Meg Hutchinson: Life on the Living Side
Christine Armstrong, Media Relations Associate, NAMI
Meg Hutchinson, an award-winning singer-songwriter, has released a new album, The Living Side, a rich storytelling journey that includes songs that speak intimately to Megís own experiences living with bipolar disorder.
Hutchinsonís evocative lyrics and strong folk influence have earned
her comparisons to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Mary Chapin Carpenter. The Living Side
is simultaneously a deeply personal narrative and a barometer of the
current social and political climate. Her songs are always reflective,
often haunting, but also hopeful.
How have you channeled some of your experiences living with bipolar disorder into you music?
I experienced my first intense depression at 19. I
knew something severe was going on and I first tried to see if it was
something physical, like mono or chronic fatigue. I mostly kept it to
myself. I would hunker down when it hit, for months at a time. Ö
Music helped me feel not so lonely. Looking back, itís painfully
clear what was going on. Music was a safer way to express what was
going on while trying to be the sunny, happy-go-lucky kid. That was the
image I was trying to uphold.
I used music as a way to start processing devastating feelings and
spin them into something useful. It wasnít until 2006, when I had a
break and was hospitalized, that I could claim the emotions in song as
Some people living with mental illness who are also artists
fear that medication will stifle or compromise their creativity. Can
one strike a balance in terms of being both healthy and artistically
honest and productive?
This is a really tricky issue. First, thereís no reason we should
destroy our lives to remain creative, to make visceral art. Too often
people in the arts take their own lives.
I had some concerns about taking medication, but my experiences with
my illness had been more terrifying than any other consequences. I
actually discovered that I used to lose huge chunks of time creatively
because of depression, in terms of time and touring, but the stability
of medications allowed me to have a more consistent creative life. I
also think my recent songs stand up to the songs I wrote prior to using
I do sometimes miss the intense heat of mania, but with support, Iíve
found a balance in my medication where I can experience a full
emotional range. I do think itís important to advocate for yourself in
terms of medications.
The Living Side, the title of your newly released album,
is also a phrase repeated in the song ďAt First it was Fun.Ē The song
evokes the image of Icarus flying too close to the sun, perhaps a
metaphor for the highs associated with mania.
At first it was fun, I glued my feathers on
I flew up toward the sun, never getting too warm
At first the great thrill, finally the big top
I walked the high wire, never looking down
Until the day, it all fell away
Oh I miss the ride
But I promise to stay, yeah I promise to stay on the living side
In 2005 I had my first taste of hypomania.
I had this feeling of "Iím kind of untouchable, this is so magical." I experienced how intoxicating mania can be.
Thereís a kind of grief when you have to let that go, the natural
cycle is to go very low after mania. Thereís a grief in choosing not to
be addicted to that. I miss it; it was seductive. This rich experience
has taught me something about the living sideóthis is a
life-threatening illness. I know itís the right choice.
How do you manage your bipolar disorder when youíre traveling on the road for performances?
I have an intensely challenging schedule; I will perform at more
than 130 shows this year. I visualize how Iíll manage each dayólike
using sports psychology.
I try to get good sleep each night. Alcohol is a risk in touring
life and Iíve found that drinking less has had a good impact on my
sleep quality. Iíll nap for a few hours, pass on an early interview.
Itís important to get my own time, alone on the road. Sometimes Iíll
spend the extra money to sleep in a hotel. Itís worth it to splurge if
itís going to help my sanity.
What kind of support do you find to be most helpful?
My sister was finishing up her master's in social work when I was
diagnosed, and she really supported me. My family made the effort to
We can be so unforgiving of ourselves, thinking we can relieve a
burden on our family through suicide and it doesnít matter how much
work serious mental illness creates for family, nothing is worse than
leaving. Trust that they would rather support you than see you leave.I feel that the system failed me most in between inpatient and
recovery. I had no structured place to go to get my feet on the ground. I
recently visited the Genesis Club,
a clubhouse in Worcester, Massachusetts and itís a wonderful place.
There are 350 clubhouses in the world and theyíre growing.
What would you say to someone who recently may have been diagnosed with a mental illness?
Looking back at when I was diagnosed, I felt like I had created it,
that I was failing everyone. It almost broke my heart to hear success
stories because I felt I couldnít get there.
Be gentle with yourself and trust your mind will heal. I
really thought that I couldnít function again the way I had. Remind
yourself that the healing will happen, so slowly at first that it may
not be tangible.
There are many extremes in the media showing the monster of mental
illness, so at the time I was diagnosed, mental illness sounded like a
death sentence. I didnít know of high-functioning, positive models.
Theyíre all around us, living well. A diagnosis is not the end of life.
Thereís an opportunity to get even better than you were prior to a
breakóto be healthier, have a better perspective on life. Mental
illness presents an opportunity for growth. Itís painful, but itís a
spiritual wake-up call that you may not have paid attention to prior to
Find out more about Meg Hutchinson and her music on her website or MySpace page.