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An Interview with Meg Hutchinson on Music and living with Bipolar Disorder

David Van Nuys, Ph.D.
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Meg HutchinsonDr. Van Nuys interviews singer-songwriter Meg Hutchinson about her music and her life with Bipolar Disorder. Ms. Hutchinson, an accomplished artist with six solo albums under her belt, grew up in a home with a great record collection focused on singer-songwriters and inherited her grandmother's guitar when she was 11 years old; in her mind a signal that she should become a musician. She loves the genre for the freedom it offers her to relate her personal experience to the events of the day. Similarly, she treasures her ability to retain creative control over her career and musical choices.

As this is an interview series focused on mental health, Ms. Hutchinson talks about her experience with Bipolar Disorder. She experienced her first substantial depression at age 19. While bipolar is normally associated with swings between depressive and manic mood episodes, Ms. Hutchinson experienced mostly depressive states until her late 20's in the aftermath of her beloved grandmother's death at which point she had her first experience of mania, then profound depression, then a mixed state, then depression again, this time severe enough that hospitalization was required. It was at this point that her condition was officially diagnosed. In the years before her diagnosis she was fairly secretive and defensive about her episodes, viewing them as par for the course for an artist, or due to some physical condition. It took some months for the meaning of the diagnosis to sink in, but when it did, she felt more at peace with herself, recognizing finally that her condition was not her fault, and that she was not a weak person for accepting treatment. She was helped to this understanding through therapy and a supportive network of family and friends. Today she recognizes the importance of carefully managing her sleep and limiting her alcohol intake. She also continues to balance her ambition and desire to take on many committments with the practical demands of maintaining her emotional balance.

The interview contains lyrics and an audio clip of the song "Be Happy" from her recent "The Living Side" release which concerns her evolving relationship with Bipolar Disorder; her ambivalence regarding the mood episodes, her compassion for herself, her acceptance of medication as a part of her treatment, etc.

David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.

On today's show, we'll be talking with singer-songwriter Meg Hutchinson about her experiences with bipolar disorder. In 1997, at age 19, Meg Hutchinson experienced her first of many depressions, but she did not seek treatment. In 2005, the almost annual periods of depression began to get worse and were followed by periods of hypomania. In the spring of 2006, on the heels of a tour in Europe and a series of personal life triggers, Hutchinson tumbled into a mixed state with weeks of insomnia and ultimately an incapacitating depression. She was hospitalized by July of that year, and after several months of treatment and therapy in and out of a mental health facility, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Hutchinson spent 2007 recuperating, writing, walking with her dog, and making peace with this new knowledge and the resulting dramatic changes in her life. By year's end, she began recording a new album, Come Up Full. She returned to performing live shows and she was signed to legendary folk label Red House Records. In March 2008 she released Come Up Full, and in the year that followed she played 132 shows and appeared on numerous radio programs, travelling across the United States, Canada, Ireland, and the UK.

Meg Hutchinson's songs have received many awards and have been featured by iTunes Essentials and Songwriter Spotlight. Her last two albums have charted on Billboard, Amazon, iTunes, and Folk Radio. Her voice is heard by passengers on in-flight stations on major airlines and in national television advertising. She just released her newest album, The Living Side, in February of 2010.

It has taken years for Meg Hutchinson to navigate graceful openness about her struggles and to learn to maintain a healthy private life while balancing a successful and demanding career. Contrary to the romanticized myth of the tortured artist, she does not believe a person needs to be destroyed by their mental illness in order to produce work that is vivid and complex. Now, here's the interview.

Meg Hutchinson, welcome to Wise Counsel.

Meg Hutchinson: Thank you so much. It's great to be talking with you.

David: Likewise, and I'm especially pleased to speak with you because I'm a long-time fan of folk music, and you are a singer-songwriter in the folk genre. Is that right? Do I have that right?

Meg Hutchinson: Absolutely, yes. I think it's always a challenge to figure out how we define our music now. Do we call it contemporary folk, singer-songwriter, but I would certainly identify with the word folk music still.

David: Oh, that's good, yes, and I can understand that dilemma. Now, I understand that you've also struggled with bipolar disorder, and of course given the nature of this podcast series, I'm going to want to discuss that with you, but let's start out with your background and how you got into music.

