Heather's Blog

Books, Disability, Music, and Mental Health

A Soundtrack... for a Book?

Posted by Heather Hutchison on 12 January 2022

After all the unknowns of publishing a book, in some ways, writing and recording music feels like stepping back into an old, comfortable pair of shoes. Just putting on the headphones and hearing the familiar technical lingo takes me back to the first time I ever walked into a studio at fifteen years old. From that first day, the studio came to represent home to me—a safe place in a world that felt anything but safe. And yet, a lot has changed, too.

The truth is, I’ve had a complicated relationship with music for the past number of years. Much of the industry has changed, even in the relatively short time since I started, and as I tried to adapt to the ever-changing landscape, I grew bitter and resentful of the choices I felt I was being forced to make. Because of the shifts in the way people consumed music, I felt myself growing distant from my idealistic view of what I thought it was to be a musician. I played music I didn’t really care about to audiences who didn’t really care about it either, and the whole charade felt soul crushing.

As I went through the motions onstage, I would think of concerts in the early days, of people coming up after a show to tell me how one of my songs had helped get them through a hard time. At fifteen years old, that gave me the greatest sense of purpose I had ever known, and I thought music would always be that way. But eventually, the human connection I had always sought through music seemed to fade, and therefore, so did my purpose for being a musician. So I stopped performing. Continuing, I thought, would be unfair to my audience, to myself, and perhaps most importantly, disingenuous to the very essence of what I believed music should be. I played my last live show in 2019, which is also when my mental health began to take a sharp decline. In the months that followed, I stopped playing even for myself. I went from being frustrated to apathetic about music, and by that point, starvation and overmedication made my hands too shaky to play anyway. Then COVID came, and live music stopped. I took it as a sign. I was done with music.

Fast forward a couple years, some hard times, a hospitalization that ended up being one of the most profound experiences of my life, and writing a book about what I lived during that time. Then, by chance, I reconnected with an old musician friend who was also trying to find his way after his own setbacks. Maybe, we thought, it would help both of us to play a bit of music again. We made plans to get together and record, but only covers, I told him. “I don’t write music anymore.” I should have known better.

It was only a matter of time until I translated the experiences I wrote about in Holding On by Letting Go into music, perhaps on some level I always knew I would. How could I turn my back on the one thing that I have always carried with me? When life got too heavy, there was always the piano. When emotions were too big and too complicated, writing music helped to make sense of them. As I began to write again, I realized, maybe I could still find a way to help people through music. Writing songs would help me bring the message of the book to a wider audience; a 3 minute song is a much smaller commitment than sitting down to read a book, and though a song of course has fewer words, through instrumentation, there are layers of emotion I can evoke that I can’t with words alone. Music is universal, and music heals. I have always known that.

Weeks away from the release of my first original music in a long, long time, I feel lots of things. I’m nervous, because it has been so long since I’ve released any of my own songs, and as much as I made this music as part of my own healing journey, I hope that it’ll resonate with people. But I’m also at peace, because as I try to focus on living my life on my own terms now, I have done the same with music. We made no compromises in recording to stay within the bounds of one genre or to appeal to a specific demographic. I sang what felt right, what was raw and real. Above all, I feel gratitude. Gratitude for a friend who drove across the country twice, because he had such strong faith in this project. For my partner, who held down the fort without complaint so I could focus on recording. And I am grateful to whatever fates that came together in the most unlikely of ways to make this EP possible, so I could once again find the magic and healing that comes from making music that feels right.

Holding On by Letting Go

How Commemorating Our Pain Can Help to Release It

Posted by Heather Hutchison on 3 September 2021

The tattoo artist walked out the door of the shop to where I stood on the sidewalk, anxiously waiting with a group of friends. He held out a sketchpad for their inspection. On the pad was a drawing of a semicolon, partly made up of a music note. “It’s perfect!” they said in unison. I would have to trust them. After all, we were here together because they had each decided to get the same tattoo in solidarity.

A semicolon is a common symbol of mental health awareness, particularly around suicide, because a semicolon is used when an author could have ended their sentence, but chose not to. Incorporating a music note into the design was a personal touch, a symbol of the refuge I have always found in music.

