Seeing Stars: Meg Hutchinson & Bipolar Disorder
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.