Meg Hutchinson: Sure. So, you know, it's very hard to kind of pick one moment in time where I decided I was a musician and a writer. I think it's something that kind of emerged sort of gradually in my life, and I like to say I never chose it. Somehow it almost chose me. I inherited my -

David: Well, what about your parents? Were your parents musicians at all?

Meg Hutchinson: They were hippies. You know, former hippies too, who had great record collections. And my father's mother taught guitar for many years, and when she passed away, I inherited her guitar at age 11, 10 or 11.

David: Oh.

Meg Hutchinson: And that had a huge effect. You know, I'd been taking guitar lessons for under a year, and the fact that I inherited this beautiful old Martin guitar from her has this profound, inspiring effect on me as a little kid, and I thought, well, I'd better do something with this. You know, this is a signal that I should pursue music.

David: Yes. As someone who had some folk musician aspirations starting in college, I know about Martin guitars and it's wonderful that you inherited an older Martin. Those are just the best thing to have.

Meg Hutchinson: It's beautiful. Yes, it's a '57 018 Martin and just sounds like a bell. And I'm afraid to put it on an airplane, but I've used it on my records, and I feel like somehow it holds the songs that my grandmother didn't get to write, you know, being in a different generation and raising kids and working in an almond packing factory in Chico, California, among other things. You know, she didn't have the luxury of getting in her car and driving around the country the way I do, so I listened for the songs in that guitar that didn't get written.

David: Oh, that's - I like that image. Now, were you initially drawn to folk music? Or did that come later?

Meg Hutchinson: That was certainly what I was steeped in, I think. You know, my parents were always playing Greg Brown and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne, and I was surrounded by that. However, I certainly went through a period of years where I didn't think it was very cool, you know, and I definitely argued with them about what we should listen to in the car.

David: Right.

Meg Hutchinson: And I wanted to hear Top 40 radio, a little Mariah Carey, and that was - it took me years again to return to realizing how much I loved that music and how much it had formed me, and especially that they chose musicians who were strong writers. It was really - you know, my parents are both writers and teachers, and they value words so much, and that's kind of how they chose the musicians that they liked. So that had a huge influence on me.

David: What is it about the folk genre that speaks to you?

Meg Hutchinson: It's interesting because I think - I would say folk music started as kind of this vehicle for political change, and then it seemed to turn into a much more personal genre for a number of years there - more confessional, if you will. And now I feel like it's kind of come back to this nice balance as a medium both expressing again some very political things in our current crisis time, and also still being a wonderful way to explore emotional lives. So that's something I think I've really been examining in my own work: you know, how do I use this to talk about the bigger questions, the bigger issues? And how do I use the lens of my own emotional experience to look at the bigger picture?

David: That's what I've always loved about folk music, is to me it talks about real life stuff instead of it all being - you know, Top 40 it's all about romance and puppy love, it seems like that's - and after awhile that just wears thin, whereas folk music historically just covers such a wider range of issues - political, historical, everyday life. That's what I love about it.

Meg Hutchinson: Absolutely. I think we have so much more freedom in that medium, and we're also not being told what to write and what's a hit song. You know, we're not being influenced by major labels and controlled, and I think there's a lot more integrity in our work because we have that creative freedom. Even now, being on Red House Records, one of the things that really drew me to them is that they fully believe in the artist having creative freedom, and they really stay out of the recording and writing process and let you follow your muse, and that's a real luxury as a writer.

David: Oh, yes, that's rare and wonderful. Well, as you were coming up, you mentioned a few musicians, but who were your influences, your musical influences, as you were developing your style?

Meg Hutchinson: Well, certainly those early records that, you know, I didn't choose, but my parents chose - I'd have to say Joni Mitchell and her album Blue had a very big impact on me. Greg Brown to this day is one of my very favorite songwriters. He's not as well known. He's not a household name, but I think he's one of the very strongest songwriters working today, and of course, that's how I first fell in love with Red House Records because he was the very first and founding musician on the label.

I also in my late - or I guess it would be my early teens, I heard Shawn Colvin for the first time, and that really struck a chord for me, to hear a woman writing about contemporary things and writing about her - maybe even her darker emotions in a way that was still artistic. I didn't feel like it was confessional in a way that was overbearing or hard to listen to, and so her record, Steady On, really opened a window for me, as well as Tracy Chapman at that time, and this whole kind of new group of female songwriters around that time period really influenced me and started me.