“Who wants to go first?” the artist asked. My friends all pointed to me, the only one among us who didn’t yet have a tattoo. I took a deep breath, walked through the door and sat shakily on the bench as the artist placed the stencil and checked for correct alignment. This was my last chance to get up, run out the door and say it had been a mistake, or that I just wasn’t ready. Did I really want a permanent reminder on my skin of what I’ve been through? My anxious thoughts raced, but in my heart of hearts, I’d never been more sure of anything. This tattoo would be the next, crucial step in my recovery.

As the needle made its first mark, I held tight to my friend’s hand and my eyes welled with tears, but not because of the pain or the fear of regret. As that first line of ink was etched onto my skin, I felt the most overwhelming sense of peace. Sitting in the tattoo chair, a chapter closed. It was time to let go.

Creating such a permanent, constant reminder of that part of my life while simultaneously releasing that pain would seem counterintuitive, but as the tattoo artist placed a bandage over my fresh tattoo, a weight was lifted from my shoulders. Being visually impaired, I would never be able to see the tattoo clearly, but I knew that whenever I looked at the outline of it, I wouldn’t automatically think of a girl in a hospital bed, broken by life’s circumstances. I wouldn’t think of those last, terrible days before I was admitted to inpatient psychiatric care. That symbol on my skin wouldn’t fuel a constant need to beat myself up over the loved ones I hurt, or the friends I lost because of my illness.

Weeks later, the tattoo has healed, and so, in a way, have I. When I trace this beautiful piece of art that is now a part of me, I am anything but sad. Instead of the dark days of acute mental illness, I think of the beauty of friendship, the incredible humans who stood by me in solidarity that day, the symbol of hope and healing each of us will now carry forever. I think of a girl who has fought her way back to life, a girl who is so much stronger than she could have imagined. I think of a girl who is slowly learning to love and forgive herself.

This simple tattoo carries so much meaning that it has inspired me to begin writing and recording music again, something I thought I would likely never return to. It is a constant reminder of the power of music to heal this broken world, and of how music has saved me. I’m now in a place to understand that it will continue to do so, if I’m willing to open my heart to it once more.

I wear this symbol of my past proudly. I will not be ashamed of who I am or what I have lived. My hope is that maybe, one day someone will see it and understand, and that it will give them a tiny ray of hope. That they will feel a little less alone with their pain. That they know they can come to me and allow me to be a safe place for them, because I too know what it is to stand at the edge of that cliff.

What do you think? Have you found a way to commemorate a painful event in your past? Was it helpful?

Holding On by Letting Go by Heather Hutchison
Heather Hutchison

Misadventures in Blindness: The Red Rocket

Posted by Heather Hutchison on 8 July 2021

The last few entries have been a little heavy, so I thought I’d lighten things up and talk about awkwardly hilarious misadventures in blindness, or more specifically, one awkwardly hilarious misadventure in blindness.

I’ve had my fair share of them: when someone walks away mid conversation and I’m left talking to thin air for several moments before I realize they’re gone, the times I’ve absentmindedly opened a can of beer at 9:00 AM thinking it was a soft drink, which would be a great excuse for day drinking if beer wasn’t my least favourite adult beverage. But, some of the most awkward blind moments I’ve ever had are to do with driving.

You see, I really like to drive. Unfathomably, the rest of the world is less enthusiastic about me being behind the wheel. Yes, I have been stopped and asked if I had a driver’s license. Yes, it was awkward. But that’s not the story I want to share today.

A few years ago, I decided that my enthusiasm for driving would be better tolerated if I wasn’t driving an actual road worthy vehicle, and thus began the search for a more unconventional set of wheels. I found it on Craigslist—an old go-cart at a great price that just needed a little TLC. What could go wrong?

When we got it home, I was excited to discover that this wasn’t one of the go-carts they rent to novices wanting to try go carting for the first time. No, this go-cart had once been used in actual go-cart races. Jordan easily got it running again, I shined it all up and gave it a new coat of red paint, which earned it the name of The Red Rocket. Then, it was time to give er a rip.

We put the go-cart in the back of the truck and drove out to a subdivision that was under development, I fired up the Red Rocket and off I went. It was soon apparent that there was a problem we hadn’t considered. The engine was loud. I had the equivalent of a gas powered lawnmower right behind my head. There was absolutely no way I would hear the directions of “right,” ‘left,” and ‘Stop! Holy shit, for the love of God stop!’ that Jordan was calling out from even a few feet away. Undeterred, I hoped for the best. I bought this thing and God dammit I was going to drive it!

