Early friendships can provide the core of what you will need later in adulthood, which is connection, a shared sense of history, and sometimes a relief that you actually survived those tumultuous teenage years. This indeed, is the case for Michelle Butler and Ai Kusuhara, who have been friends for over twenty-five years.
To understand the incredible bond these two women have, we’d have to go back to when Ai and Michelle were thirteen years old sitting across from each other in a history class in San Fernando Valley. It was 1991, a time when most girls their age were swooning over The New Kids on The Block. But when Ai dropped a music cassette on the floor in class and Michelle leaned over to pick it up, she couldn’t believe that there was someone in the world, who liked the raw and angry sound of the band, Faith No More as well.
“Do you like the song Zombie Eaters?” Michelle whispered, across the aisle.
“I love Zombie Eaters,” Ai replied, with a smile.
That was pretty much it. Their friendship was sealed, and partly because no one else listened to weird, edgy rock at the uppity catholic school they were attending at the time.
“I found in Michelle, a friend who I could be my true self with,” Ai said.
Ai, who had been wanting to learn how to play the drums ever since she was twelve years old, wasn’t allowed to because they were too loud. Instead, her parents bought her an acoustic guitar and provided lessons as well. As Ai learned how to play the guitar she soon found herself writing her own songs. But Ai was way too shy and didn’t have the courage to sing her songs out loud.
Shortly after, the two of them were hanging out, when Ai heard Michelle in an argument with her mom. Wow, she can really project her voice. Impressed, Ai asked if she’d consider being the lead singer in a band. Even though Michelle had never sung or performed before, without skipping a beat, she said yes and that’s how their band, Chromosome Tea, came to be.
Suddenly, the two of them became absorbed in music as they wrote and played songs together. While Ai would come up with the chord progressions, Michelle took on the lyrics and melody. With a bass player and drummer in place, Chromosome Tea started booking gigs all over Los Angeles. They were known for their ability to deliver simple, infectious songs, while their on-stage presence had immense appeal.
During this time, Michelle, who had been struggling with perfectionism, anxiety and family problems found relief through food and eventually drug use. While Ai, who had been holding it all together on the outside, was dealing with her own family struggles as well. Without the tools she needed to express how she really felt, Ai started cutting herself to relieve some of her internal pain.
The band was the only place where they were able to be themselves and they both claim music saved their lives.
Their paths continued to intersect, as Ai and Michelle played music together through their college years, becoming roommates and working at a radio station together as well.
By her early twenties, Michelle’s substance abuse escalated. Everyone around her became deeply concerned. One day Michelle called Ai, saying she needed her help. Ai, was there for Michelle through her early recovery and as a result, Ai found her own healing from cutting and depression as well.
This is where the story takes a completely different turn. I’m thrilled to report, the band is back together, only this time, they are singing a different song. After doing intense, emotional work on herself, Michelle returned to school to become a Psychologist and soon after that, Ai was back getting her masters in Psychology too.
Currently, Ai and Michelle work at Polaris Teen Center, a residential treatment program that helps adolescents who are struggling with mental health issues. But what qualifies them for the job, besides the education, is they have a deep well of experience and empathy to share, and as a result, the kids at Polaris are able to relate.
And after all is said and done, I think Michelle and Ai would agree, it was the friendship, as well as the music, that saved both their lives.