David: How about today? Do you have any favorite folk musicians these days?

Meg Hutchinson: I think I have too many favorites. I always stumble with this question because there are so many people. You know, certainly people like David Gray, who've really come into pop culture in a way; I still really, really love his work, and I'd have to say also Patty Griffin. I just absolutely adore her songwriting and have great respect for her. And then my peers. You know there's a very strong scene in New England, as I'm sure you know, and my fellow songwriters here, people like Anais Mitchell and Antje Duvekot and Anne Heaton, and these are the people that challenge me to get better at my craft daily and that I get to collaborate with. So there are so many of those artists that are influencing me now as much as any better known artists.

David: You're in New England now. You mentioned - earlier you mentioned California, which is I guess where you grew up. Where are you exactly in New England?

Meg Hutchinson: Actually, I'm in Boston now, and I grew up in western Mass. My father's family's from California, and my mother spent most of her childhood in Connecticut, so they chose the Berkshires out in western Mass, and that happens to be a beautiful area in a place that was pretty hard to leave, really. You know it's a very small town, but I got kind of the best of both worlds having this sleepy, quiet town in the winter and then this really thriving kind of cultural scene in the summer there.

David: Yes, and Boston is such a - and has long been - a hub for music and for folk music. Now, you just brought out a CD quite recently called The Living Side. What's that title about - the living side?

Meg Hutchinson: Well, that line comes from the "At First It Was Fun," and that's a song that really explores bipolar and explores the more intoxicating side, I think, of bipolar - the more manic side, if you will. And there are a lot of references in that song to, you know, at first it was fun: I glued my feathers on; I flew up toward the sun, never getting too warm - talking about Icarus, you know.

David: Yes.

Meg Hutchinson: And that feeling that you're just - that nothing can stop you. Before I realized what I was dealing with, I just found those spells of kind of a lightning and electricity and creativity to be so intoxicating. And so that song talks about how, even now, sometimes I miss the extremes of that ride, and yet there's a lot in the song that says I promise to stay on the living side, and that's at the core of this record. It's a very optimistic record and it's a record that talks about how do you take something that's so traumatic and so difficult and use it to transform yourself, and use it to be a vehicle for positive change, spiritual growth, rather than letting it be something that stops you in your tracks and something that changes your life in a negative way. So the record really explores that for me.

David: Wonderful. And we will get into that content more in just a bit, but I'm not quite ready to leave your career yet. This isn't your first CD, is it?

Meg Hutchinson: No. It's actually - depending on what you count, I think it's about my sixth record.

David: Wow.

Meg Hutchinson: There are a couple early ones that are tucked away in my mother's attic, you know, that may or may not see the light of day again. But this is the third studio album that I've made with producer Crit Harmon, and prior to that I had a live record and two other home-recorded records. And then I put out an EP with several fellow women songwriters that was a holiday record last Christmas. So, yes, this is quite a ways in, actually, to my recording career.

David: Yes, I'm under the impression that it's hard to make it in music, let alone folk music. How's that been for you? Has it been a struggle?

Meg Hutchinson: I think I've had to rephrase that entire question for myself, and ask myself what does "making it" mean. And if making it means financially making it, then it's easy to be discouraged because everything I make goes right back into the business. However, making it has started to mean something very different for me, and I think that's the way that I've maintained my morale and really not gotten discouraged in any way by how challenging it can be. And what a time, even in our economy, to try to be an independent musician.

David: Yes.

Meg Hutchinson: You know, it's tougher even now than ever, I think, because people don't have the same disposable income, and people are sharing music files, so you don't have the same CD sales that you would have had even 10 years ago. But I think, that aside, for me making it is much more now about how do I continue to get better at my craft, but also how do I use my writing to transform myself. And then, hopefully, how do I write something that, in the process of helping me, might be useful to someone else and might resonate with them? It's about changing that to be the goal has really taken the pressure off any kind of commercial success.

David: Yes, I can see that - sure, that makes sense, and it really makes sense to pay attention to that as the main thing, and commercial success may or may not be a byproduct, but if it's nourishing you and giving you an outlet, a place for your soul to speak, then I think that's great and that should be the prime focus as long as you can keep it that way. Now, I know back in the day, the coffeehouse circuit used to be very important for folk performers. Were you ever on that circuit? Is that still an important factor?

