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Songwriter Meg Hutchinson explores mental illness in new documentary

Songwriter Meg Hutchinson
Photo by Stephan Hoglund
Meg Hutchinson: "I’ve been living with mental illness for 18 years. It took nine years for me to realize that I needed help. I had to hit rock bottom first."

For years, singer-songwriter Meg Hutchinson’s poetry and music indirectly explored her own struggles with mental illness, touching on her young life’s many high highs and low lows. Art was all the therapy the internationally acclaimed Hutchison thought she needed — until suddenly it wasn’t, and she came crashing to the ground.

In a new documentary, “Pack Up Your Sorrows: A Story of Illness, Hope and Transformation,” filmmakers Todd Kwait and Rob Stegman teamed with Hutchinson to tell the story of her diagnosis with bipolar I disorder and interview top scientists about the latest research on the origins and treatment of mental illness.   

The film is being screened nationwide. Next Friday, Nov. 20 at 6:30 p.m., Hutchinson will make a stop in St. Paul for a screening and discussion at the Wellstone Center. The event is hosted by NAMI Minnesota.

I spoke with Hutchinson earlier this week. She talked about how she got involved in the making of “Pack Up Your Sorrows” (“I wrote the filmmakers a letter and said, ‘If you ever need an intern on your next project I’d be happy to be the coffee girl.’”), about her plans for the future (she’s studying to become a hospital chaplain at Boston University), and her strategies for coping with her mental illness.

MinnPost: Why are you screening your film in the Twin Cities?

Meg Hutchinson: My record label, Red House Records, is based in the Twin Cities. I’ve done three albums with them now. They have a strong network there, and that naturally led to connecting with some of the local mental health organizations. A few years ago, I did my first big mental health keynote-speaking event at a conference in Minneapolis.

It was a turning point for me. To do this, I had to build my confidence to get up there without my guitar, without my poetry and speak directly about my experiences with mental illness. I am so used to cloaking personal experiences in songs. There is more safety in putting it in a poetic form. And then suddenly I was up there and saying, “These are the plain facts of what I have experienced.”

MP: Can you tell me about your journey with mental illness?

MH: I’ve been living with mental illness for 18 years. It took nine years for me to realize that I needed help. I had to hit rock bottom first. I’d been writing about mental illness in my songs since I was 19 years old, but it took me nine years to acknowledge that, to be honest about how I’d been feeling and finally get diagnosed properly.

MP: Why did it take so long for you to get diagnosed?

MH: Until I was 19 I had a very positive childhood. I was a very even-keeled and happy kid. To develop these kinds of issues, to feel so deeply depressed, was very shocking to me. You learn your role in a family early on. I was the middle sister and the mellow one. My mom called me her “golden child.” I was the kid who didn’t need anything and wasn’t a problem. You realize that this is your role in the family and you have to keep up this expectation.

When you are first grappling with these sorts of symptoms you tell yourself things like, “This is what everyone feels when they are down. You should be tough. I can hide this. Fake it till you make it.”  But as the years went on, my symptoms kept getting more and more difficult to manage on my own. Pretty soon the highs were starting to get above normal and the lows were getting tougher. It took nine years to get to a point where I could no longer hide the symptoms.

MP: What was happening in your life then?  

MH: I was turning to my art as a way to express my illness and work with it. I kept feeling so much shame and fear. I was having had a hard time accepting that this was something that I didn’t have any control over. My family culture was super-organic, homeopathic. There was this subtle message of, “We don’t need therapy in our family. This is how we deal with these things.” 

Mental illness is not something that I was raised to address head-on. I needed to get professional help. This was not an issue where the answer was, “Eat more kale, go on more nature walks. You’ll be fine,” but I treated it like it was. 

MP: So what did rock bottom feel like for you?

MH: I was touring really heavily during that time. My music career had taken off. I wasn’t living the most stable lifestyle. I’d been higher that spring than I’d ever been. I was on tour in England and I’d been drinking and partying and staying up all night. I was on top of the world. I thought I was a rock star.

I thought, “All of these earlier mental health challenges were worth it.” But when I came home from that trip I stopped being able to sleep at all. I quickly spiraled into a mixed state where I was both manic and depressed simultaneously.

I thought it was early onset Alzheimer’s. I’d get lost in my neighborhood. I couldn’t remember how the knobs were supposed to work on the washing machine. When I couldn’t get the sleep situation under control after a number of days, I made the bravest call I have ever made in my life. I called my mom and said, “I’m coming home. Something’s really wrong with my brain.”

MP: How did your family react?

