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Seeing Stars: Meg Hutchinson & Bipolar Disorder

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Part One of A Two-Part Essay. Follow this link to read the second post.


 

My name is Meg Hutchinson. I’m thirty-eight years old. I’m a singer-songwriter, poet and recording artist on Red House Records. I’ve been living with bipolar disorder since I was nineteen years old, exactly half my life, but I didn’t realize it until I was twenty-eight. It took a complete breakdown for me to figure it out.

I grew up in the Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts––the middle daughter of three girls. My parents were former hippies. We were raised on organic co-op food and homeopathic medicine. Our parents didn’t even get us vaccinated as children. I was a peaceful, happy kid. My mom used to call me her “Buddha baby.” I was good at things. I was at the top of my class and a three season varsity athlete. I was a classic overachiever. I was proud of how well I could control my feelings. From an early age I felt that showing emotion was a sign of weakness so I learned how to hide it. My mom would always say, “Whoever gets needy first in a relationship loses.” I took that to mean that I should never show my vulnerability or ask others for emotional support. I’m still working to change that in my life.

I was an even-keeled child. To most people I appeared stoic, cheerful, and rather emotionally reserved. I wish I had reached out for help way sooner in my life but I was afraid to admit that there was something I couldn’t handle on my own. I didn’t understand what was happening to me and I didn’t want to bother anyone with my problems. I normalized my experience by saying to myself, “Don’t all creative people struggle sometimes? Isn’t that sensitivity just part of being an artist?”

 


 

I was nineteen years old when I experienced my first major depression. There were several triggers leading up to that first episode. I had been working on an organic farm all summer––we worked hard all day and, at night, the farm crew and I sat around the fire, drank and smoked pot. I was dating my employer at the farm who was seventeen years older than me. It was a very unhealthy relationship for someone so young. In addition to those triggers, my best friend had begun to struggle with a serious drug addiction. I became terrified that she would die. I started having trouble sleeping.

By November my sleep issues had gotten out of control and my brain was beginning to feel extremely foggy. I was in college and was struggling with my schoolwork. I was having trouble getting out of bed in the morning––I felt like there was a five hundred pound blanket on me. Basic tasks like taking a shower or doing laundry took extreme effort. I didn’t recognize that I was experiencing depression. I thought depression was sadness and I wasn’t sad; I was dull and exhausted. Maybe I had mono or cancer? The symptoms were so physical. I got various tests but nothing showed up. I didn’t see a therapist. In our family, we weren’t supposed to need therapy.

I needed an excuse to take the following semester off to hide my illness. I cashed in some bonds from my grandparents (that were intended for my education) and bought my best friend and myself tickets to Greece. At the time I told myself that I was going to Greece to try to save my best friend’s life. The truth was that I also couldn’t face my own life.

My best friend was too sick to notice how sick I was. We found some comfort in just lying around watching TV in Greek hotels. Sometimes, when I had the energy I would walk to the nearest bar. I couldn’t feel beauty. I had always had such a sense of wonder but nothing seemed to interest me anymore. I felt numb. All the color seemed to have faded out of the world.

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When I returned home I wasn’t better but at least I had the rest of the semester off. I spent most of my time watching movies. I learned to isolate that year. I turned to songwriting as the only way to express what was going on in my inner world. Songwriting became a lifeline. My songs were able to express the feelings I wasn’t conscious of yet. In one song I wrote:

Always before, when I could no longer swim I felt an arm under heavy limbs

 

Hey you, on the shore are you watching anymore? Are you gonna pull me from this?

 

I need a hand under my ribs.

I had read that, before there were asylums, people with mental illnesses used to be sent out to sea in a “Ship of Fools.” In a song by that title I wrote,

Lead me down, to the ship of fools 

 

I belong to no one but the sea tonight and my insomnia

 

Rushing madly past you full of secrets don’t let you see me this way

 

Only share my revelry, set sail when I wanna be crazy.

Looking back, I’m amazed that I was able to write these lyrics at age nineteen. It took me so many more years to realize consciously that I had an illness.

By summer my symptoms had receded and I returned to college that fall, hopeful and energized. I started recording an album of new songs called, Against the Grey. I felt sure that whatever I had been through that year was a “rite of passage” into adulthood and that things would never be that hard again.