Meg Hutchinson: Definitely, it's still a very strong feature, especially in New England. You know so many of the churches around here, especially the Unitarian churches, open their doors to a monthly songwriter coffeehouse series, and that's going strong. I mean some of them have been going for 30 years, and that's a huge part of the touring life of a lot of musicians, especially in this part of the world. So, yes, they're still thriving.

David: Yes, and speaking of touring life, I understand you've recently returned from Europe. Were you performing there?

Meg Hutchinson: I was, yes. I went straight from a tour on the West Coast to Dublin and a tour of Ireland and then a stop in London. So that was a rigorous tour schedule, but I adore Ireland. I've been over there a number of times now and am slowly building a fan base there, and just really the whole culture in Ireland speaks to me, so as much time as I can be there.

David: Yes, me too. I've been to Ireland several times, and I feel the same way. I guess, again, my affection for folk music I guess is a big part of that probably because so much of American folk music actually has its origins in Ireland and Scotland and England. So, let's talk about your experience with bipolar disorder, then. When did you first get diagnosed?

Meg Hutchinson: I was diagnosed about four years ago, in 2006 in the summer, and I actually had my first depression at 19 years old and had really no idea yet what I was dealing with and no real way to describe that to myself or to seek treatment. And I think that, for me, has been a huge part of the battle, because I was so private about it.

You know, I thought everyone talks about depression, so this must just be similar to what other people talk about when they mean depression, and I would just kind of hunker down and isolate myself and wait for it pass. And it would take months, and I think when I was 19 I kept thinking there was something physically wrong me. I just assumed if I feel this way, I must have mono or something else, so I went through a whole round of trying to find a physical reason why I was feeling that way, because somehow I thought that would be more acceptable.

And nothing showed up, so then I was really pretty mystified, and so it was a very private kind of battle for many years and was primarily depression until 2005, where I had my first hypomanic episode, and that's when the real rollercoaster began, and that was the spring of 2005. I was very high and still not fully manic but hypomanic, and then plummeted that summer and then the following year the cycle was even more extreme, resulting in a mixed state in 2006, and then a really devastating depression and ultimately hospitalization.

David: So did it require hospitalization before you actually got the diagnosis? Or did somebody begin to suspect that this was what was going on before that crisis?

Meg Hutchinson: Well, you know, it's really interesting now. I had even written in my journal a year prior to that that I thought any doctor would say I was bipolar, but that I didn't believe in that, and that why would we want to live on some kind of numb, kind of neutral line. And I was still being very defensive in my own head about, you know, I'm an artist and this is very common to creative people, and I don't want to call it bipolar, and I don't need help - I'm going to deal with this. And so when I was actually diagnosed, which did happen once I was hospitalized, I knew it was true because I'd known it in myself subconsciously for a while and had been very defiant about accepting that. And so it felt absolutely true when they finally said it to me.

David: Was there any sense of relief when they finally said it to you?

Meg Hutchinson: No, at that moment not at all. I think I was feeling incredible shame and guilt, and I was in the throes of such a deep depression that all of those kind of textbook emotions there of failure and guilt and taking responsibility for it and it being somehow my fault, that was all really, really prominent in that summer, and it took a long time to actually accept that and really come to terms with it and really realize this isn't my fault. And I think it was only later, maybe five or six months later, where I finally just took this big sigh of relief and looked back at those years since I was 19, nearly 10 years there, and went, "Oh, that's what was happening all that time." And then suddenly this tremendous compassion for myself finally entered the picture, but it took quite a while to get to that place of gentleness with myself.

David: Yes, good. You say you got to a place where you recognized that it wasn't your fault, and that sounds really key. What helped you come to that realization? Were there other people working with you that helped you get there? Or did you just come to it on your own?

Meg Hutchinson: I had a lot of support, and that's also very key to how I navigated that first year especially, but even now how I get through it. I think it was intensive therapy; it was a very supportive family and some key friends that were just willing to talk to me about it at great length. It was just a very slow process of stepping away from it a little bit and going, wow, I didn't cause this, and understanding the genetic factors, understanding the triggers in my personal life, understanding the behavior that may have fueled it but that still didn't make it my fault.