A second problem also became immediately apparent. This thing was really, really fast. As soon as I even touched the gas, it was lurching forward like a racehorse out the gate. There was absolutely no way to drive slowly. Still undeterred, albeit with a bit more trepidation, I drove onwards. As I drove, I picked up speed. I couldn’t hear Jordan, and I started to wonder where I was. I tried to ease up on the gas. I couldn’t. I tried to press the brake, but the gas pedal was stuck. If Jordan tells this story, he claims it was user error. I maintain that it was the gas pedal’s fault. At any rate, the gas pedal was pressed to the floor, and I couldn’t hit the brake pedal. I turned in my seat to try and grab the emergency shutoff on the motor, but in another oversight, I had forgotten to check exactly where that was. I grasped at thin air. I knew that somewhere around here there was a steep ditch, and a dense forest just beyond.

As I drove (read: careened wildly through God knows where), the Red Rocket flew over bumps and down small hills, becoming airborne at times. There is no suspension in a go-cart. I was being battered and bruised. If I survived this, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sit for weeks. The machine under me seemed to have come alive, a wild animal trying its best to buck me off of it. I knew the ditch and trees must be coming up at any second, so I cranked the steering wheel to the right, executing a series of epic donuts that would have made any sixteen-year-old boy jealous. By some miracle, it was during one of said donuts that Jordan was able to fling himself onto the go-cart and grab the emergency shutoff. The Red Rocket came to an immediate, shuttering halt in a choking cloud of dust. After the din of the engine, the silence that followed was absolute. And then I began to laugh, hysterically. “Please tell me you got that on video!” Sadly, fearing for my life, he did not.

After that mishap, even Jordan, who has ridden motorcycles forever, was wary of driving it. The fun was over before it had ever really started. After ensuring that the gas and brake pedals were in good working order, we listed the Red Rocket on Craigslist. The man who came to buy it asked if he could take it for a ride before purchasing. “It’s really fast…” Jordan warned. The guy shrugged in a ‘yeah right’ sort of way and climbed in. After flying around the quiet cup de sac where we lived in a slightly out of control manner, he came to an abrupt stop in front of our house. As he climbed out of the Red Rocket, his face was pale and he appeared to be shaking a little.

“You weren’t kidding!” he exclaimed. “That thing is way too fast!”

Dude, you have no idea. I thought.

Never fear, that experience has not ended my driving career. I now have an electric go-cart. Next time, I’ll actually be able to hear the panicked screams before I crash it.

You can read more of my misadventures in blindness in my Memoir, Holding On by Letting Go, available as a paperback, ebook and audiobook wherever books are sold.

Why 'Self-Care' isn't Enough

Posted by Heather Hutchison on 11 June 2021

“Practice self-care every day!” “You are not alone!” “There is no better medication than being out in nature!”

We’ve all read these sentiments. Social media is full of them. There is, of course, validity and importance to the practice of self care, whatever that means to each individual. I think the term ‘self-care’ has a much broader definition than how it is frequently used on social media. But in some instances, is this messaging doing more harm than good? Do we sometimes use talking about self-care as a shield to avoid digging deeper?

Self-care is an invaluable tool to have in our arsenal at the beginning of a downward spiral, if we can define what self-care means to us, and if we are experienced enough to know the signs that we are spiralling. For self-care to be effective in the context of dealing with our mental health, it requires that we interrupt our negative thought patterns and go for a walk, have a bubble bath, etc, before we are mired in them. But in an imperfect world, it doesn’t always work that way. Being able to do this takes a great deal of practice and repetition.

I recently read a popular self-help book in which the writer, in the midst of a panic attack, holds a bottle of anti-anxiety medication in her hand. Then, in a moment of self-discovery, she abandons it for a walk in the woods. I cringed as I read that passage. What message is that sending to people? As I read it, I thought of the times I’d swallowed a pill instead of going for a walk, and instead of feeling empowered by the story, I felt weak.