MH: Certain family members were able to recognize the problem more quickly than others. My younger sister was working on her MSW at Smith. She was able to cut through some of these family cultural issues and say, “It’s time to go to the hospital. We need to get you help.” Both of my sisters helped me make that step.

I wasn’t showing any of the symptoms that the rest of my family connected with mental illness. They had made all these assumptions about what mental illness looked like. They said, “This couldn’t be happening to our straight-A student, our star-athlete kid. It must be something else.”  

MP: That’s probably a pretty common reaction from parents.

MH: I run into this all the time with my advocacy work. Parents want their kids to be OK, and if their kids aren’t OK, they think it may be their fault as parents. They want to solve their children’s problems as fast as they can.

One of the best things my sisters were able to do was to tell our parents, “We need to get Meg to people who are trained to help.” This is not a role that parents can fulfill. They can give the their children unconditional love, but they can’t give the other kind of care.

MP: Once you were hospitalized, what happened next?

MH: The first step was getting a diagnosis of bipolar I disorder. It was resoundingly clear to me once I started reading about it. I thought, “This makes so much sense.” It was a feeling of, “Now I understand the feelings I’ve been shadowboxing with all these years.”

But it still took time to come to terms with it. When I was first diagnosed, I thought, “This is what I am now,” but eventually I was able to come to terms with the fact that this is something I’m managing, like diabetes. A lot of acceptance came with realizing that this is a little part of who I am. Eventually I reclaimed the other pieces of myself that had been pushed to the side. The more confident I became that I was able to manage this illness, the less shame I had about it. I had been so close to the abyss. As the years went by, I felt more confident.

MP: How do you manage your bipolar today?

MH: I’ve learned how to manage it with both traditional and alternative therapies. I take medication. I’ve also started to study with a Tibetan lama. Now I go to his meditation center to study meditation practices. I’ve studied with him for six years now.

The real turning point of reframing the illness for me started when, instead of thinking, “At my core I’m sick,” I began to think, “At my core I’m well.” The mediation practice allowed me to see the mind at being separate from the brain. That’s one of the gifts that came out of Eastern philosophy for me.

MP: Tell me more about this brain-mind separation.

MH: We have all these different names for mental illness but what it really is is an illness of the brain. This illness can get severe enough to cloud our consciousness, but it is important to see the mind and the brain as two distinct things. For me, it’s important for me to see mental illness as a biological illness, a genetic illness that runs in my family. It’s a physical disorder. Realizing that it is a disease of the brain takes away so much of the shame for me. It’s like having epilepsy. The same drug that treats epilepsy is one of the primary medications that used to treat bipolar disorder.

MP: Does it help to think of your mental illness as a chronic illness?

MH: I don’t know. “Chronic illness” sounds really heavy. For me, it helps to think of it like diabetes, like something you have to manage diligently. And I want to think that there is the possibility of recovery. For me, that’s where the word “chronic” gets in the way, because I want to think that many people with mental illness can heal to the point where they think of themselves as well people.

In the film, we focus on the impact of meditation on the brain. With meditation, you can actually be reshaping and re-sculpting pathways in your brain. That does give the possibility of continued recovery, not this static sense of just managing an illness but the possibility of reshaping your brain.

MP:  You said you were a straight-A student, a star athlete, your mother’s “golden child.” Are you putting the same kind of intense energy into your mental health advocacy?

MH: The mental health work feels like one part of my life where I do work hard at it but because I’m so passionate about it but it feels different from my other achievements. After I hit rock bottom, I came out the experience feeling that I had a responsibility to help others. When you get close to losing your life to something because of shame and stigma and lack of education, you have a responsibility to share that story. We have to make these changes, to encourage people to speak up and lose the shame. If we can do that, we can save a lot of lives. That’s the basis for my drive.

MP: How have audiences reacted to your film?

MH: When I’m at a screening, we always offer time for questions and conversation afterward. Those conversations have been really powerful. You just sense that there is so much relief when people have the opportunity to speak openly about what’s happening in their own families and their own lives.

We just showed the film last night in Boston and the conversation was great. So many people are eager to talk about mental illness, and yet we don’t have enough public forums. There is almost no life that goes untouched by mental illness in some way, yet we as a society are still uncomfortable talking about it in ordinary life. The conversations after the film have been so rewarding and moving.

Seats are still available for the Nov. 20 screening of “Pack Up Your Sorrows.” To purchase tickets, go here.

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Comments (1)

thanks for bringing greater awareness and hope

Another wonderful piece to help bring greater public awareness of mental illness and how it can be treated. Thanks, Andy.