David: What sorts of things might be triggers for you, if that's not too personal?

Meg Hutchinson: Yes, I mean, that year there were a number of things which, being in the midst of it, I couldn't tell, but now with this perspective seemed very obvious. I had lost my grandmother, who was absolutely just the center of our family and incredible kind of a woman. And it was a very magical and beautiful death. It was a very intentional farewell, and she was ready to go, and that was very inspiring to me, but also I think it was really tough. It was a tough loss in certain ways and that was in the fall of 2005.

And then 2006, I had gotten definitely too high on a tour in Europe, and the lifestyle on that tour was really bad. There was a lot of alcohol; there was a lot of sleep deprivation; and I was touring with a couple other bands, and it really got me off center. It really didn't allow me any down time. The time zone thing has always been a trigger, so there I have to watch closely. Even now, when I go to Europe that the way it changes my sleep cycle has a real effect. And I was in a relationship that started on that tour and was a tremendous source of stress, and that relationship had started directly out of the hypomanic state, so my judgment wasn't great.

David: Yes.

Meg Hutchinson: And that created tremendous pressure on me. So a combination of those things together was enough to be too much, and I only know that now.

David: Sure, so how has sort of - so now you have this condition, and you sort of it sounds like realize that it's probably going to be with you and it's something that you need to adjust your life around. How has it impacted your life? That's a big question; you can answer it any way you want.

Meg Hutchinson: Yes, it is. There's so many different sides to that. I think it took me a good year of really just looking closely at how I needed to change my schedule, how I needed to change, you know, certain things like - certainly alcohol has been something that actually I could really look at in these years. You know there's a lot of alcoholism in my family, so that genetic predisposition is there. Definitely, as we know, dual diagnosis is very common. So I was never someone who drank a ton, but I was someone who liked to drink every day. And even if that's a couple drinks, the fact that that's a part of the relationship with bipolar is something I had to really look at and ask a lot of tough questions of myself. Then the musician's lifestyle lends itself to drinking so easily.

David: Sure, sure.

Meg Hutchinson: So that's been a huge thing to reckon with, and it's taken me a number of years to come to a place where, very naturally, I've learned to limit the drinking and it actually just doesn't feel good any more. And that's been a huge triumph for me.

David: Good for you.

Meg Hutchinson: I was never one of these stumbling drunks by any means, but I just feel like there was that - there was a dependency there a little bit, and certainly I used alcohol when I was hypomanic as a way to really tamp down my mood, and the depressive quality of alcohol was something I really needed when I was feeling too high, but then, of course, we know how much that can throw you into an imbalance and into the opposite place. So that's been one thing to really look at in my life. I've pushed myself way too hard career wise. Looking back at these years, I asked a lot of myself, and playing 132 shows the year after the breakdown is not careful enough.

David: Wow. Yes.

Meg Hutchinson: And I think I was very lucky that I didn't have a relapse when I asked myself to live up to that demanding a schedule. That's something that's an ongoing conversation with my music team: how do we learn to say no to things when it's just too much? And I think we're still navigating that because there's a part of me that's very, very ambitious, and there's also a part of me that's trying to, I think, overcompensate for a perceived sense of vulnerability and try to prove that I can keep up with the best of them; like I can tour as hard as anybody else. And that kind of ambitious spirit is something I have to monitor in myself.

David: Um hmm. Somehow I found myself thinking of a film I recently saw about people climbing Everest, and one of the guys who was climbing Everest was somebody who lost his legs already and then, as a result, lost more of his already missing legs. But so, you know, that's an extreme instance of what you're talking about, of that sense of needing to prove oneself, and you know, that cuts both ways: it can be good to a certain point, but it can also go too far, can't it?

Meg Hutchinson: That's such a fitting metaphor. I mean, that's absolutely true. And something that I care about a lot is the idea of wellness, and the people that are supportive to me have done the best favor to me by focusing on the things that are going well, by treating me as a strong, capable person; not walking on eggshells around me, but also making sure that they're educated about bipolar, making sure they don't tell, oh, there's nothing wrong with you, but being sensitive to the fact that positive reinforcement goes a long way. And but, yes, the other side of that is that you try to do too much, and you push yourself too hard and so, yes, that's a great image you just gave me. Very fitting.

