Musician Meg Hutchinson will share her personal experience with bipolar disorder at community-wide conference on mental health
By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor
Boston-based singer and songwriter Meg Hutchinson experienced her first major depression at the age of 19, and experienced almost annual bouts of depression for years — which she managed to hide from family and friends.
“I had been a very sunny, happy kid and it was really shocking to start dealing with depression,” Hutchinson told the AJW. “In my first experience of it, I really thought there had to be a physical reason, like chronic fatigue or mono. I couldn’t accept it as a mental illness.”
Hutchinson’s struggles continued until her breaking point at age 28 “when it got to a reckoning point when I really had to accept I needed help.” She was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Hutchinson will be the keynote speaker at the Twin Cities Jewish Community 11th Annual Conference on Mental Health, titled “See Us Now: Creating Harmony in Our Lives,” on Nov. 13 at Temple Israel in Minneapolis. As part of the keynote, she will perform selections from her latest album, The Living Side, which was produced by St. Paul-based Red House Records.
The conference will be presented by the Mental Health Education Project, a program of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis (JFCS) and Jewish Family Service of St. Paul (JFS), and will feature two sessions of workshops that will cover more than 20 different topics — from community resources, child development and bullying, to body issues, emotional wellness and coping strategies.
The American Jewish World is a media sponsor of the event.
Hutchinson will also present “See Me Now,” a pre-conference special performance, on Saturday, Nov. 12 at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. Rabbi Morris Allen will speak, and a dessert and coffee reception will follow.
Though she suffered in silence for years, Hutchinson wants to speak out now to help others experiencing a similar situation.
“There’s no way that I can go back to that 19-year-old self and comfort her and tell her that it’s not her failure and tell her that she can talk to her family,” Hutchinson said. “But if there’s a way that I can now reach out to other people who may still be struggling with that shame, then I feel like my own illness might be of benefit to more than myself.”
Growing up in western Massachusetts, Hutchinson had always relied on music to make sense of her emotions. Though she has very little formal music education, she inherited her grandmother’s Martin guitar when she was 11 and also learned to play the piano.
The majority of her music is played by ear, a process of exploration and discovery.
“Half the time I don’t know what key I’m playing in or what chords I’m playing, but I know instinctually what the mood is that I’m going for,” Hutchinson said.
Later, she found songwriting as a way to complete her poetry.
“The music became this way to finish the feeling,” Hutchinson said. “I never felt like my poems were complete. I felt like language was always somehow failing me in some little way and music has these universal underlying emotions that I think we respond to — across cultures even.”
When Hutchinson first started dealing with symptoms of mental illness, she saw her music as “this incredible medicine.” But in her late 20s, she began experiencing highs in addition to depressions.
“They were mild early on, but the swing got stronger,” Hutchinson said. “In 2005, I definitely reached this kind of luminous, transcendent, euphoric place that was different than anything I’d experienced. And that’s when the higher you go, the lower you fall.”
And even music couldn’t lift Hutchinson from her darkest depths when she experienced her breakdown at 28 — a time when she was “definitely suicidal.”
“It was like if I had been starving for a year and someone was cooking in the next room or if a building was on fire and I just wanted relief from it in my mind,” she said. “There was no instinct to punish anyone and there was no violent streak in me. It was just this desperate need for quiet.”
Hutchinson endured six weeks of insomnia at the time and it took several years for her mind to calm itself after the experience. It’s been five years since then and she acknowledges that hers is not some “miracle story” of recovery, rather a journey of self-discovery.
“I would say it’s daily work and I would also say I’ve learned more about myself as a result of that than I ever would have,” Hutchinson said. “I firmly believe that an illness can be a window for growth and can be an opportunity to change your whole lifestyle and to possibly live in a more healthy way than you ever would have.”
However, Hutchinson said that a stigma of mental illness still exists — and that’s something she wants to address by sharing her story.
“It hasn’t been easy, it’s not something that came naturally in the beginning to talk about,” she said. “There was a lot of shame and I’m a very private person in ways. But if there’s a way that I can talk to those young people, especially before they reach that breaking point, and if there’s a way in general, in some tiny way, that I can contribute to lifting the stigma — I think the stigma might be one of the biggest causes of suicide, so that’s something I really care strongly about trying to prevent.”
Hutchinson stressed that mental illness can happen to anyone and it doesn’t need to define who a person is. And through her music, Hutchinson presents a more universal way to talk about all of the things we experience, not just mental illness.
“Those highs and those lows, we all feel them to a certain degree in our lives, even if we’re not grappling with a mood disorder,” she said. “There’s a Rumi poem that I borrow for one song [on The Living Side] and the chorus of it is ‘Search the darkness, don’t run from it / The night traveler is full of light.’ And that’s what I think of that record. If you’re brave enough to go right into the darkness, you kind of start to rely on your own inner light and it’s there.”
The Twin Cities Jewish Community 11th Annual Conference on Mental Health will take place 12:30 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13 at Temple Israel, 2324 Emerson Ave. S., Minneapolis. The conference is free and open to the community. For information, visit: www.jfcsmpls.org; to reserve transportation from the St. Paul JCC, call JFS at 651-698-0767.
“See Me Now,” a pre-conference special performance, will take place 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12 at the Cedar Cultural Center, 416 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis. For tickets, visit: www.thecedar.org/about/tickets.
(American Jewish World, 10.28.11)