In the weeks before I was hospitalized, I was completely unable to function. I was dangerously thin, and heavily medicated. Because of starvation and the combination of medications, I shook constantly. By my final days at home, I could barely make it up and down the stairs in my house. I was not communing with trees whilst going for long walks in nature. I had also stopped taking care of my basic needs. I didn’t shower, partly because I didn’t have the energy to do it, and partly because honestly, I couldn’t even really remember how. Needless to say, I was not soaking in long bubble baths, surrounded by candles. I was still breathing, but I was no longer there. And then, through the fog, I’d check social media and read all about practicing self-care. I’d ask myself why I couldn’t find the strength to help myself, and it became just another failure on my very long list of failures. If I had only been better at self-care, I figured I wouldn’t have gotten to the place I was in. The posts from others encouraging absolutely anyone who is struggling to reach out to them is a nice sentiment, but, as with many others who struggle with mental health challenges, instead of reaching out, I withdrew. I read the posts by influencers proclaiming some variation of ”You are not alone,” and instead of being comforted, I felt even more alone.

Is there a more balanced approach we could take when talking about mental health on social media and in pop culture? Are there more inclusive ways that we can be supporting each other? Yes, we talk a lot about self-care because it is important and effective, but it’s also a lot more comfortable than talking about fighting through the darkness so we can even reach the point where self-care is a possibility. What does that darkness really look like? Instead of being something negative, could sharing our own darkness actually be a light that guides someone else through theirs? We hear so much messaging around ending the stigma, but, in my opinion, if that is truly the goal, it involves having some uncomfortable conversations.

When I was hospitalized for psychiatric care, my loved ones searched for information on what that meant for me, and save for a few clinically written documents and articles about the Mental Health Act, they found very little about the process or the experiences of others. Yet we are inundated with articles on how to form healthier habits, articles which, in many cases, don’t mention the journey of finally getting to the point of being able to start working to form said healthy habits. Might that be because self-care is an easier pill to swallow? Of course, recovery doesn’t happen unless a person is willing to put in the work to help themselves. But what happens in the acute situations before a person can reach the point where that is possible? At the time, all the talk around self-care only served to further isolate me, and I am quite confident there are many people out there who have lived the same experience.

There are no clear, easy answers about how to talk about mental health while making everyone feel included and heard, no matter where they are on their journey. But I think it’s important to try. This isn’t to say that recovery and resilience shouldn’t be our focus, but neither should we ignore the darkness. How can we bring those dark places into the light? How can we help people to feel less isolated when they are not in a place yet where they are capable of helping themselves? How can we know the true power and meaning of recovery if we don’t see the hell that comes before it?

Holding On by Letting Go

Looking Back and Moving Forward

Posted by Heather Hutchison on 4 June 2021

*** Holding On by Letting Go is now available in print and ebook wherever books are sold!***

Exactly one year ago today, I lay in a hospital bed, scared, defeated and utterly alone. I had reached absolute rock bottom, there was nowhere left to fall. The intensity of that pain and grief is hard to put into words. But that night, I bore silent witness to a series of events that would change everything.

In a split second of clarity, I understood that I had a choice to make. I could bide my time and wait until I could die, or I could live. There in the darkness of that hospital room, surrounded by signs of death and hopelessness, I made my decision. I chose life.

I understood that I was being given another chance. If I was going to take it and allow myself the gift of life, I knew I could not continue living how I had been. I needed to do something meaningful with that second chance.

And today, exactly one year later, I am releasing Holding On by Letting Go into the world, in hopes that it will reach someone who needs it.

It has been a long, hard road from that night to where I am one year later. Recovery is not linear. Sometimes I take one step forward and two steps back. I have stumbled and fallen, there have been dark days. But then there are moments where I sit on my porch on a warm spring evening and listen to the frogs chirping in the pond nearby, or as I walk along the beach, feeling the warm sand on my bare feet, and I am suddenly hit with the magnitude of everything—the overwhelming feeling of just ‘being’ when I came so close to not being.

If you choose to read it, I want to thank you for allowing me to share my story with you. I knew that if I was going to pour my heart into this book, I needed to be honest about how things really were. Glossing over the truth would be a disservice to readers, and to myself. Mental illness can be messy and frightening, and sadly, the person struggling with their mental health often takes down other casualties with them—the people who love them most. I didn’t want to skim the surface, I needed to tell the raw, honest, painful truth, not package it up nicely so it would be easier and more comfortable to swallow. It may not be easy to read, but I hope, with all my heart, that you will find something in it that you needed to hear.