David: Yes. Well, you're lucky to have that strong support group around you. How has bipolar disorder impacted your music, if at all?

Meg Hutchinson: You know, it's very interesting looking back at the writing I've done since I was 18 or 19 to see that all along music has been a vehicle for understanding and exploring these very difficult emotions long before they were conscious. Music was the way that I could go in there and investigate them and talk about them without saying this is about me per se. So music was really kind of born hand-in-hand, I think, with bipolar in my life, with depression in my life, and has been this tremendous guide and friend and ally for me. Some of the songs that I wrote years ago became these friends to me during the breakdown, and they had messages in them that I had written for myself almost before I understood them.

David: Interesting.

Meg Hutchinson: So that's been fascinating to look back with a perspective I have now and go, "Oh, wow, I understand why I was writing about Ophelia," or "I understand why I wrote a song called 'Ship of Fools.'" It had a lot more clarity now than when I was talking about it.

David: Yes, that's fascinating. It's like your unconscious was communicating to you, but at that point you weren't hearing it. But it was speaking and it was coming out of your mouth, out of your hands, out of your brain.

Meg Hutchinson: It's amazing what we - you know, I think all artists would probably agree that you tap into something on a much deeper level when you kind of welcome the muse into your life, and it's a much more visceral experience and almost a secretive experience. You don't even know where the songs come from sometimes, and that gives you the permission to write about things that you may not yet understand.

David: Yes. Do you think pain or anguish is a necessary component of the creative process?

Meg Hutchinson: No, I don't, and this is something that I think about a lot, actually, because we have this very glamorous vision - sadly, glamorous vision - of the tortured artist, and how artists must have to kind of be self-destructive in order to get something that's really vivid and really striking in their art. And I totally disagree. I know a lot of working artists who are doing really well emotionally, and they don't have the same demons and they're still very creative and very successful.

I think what you need to do is be honest in your writing. I don't think you need to create more darkness than you have, and I don't think you have to - if you do have bipolar or depression, I don't think you have to fuel it in order to be a better writer. But I think you have to be honest in your work, and that's what I've tried to do, is not ignore where it comes from and not ignore that somehow bipolar's given me more emotional colors than I might have had otherwise. I like to think of it as a painter; that I have more colors on my palette because of these extreme highs and lows that I can now draw on as a writer. But I wouldn't necessarily ask for that if I had the choice, you know.

David: Right, right.

Meg Hutchinson: It was painful; it was difficult. But that's just my story, and I don't think anyone needs to create more pain in order to be a good artist.

David: But in a way you're like an alchemist taking the pain and the lead that this condition has brought into your life and transmuting it into something - into gold.

Meg Hutchinson: I like to think of it as this kind of a fairy tale thing, where you do - you take those really, really difficult places in yourself and try to spin them, try to turn them into something that, instead of kind of eating away at you, becomes something that are almost like a mantra, almost this force of encouragement and kind of deepened faith.

David: Yes, that's a challenge for all of us, because nobody gets out of this life free of trouble, anxiety, woes, losses, etc. And so that's the challenge to us, is can we grow from it? Can we find the gift that's buried in the pain? And of course that's easy for me to say, and it's much harder for us to do when we're actually in the midst of challenge.

Well, I would love for our listeners to get a sample of your work, so I was thinking maybe you could read the lyrics of one of your songs that speaks from your experience with bipolar, and then I'll follow that up with about a minute worth of the actual music from your recording. So I wonder if you have one that you could share the lyrics of?

Meg Hutchinson: Sure. I think - well, many of the songs on The Living Side do deal with these issues. I'll read you the lyrics from "Being Happy," and I think this song really asks the question or states you don't have to choose between life and art, and that you really can find the balance and find a way to be happy. I think it also explores this idea of medication and how that's challenging or not. So this is called "Being Happy."

David: Okay, good.

Meg Hutchinson: "I've been known to burn too bright. / I've been known to flash and then go dark. / I've been known to walk the edge. / I've been known to trip and fall right in. / Madness sings a siren song. / The sea it calls me, but I don't swim on. / Let the old year be behind me. / Let the old year be behind me. / What's the harm in being happy? / What's the harm in being happy? / Little pills of red and blue / drink them down, they'll give you back to you. / Sunny morning, coffee's made / cupboards full and you across the table from me. / Blossoms in the street after the rain. / You tell me I've been laughing in my sleep. / They say perfect the life or perfect the art. / But choice like that will only tear you apart. / There's room for both of you in my heart.