In the years that followed, the depressions returned almost annually. Increasingly these months of depression would be followed by months of tremendous euphoria, creativity and elation. During the higher months I felt so competent, so social––gregarious and electric. I surrounded myself with creative friends who loved to drink and party. Everyone was loud and funny when they were drinking so I fit right in.

During the depressions I would isolate and tell everyone I was working on a new album so I “needed time alone.”Each year the lows got lower and the highs got higher. It was completely unsustainable. My brain was like a rubber band being stretched further and further in both directions–––until it snapped.

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It was 2006 when everything fell apart. My music career had really taken off. I had been on tour in the U.K. with several other bands––drinking and partying every night and barely sleeping. It was a textbook recipe for hypomania: spring, change in time zone, lack of sleep and a lot of pot and alcohol. I chalked my exuberance up to the glorious countryside and the fact that my musical dreams were coming true. I began to feel that I had a mystical connection to everything and everyone.

When I returned to Boston I was completely exhausted. All I needed now was some quiet time to rest and recover but I was unable to sleep. My brain felt fractured and disoriented. I couldn’t remember how to use the washing machine. I couldn’t figure out how to pack a suitcase.

I called my mom and said, “There’s something wrong with my brain. I need to come home and get help.” My mom met me at the door of my childhood home. I could see the fear cross her face. She had never seen me look so frightened and so lost.

At first my family gave me Valerian root tea, fresh co-op food, rescue remedy and salt baths. My sisters helped me realize that homeopathic medicine wasn’t going to solve the problem this time. They got me to the hospital where I checked myself in and was properly diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder. Instead of feeling relieved to finally understand what I had been battling all those years and to have a course of treatment, I felt extreme shame and terror. All I wanted was to escape from that experience. I was horrified that I was putting my family through this drama and I was convinced that everyone in my small hometown would know I was in the hospital. I had always made such a tremendous effort to make my parents proud of me and now I felt that I was failing them.

I began medication immediately. Despite my mistrust of Western medicine, I was desperate for anything that would give me some relief from the insomnia. All I wanted was for my brain to start working properly so I could deal with the problem on my own. What I learned was that finding the correct medications is often a very frustrating experience of trial and error. I remember thinking, “If doctors can transplant hearts then why can’t they make me sleep?”Sleep seemed like such a simple request and yet none of the sleeping medications were working.

That summer was hell. All I wanted was for the suffering to end. I felt that I was trapped in a burning building. My body was catatonically depressed but my brain was on fire––racing in tight loops of anxiety. Nothing made sense anymore. For seven weeks I couldn’t sleep or think properly.

At one point between hospitalizations I was alone at my mom’s house for a few minutes. (When we were kids, she had told us there was quicksand in the pond behind her house. I think that was an urban legend in our neighborhood. My mom had even written a poem about it.) In a total break from reality I ran out through the back woods into the water believing I would disappear. I waded out to the center of the pond and the water only reached my chin. I stood perfectly still and waited. There was no quicksand. I remember those few moments in the pond vividly. The pond was my still point––it was the eye of the hurricane. I ran out there thinking I would die but something else happened. I hit rock bottom, but there was also something incredibly beautiful and spiritual about that experience.

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I stood there in the water and listened to the sound of the mourning doves calling. I felt like I was suddenly awake in the dream. I remember thinking, “I must look like a water lily.”I remember thinking how strange it was that the water only reached my chin and that this pond that had terrified me throughout my childhood was harmless. The lyrics from a song I had written ten years earlier, based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, came into my mind. The song is called “Song to Ophelia,”

Ophelia jump not into the water, the river is deep and you’ll go down 

 

Ophelia chase not the white bird of silence

 

The rot is in Denmark not in your heart

It seemed so strange that I had written that song so long ago. Did I somehow know I would need it one day? “The rot is in Denmark not in your heart.” I waded out of the pond and ran back through the forest. By the time I got to the house the entire family was searching for me. I must have looked like quite the tragic Ophelia character.