Mental Health Awareness Month: Concrete Steps to Give and Get Help

Posted by Heather Hutchison on 26 May 2021

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It heartens me to see more people than ever talking about their struggles, but it also saddens me that so many don’t know where to turn for help for themselves or a loved one. I thought I’d write a list of some concrete steps that we can take to give and get support. Feel free to add any others you have found useful in the comments.

•Take a mental health first aid course to better know how to assist someone in crisis. There are many options if you search online.
•Tell our governments that we need and expect better mental health supports so people with mental illness aren’t waiting months or even years to see psychiatrists or mental health workers, by which point it may be too late.
•Language matters. People don’t ‘commit’ heart attacks, why do we say someone “committed” suicide?
•Familiarize yourself with the signs that someone may be thinking about ending their life..
•Be conscious of not minimizing the feelings/struggles of others. Everyone’s experience is different. Telling someone to “cheer up” “Come on, it could be worse,” etc can be really unhelpful.
•Mental illnesses are often cyclical. Just because someone is in treatment doesn’t mean they’re all better.
•Be open to talking about the hard stuff without being judgmental or playing 20 questions. Be a friend, don’t try to be a therapist.
•Offer to assist someone who is struggling to find professional resources to help. It may be something they are finding impossible to do on their own.
•Understand that mental illness looks different in different people. It’s not always the disheveled person on the corner yelling at people who don’t exist, or the sullen teen with bandaged wrists.
•Share your story if you’re comfortable doing so, so that someone may feel less alone with theirs.
•Reach out to someone you haven’t heard from in a while. Pay someone a random complement. Don’t underestimate the significance of small acts of kindness.

Mental health matters, now more than ever. If you are struggling or concerned about a loved one, please reach out to someone, as impossible as it may seem to do so. The mental health system is hard to navigate alone, and it’s easy to be completely overwhelmed and unaware of some of the options available. It’s better to ask for help early, rather than feeling that the situation isn’t that serious and waiting to see if it gets worse.

If you or a loved one is in crisis:
•British Columbia Mental Health Support: 310 6789
•Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1 833 456 4566
Befrienders (worldwide)
Holding On by Letting Go

I Didn't Want to Write a Book

Posted by Heather Hutchison on 19 May 2021

“So, what made you want to write a book?” Half the time people ask me this, I think what they’re really asking is “What would possess you to share your darkest hours with complete strangers?” It’s a fair question. Lord knows I’ve spent enough sleepless nights asking myself the exact same thing. But here’s the thing… I didn’t want to write this book. I wrote it because I didn’t know how to not write it.

It would have been so easy not to do this. I could’ve left the hospital and done my best to move on and put it all behind me. With the exception of a few people, no one would have ever known. But one night in the hospital, as I took my very first, tentative step into recovery, I made a promise to myself that I would share my story, because no one deserves to hurt like that and feel so alone in their pain. I wanted my story to be bigger than just me, to be more than just another senseless tragedy. I can say with 100 percent sincerity that the most painful part of what I went through was the thought of any other person having to go through it. If I potentially had the ability to help others to feel less alone, to help the loved ones of people with mental illness gain greater understanding, to motivate people to start talking and get help before they ever reach the place I got to, then why wouldn’t I do that?

I believe that recovery requires purpose. Sharing my story gave me that purpose. In making a promise to myself, not only was I trying to help others, I was telling myself that I mattered, because I loved myself enough to fulfill that promise. Even through all the doubt, the sleepless nights, the worries that some people might not like what I wrote, I knew I was doing the right thing. I have never been more certain of anything in my life.

‘Right’ is hard. Despite what the social media influencers like to tell us, it doesn’t always feel great and empowering. Sometimes it feels like shit. I have spent my life hiding the parts of me I was ashamed of. From trying to hide my blindness from the world as a very young child, to trying to hide my mental illness as I got older, in the end, it almost cost me everything I had. Although I may tremble, I will hold my head high, and I will own my story and the part I played in what happened. I will do my best to use my story to help others. I will keep the promise I made to myself, because I believe that a fulfilled promise to one’s self is the most important promise we can keep.

We have become so good at ignoring that inner voice telling us what feels right. We don’t want to rock the boat, to make others feel uncomfortable, to feel like people are judging us. It’s time we started to pay attention to that inner voice again, to keep those promises we make to ourselves. Because you know what? We are worth it.

Holding On by Letting Go