[Song plays]

David: Okay, well, thank you for sharing those lyrics and also it was so good to hear a snatch of the music. I really want to encourage people to go out and get your CD, and I'll be giving them information about how to do that after the interview is over. You know, you talked about the little red and blue pills. Is medication part of the solution for you as you go down the road?

Meg Hutchinson: It has been. It's been a core part of my treatment and something that's been really challenging. I grew up in a very homeopathic, natural, organic kind of household. We didn't medicate very much. We didn't even get all of our vaccinations. These are hippie parents who had a really kind of holistic approach to our health and something I value a lot. So this is a real paradigm shift for me, to get to a place where I went, wow, I need help, and to realize that it was severe, that it was as dangerous as not treating cancer or diabetes or something. And that was a huge hurdle for me. I really had thought - and I probably would have sought treatment years earlier, if I hadn't had this misconception that it was weak to get help.

David: Yes.

Meg Hutchinson: And so I really pushed against that for a long time, but when I actually did have the breakdown, I was eager to get help. I mean it had gone to a place - I didn't sleep really for six weeks, and I was - you know, it's hard enough to be having a breakdown, and you add sleep deprivation on top of that and kind of no rest from your own mind, and I was desperate for something. So that's definitely been an ongoing part of treatment.

It's also been something that I've been very - you know, paid a lot of attention to to make sure that I wasn't over-medicated, and to make sure that I made med changes with professional supervision, and that I did it slowly and carefully, and that before I made any changes I looked at my lifestyle and said, "What do I need to do before I'm ready for the next change here?" And for me that's been starting a meditation practice, changing my relationship with alcohol, you know, many things that all factor in to my health.

So, yes, it's still a very important part of treatment. It's not the only part, and I think that's something that we get pretty confused about in our country, that we just treat the symptom and we don't look at the underlying causes or the person as a whole and figure out how can we adjust all of these other things towards their health. But, yes, I feel grateful that there's medication. I feel grateful that there are mood stabilizers on the market now that have fewer side effects and that we've come a long way in the last 30 years, a real long way, as far as treatment options. And I'm glad to be bipolar in this generation, you know. It's a little bit easier I think.

David: Well, that leads into one of my wrap-up questions here, is what message would you want to give to other people with bipolar out there?

Meg Hutchinson: Wow. I guess many messages. I would say, first of all, you're so brave. You are so brave and every morning wake up and tell yourself, "I'm fighting a battle here." And sometimes it's a really private battle, and maybe other people aren't acknowledging how hard you're working at it, but so I would say to them, congratulate yourself every morning that you wake up and you're alive and you're here, and keep your chin up. I think that would be the first message. And then I would love to have a whole conversation with someone about it.

David: Well, what else would you like to say? This is your opportunity.

Meg Hutchinson: You know, I think I would say choose your support very carefully. Choose the friends that bring out the best in you and that support your wellness, not the friends that kind of encourage you towards the edge. And that's a tricky thing. You might wind up, after being diagnosed, going, "Wow, these are the friends that used to be my drinking friends or my party friends, and they're really not good for me any more. I love them, but maybe that's not the best place for me." Or choosing people that encourage your wellness and give you positive support and help you advocate. You know, you're going to be up against a very clinical, Western treatment regimen, and how do you advocate for yourself in the midst of that and make sure you're educated about all the options? There are a lot of things that I've learned, even just Omega-3s, diet changes, caffeine - you know, all these other little adjustments that are part of the bigger picture.

I'd say maybe, above all, figure out what it is that heals you, and maybe you already know the things that heal you and you just need to get back to them. For me it was walking in the woods; it was fresh food; it was the things I couldn't get in the hospital, really, that helped me a lot. You know I needed to be in the hospital when I was, but I also knew that the things that would heal me would come outside of that setting, and I needed to return to them. So if you have those things already, go back to them and use them as a way to heal yourself. And if you don't have them prior to the breakdown, find friends that will help you get to those things that treat you on the deeper levels that I think we need to heal.