My sister helped me change into dry clothes and my family drove me back to the hospital. I rode quietly in the back seat of the car, feeling oddly calm. There were no free beds in the hospital that night. By the time we returned the following morning I was no longer in the eye of the hurricane. I was once more in the gale-force winds. I became convinced that I just needed to escape and to get as far away as possible so I could stop bringing this shame on my family. I was desperate to end the suffering.

 


 

Meg’s new album, “How Many Miles”, which includes this acoustic version of “Seeing Stars” is available for purchase in iTunes and on Amazon.

Follow this link to read part two of Meg Hutchinson’s journey of recovery, to learn about life after her breakdown and the tools and talents she utilizes to cope.

 


 

EDITOR IN CHIEF: Bud Clayman | EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PHOTOGRAPHY: Stephan Hoglund
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Meg Hutchinson

Meg Hutchinson is an award-winning songwriter, poet and recording artist on Red House Records and has toured widely in North America and Europe. Meg is a mental health advocate and member of the Active Minds Speakers Bureau. Meg speaks about recovery and mental health literacy at conferences, schools and hospitals nationwide. She is currently a Dean's Fellow in the Mdiv program at Boston University's School of Theology training to become an interfaith chaplain. Learn more on her website at meghutchinson.com.

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  • Holli Smith Boyd-White

    Meg thank you for sharing. I also have bipolar and my daughter is currently hospitalized for suicide attempt. It is exhausting and I can relate to the shameful feelings. Somehow it feels we brought this upon ourselves at times.

  • Pat Montgomery

    Sounds like my ten years of right-brain dominance that I had after a driver turned in front of me as we were trying to make a yellow light and crushed my front tire. I was O.K. but didn’t know that my pedals got slightly crooked. I rode that bike all that summer to a job 15 miles away until school started again in the Fall. Eventually I junked the bike and figured it out but didn’t know what was to follow for 10 years. I am left handed and love to go to concerts so naturally had a strong right brain which connects us with rhythm and society. Soon my left eyes had a sort of numbness and I sensed some issue when the booze didn’t seem to work and the band stopped playing during an encore once when I felt really bad but didn’t let anybody know it so I left the bar. Eventually after losing jobs and thinking people in desks at work near me were getting all giddy on the phone, I was on my last leg about to sell my house and leave town for a job I was at a convention center show downtown selling books for my mom–the booth next to me had a picture of a person with a huge brain half and the other half was smaller looking and viola–that was how I felt! Also one time at a bar, I felt like one eye was on the floor and a friend seemed to pick it up for me and kind of cursed me out or something….really weird! Anyway I went to that booth and it was called Alphabiotics and the guy said they had a school down in Texas that only taught one neck move to them. He had me lean on a slanted board and he checked each hip to show me one side was near an inch lower than the other side which can seem like one leg is longer than the other! He said I was right brain dominant and for the $5 show rate (usually over $20) he did the neck correction kind of like a chiropractic move and fixed me. He said it causes a burst of alpha brain particles around the brain that fixes the imbalance immediately. He said this imbalance that works it’s way up the body to the brain can start from child birth in a lot of people but I knew right away it was that damn bike I rode all summer (The driver did stop to see if I was O.K. but being from a large family of ten, I didn’t want to make a fuss and only showing a bent front tire, told her don’t worry I’m almost home and could fix the bike no issue–but should have held her accountable for her actions and got a new bike from insurance!) It cured me.

  • Camille Harris

    I am so grateful you made it through this tumultuous time in your life, Meg. Your story and your work will literally save many, many lives, especially the lives of college students who are vulnerable at that age to onset of bipolar disorder. I am sharing your story right now with a college student who needs to hear about your experience. He may be bipolar, but one of his parents is in denial about that possibility. He is really suffering. Thank you again!

  • Teresa Huggett

    I have been struggling with my depression since the loss of my father in 2011 a week before Christmas. My dad was my hero and when I.lost him my whole life fell apart. I had to look after my mother as she took.it pretty hard in 2014 my mother passed away. And it has made my depression worse. And it’s hard to explain to people that don’t understand,what I’m.going through. Losing both of my parents has made a really bad impact in my life. I’m inspired by this story I have jus read and it makes me realise that I’m not the only one that suffers with this terrible illness if only I had the words to say to let everyone know how depression has impacted my life it might make my life a little easier to live and to know that I’m ok and I will survive

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