It is possible to live well with bipolar disorder.
That’s the audacious message of Pack Up Your Sorrows: A Story of Illness, Hope & Transformation, a new documentary featuring Massachusetts folk singer-songwriter Meg Hutchinson. The film invites viewers on a journey with Meg as she seeks to understand her own 18-year experience of bipolar disorder, the first nine years of which went undiagnosed and untreated.
For someone like me, who spent 15 years married to a man with bipolar disorder, the film asks that I reframe how I think about it. I thought I knew a great deal. During our marriage, I’d become an expert at spotting his particular cycles of depression and mania; in helping him manage an ever-evolving cocktail of medications; in deconstructing his sentences in the name of suicide vigilance; in reminding him of those memories corroded by electroconvulsive therapy (ECT); in cheerleading for the wondrously soothing power of a walk. I’d read countless books (some by the experts Meg interviews in the film), researched dozens of medications, consulted support groups, therapy for him and for us. I still find myself probing to understand the profound affect the unmanaged disorder has on him, on our children, and on me, even now that we live separate lives.
The one thing that never occurred to me is what Meg makes clear in the film: there’s great reason to have hope. For all that we know and are yet to know about the illness, Meg says in the film, “There is a medicine as old as humanity. It’s human kindness and compassion.”
Somehow, in my blind pursuit of help, I missed believing in that simple idea.
During a Q&A with Meg and her co-producers following the film’s Boston premiere last month, the pain I heard in other people’s voices was all too familiar – but I could feel Meg’s words working like a salve. In the film, Meg shows us how her family came to terms with her illness, and she exposes us to both traditional and alternative therapies. She shares other voices on the subject, including some of the top thinkers and authors in the field today, like Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, Scott Stossel, and Dr. Richard Davidson.
Pack Up Your Sorrows feels very much like a conversation with Meg, which is the very thing she believes is key to eradicating the shame, fear, and discrimination that often keep people suffering in isolation and prevent them from seeking help early – or at all. There’s a ripple effect here: the sooner treatment begins, the better the chances of limiting, or preventing, common outcomes of the unmanaged illness, including job loss, addiction, and strained support networks of family and friends. “The brain is like a rubber band,” Meg says. “It bounces back so much more quickly with early treatment.”
For this reason, the filmmakers hope that the documentary will inspire more conversations on the uneasy subjects of bipolar disorder, depression, suicide and, more broadly, mental illness. They hope future film showings can be used as a tool to encourage discussions, especially among younger people.
“There’s a danger in this for young people,” Meg says. “They get a diagnosis and they think, that’s it, that’s what I am. It is our deepest hope that people will walk away from the film feeling empowered.”
And that is salve to my soul. Just days after seeing the film, my youngest daughter and I ran a mundane errand together. As we were picking through a clearance rack, she turned to me and said, “Mom, am I going to end up like that?”
“Like what,” I said, distracted by a discounted shirt in my hand.
I put the shirt down. At another time, I might have quickly said “no” and changed the subject out of fear, knowing that there’s a very real chance she could develop some sort of depression or mood disorder as she approaches young adulthood. Her father has struggled all these years, and so, too, did his father – only we don’t know what his life would have been like. He committed suicide at 22. But this is not where my thoughts took me. Instead, I thought of Meg.
“There’s no way to know that,” I said. “True, your brain might be predisposed to bipolar or depression. And it’s good we know this so we can be aware. But what really, really matters is just that we keep talking.”
She nodded and I think she understood.
“Pack Up Your Sorrows” will screen at the Triplex Cinema in Meg’s hometown of Great Barrington at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 16. Tickets may be purchased online at www.packupyoursorrowsfilm.com; advanced purchase recommended. Q&A discussion to follow screening.
Schools and communities interested in organizing a screening of the film with post-discussion are invited to contact the film’s producers, Todd Kwait (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Rob Stegman (email@example.com). More information about the film, resources on mood disorders, and future screenings can be found at www.packupyoursorrowsfilm.com.