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Meg Hutchinson: Life on the Living Side

Christine Armstrong, Media Relations Associate, NAMIMeg Hutchinson

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 my own.

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 medication.

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 educate themselves.

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 upheaval.

Find out more about Meg Hutchinson and her music on her website or MySpace page.

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