out but you don’t think about and can’t afford.” They’d also like to one day establish a scholarship for people in recovery to go back to school in the arts.
Even if Highly Favored never evolves into philanthropy, Veils said he thinks it is already close to achieving one of its founders’ central goals: to be a “really safe, non-judgmental space for readers and contributors. We want it to become a go-to place where people know they can share their substance use experience — good, bad, ugly, whatever it is — because they know those experiences might help somebody else.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Caleb Fritz Craig’s first name.