David: Well, that sounds like sage advice. Meg Hutchinson, I want to thank you so much for being my guest today on Wise Counsel.

Meg Hutchinson: It's been a real pleasure. Thank you.

David: I hope you enjoyed this interview with singer-songwriter Meg Hutchinson. I hope you're as impressed as I am by her resilient spirit and her willingness to make some hard changes in her life, while at the same time not allowing herself to be defined by her bipolar disorder. I think her example is one that we can all benefit from.

I may have done her a disservice by continually referring to her music as folk music, inasmuch as I think it would have far wider appeal than just to those who consider themselves fans of folk. I hope you will consider supporting this young artist by purchasing her CD, and by the way, I should hasten to mention that neither I nor CenterSite, LLC will receive any compensation if you do. I simply think she's worthy of your support and that you will enjoy and perhaps even benefit from her music. Her CD is available through iTunes, among other outlets. She suggests the best place to go to see all these options is at her website at, and that's spelled pretty much like it sounds. And by the way, if my voice sounds different than usual, it's because I do have a bit of something going on in my throat which I hope will have gone away by the next time you hear me.

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by CenterSite, LLC.

If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like ShrinkRapRadio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.


Links Relevant To This Podcast:

  • Meg Huchinson's official website contains detailed information about her music and touring schedule. You can also listen to a selection of her songs via the embedded listening station.

  • Ms. Hutchinson releases CDs on the Red House Records label. Therein, her recent release"The Living Side" is available for purchase.

  • Meg's music is also available for sale via This page links to Meg Huchtinson's Amazon Artist Page from which you can purchase her various albums.

About Meg Hutchinson

Meg HutchinsonIn 1997, at age nineteen, Meg Hutchinson experienced her first of many depressions but she did not seek treatment. In 2005, the almost annual periods of depression began to get worse, and were followed by periods of hypomania. In the Spring of 2006, on the heels of a tour in Europe and a series of personal life triggers, Hutchinson tumbled into a mixed state, with weeks of insomnia and ultimately an incapacitating depression. She was hospitalized by July of that year, and after several months of treatment and therapy in and out of a mental health facility, she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.

Hutchinson spent 2007 recuperating, writing, walking with her dog, and making peace with this new knowledge and the resulting dramatic changes in her life. By year's end she began recording a new album "Come Up Full," she returned to performing live shows, and she was signed to legendary Folk label Red House Records. In March 2008, she released "Come Up Full," and in the year that followed she played 132 shows and appeared on numerous radio programs, traveling across the United States, Canada, Ireland and the UK. Meg Hutchinson's songs have received many awards and have been featured by iTunes Essentials and Songwriter Spotlight. Her last two albums have charted on Billboard, Amazon, iTunes and Folk Radio. Her voice is heard by passengers on in flight radio stations on major airlines and in national television advertising. She just released her newest album "The Living Side" in February 2010. Hutchinson's has been an active post-diagnosis life indeed! In order to accomplish all of this and live a healthy life, Hutchinson has been diligent in her mental health treatment and has turned to her creativity for solace and further investigation into these life changes.

Meg Hutchinson hopes her story will be useful to others who might share her experiences. Hers has been a journey of denial, fear, discovery, humility and ultimate acceptance of bipolar in her life. Her interest in speaking out is sparked primarily because she feels it is important that people know how unique each person's manifestation of bipolar is. Too often only the most dramatic stories are told for their shock value, which further fuels the stigma around mental illness and interferes with proper diagnosis for people whose symptoms may be less dramatic in nature, but equally devastating. Meg's is a story of a quieter nature - a deep internal long-term battle, intense and surprising. She also hopes to raise awareness about the correlation between suicide and mental illness - pointing out that sometimes people who hide their struggles best are the most at risk.

It has taken years for Meg Hutchinson to navigate graceful openness about her struggles and to learn to maintain a healthy private life while balancing a successful and demanding career. Contrary to the romanticized myth of the "tortured artist," she does not believe a person needs to be destroyed by their mental illness in order to produce work that is vivid and complex.

In the song "Being Happy" she writes, "They say perfect the life or perfect the art / A choice like that will only tear you apart / There's room for both of you in my heart" — from "Being Happy" on The Living Side 2010